When getting to know someone, we often ask the same questions: What do you do? Where do you live? Do you have any hobbies? A question we seldom ask, however, is “What is your favorite spice?” But if you were getting to know Zainab Hassen ’08, MS’12, the answer would tell you quite a bit about her. Hassen is co-owner of MENASpice, a Middle Eastern and North African spice shop in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Spices are a part of her everyday life, and they have been since she was a small child.
Hassen has lived in Madison for the past 24 years, but her parents immigrated from Libya. She was homeschooled through high school, and she spent much of that time watching her mother, Fatma, cook Libyan recipes — and tasting her food.
“Food became one of the main things we shared together,” says Hassen. “I never actually made a meal myself at that time, but when I got older, I was able to try things and taste them and know if it was right. If it doesn’t taste like Mama’s, I know there’s something wrong.”
Hassen’s love of food and cooking spilled over into college at the UW. While she first considered entering the medical field, a suggestion from an aunt steered her toward nutrition. She looked into nutritional sciences and saw she could utilize her love of food, and her undergraduate major fell into place. Hassen stayed at CALS to get a master’s degree in nutritional sciences and followed that with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.
During the week, Hassen works as a project manager at a pharmaceutical company. She spends her free time and weekends at MENASpice with her brothers, Abdurrahman and Ibrahim Hassen, where they focus on spices from the North African countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
“It’s a team effort between the three of us, which is really great,” Hassen says. “This business is something that all of us can have for our kids in the future. It’s amazing to be able to create something for the family.”
Continue reading about Hassen’s family shop — and learn her favorite spice — in the College of Agricultural and Life Science’s magazine, Grow.