Growing up in an immigrant Yemeni home in Richmond, Sumaya Albgal always wondered why the sabaya, a traditional pastry made with thin layers of pastry and fragrant brown butter, wasn’t more available or known outside of her family’s community. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Albgal never saw sabaya anywhere but in her home, when her mother crafted them with flour, honey, and black seed. She often joked to her siblings that they should bring sabaya to the rest of the world, and now, with her Instagram-based business, The Sabaya Company, she is.
Albgal, who described Yemeni cuisine as “similar to Middle Eastern cuisine, with influences from Africa and East Africa,” said that she decided to focus her business solely on sabaya because it’s so hard to find in stores. Part of that is because “it’s so labor intensive,” Albgal said, as it can take as long as two hours to make each sabaya. But “just like any delicacy that is labor intensive,” Albgal said, “it’s very much worth it to taste it and to have it.”
“When you serve guests sabaya, you are saying, ‘This is how much I value you as a guest. I have this offering of sabaya, which took a long time to make,'” Albgal said.
Albgal said that a lot of Yemeni baked goods revolve around the ingredients used to make sabaya: flour, clarified butter, black seed (also known as Nigella seed) and honey. Albgal’s day job is as a private attorney handling criminal and juvenile dependency cases, but during the pandemic, she got serious about developing her own recipe, perfecting it over the course of about 18 months. Her version contains 30-35 layers of very thin dough, and in between each layer, she adds brown butter and black seed.
“It’s multi-layered and then I braid it along the edges,” Albgal said. “When it cooks, it puffs up. All of those layers that are paper thin are infused with hot air. It’s puffy and delicious, resulting in a really flaky pastry. I’d say it’s kind of similar to a croissant but softer in texture.”
Like its Middle Eastern dessert cousins, baklava or kunefe, sabaya varies from region to region. “Mine, the way I was taught by my mom, is that you have many, many layers to create a kind of crispy pastry,” Albgal said.
“Braiding — our pastry has braiding on the outside of the sabaya — the braid is from a town called Radaa. My family is from Malah, a small village outside of Radaa. Sabaya from this area is unique in its airiness, extra layers, and signature braiding.”
Now that court is back in session, Albgal’s off hours are spent working on her new company. She is in the process of expanding and solidifying aspects of the business, she said, and is seeking help to bake more sabaya — the hope, she said, is to create more job opportunities for immigrant Yemeni women.
For now, a limited number of sabaya are available every week for pickup in Piedmont, but for volume purchases, deliveries are possible. The sabaya are currently priced at $55 for a 15-inch pastry, $75 for an 18-inch pastry, and (when available) her sabaya is available by the slice at $7.50. Albgal’s innovation, a treat that she calls sabaya “pockets,” 4-inch rounds of sabaya bites, made with the same 30-35 layers of pastry, are sold by the dozen. Frozen sabaya are also available, with detailed instructions on how to cook them included.
Abgal hopes to be an ambassador to her cuisine for those who are new to the Yemeni cuisine, while serving those who are already familiar with the treat. “I love teaching how people consume it. Here, Yemen is not really known for a lot beyond perhaps the state of politics in the country, but there’s so much more than that.”
“When my mother grew up in Yemen before the ’80s, it was such a rural place, and the way people interacted in the community was through cooking and sharing dishes,” Albgal said. “Making sabaya was celebratory. It’s the happiest thing we have. To bring these ingredients together – the dairy, eggs and sugar – to present this to your guests, it’s a symbol of elation in having them. It’s a symbol of respect, of love.”
For now, the Sabaya Company takes orders only through direct messaging on instagram (@thesabayacompany), but Albgal is planning to launch a website for online ordering soon.