Let’s Talk About African Food: A New Book ‘In Bibi’s Kitchen’ Brings Together Flavors & Stories
‘In Bibi’s Kitchen,’ a book by Fort Greene resident Hawa Hassan, grandmothers – and their cooking – weave together recipes and stories from eight different East African countries connected by the Indian Ocean.
Hassan, who launched the Somali condiment company Basbaas in 2015, intended the book as a way to spark a conversation about African food, a cuisine still highly underrepresented in the U.S. While Hassan doesn’t have strong food memories associated with her own grandmother (bibi, in Swahili), she told Bklyner over the phone, she found herself drawn to the company of other elderly women.
“I feel like the times I could remember being my best, and feeling the safest, was with women who were older than me,” she said.
These women in particular are underrepresented in cookbooks and food media, Hassan felt, because of their age. “There’s a whole group of people that are left out of these types of conversations too, and those are, you know, our elders,” Hassan said. “No one is preserving their stories. No one is having those kinds of conversations.”
By collecting those stories and making them accessible, Hassan hoped, she could make the world feel a bit smaller to those reading the book. “It just was a no-brainer to do that through the Indian Ocean, and then to double down on what we all have in common – which is, we have grandmothers.”
When she was 7, Hassan, her mother, and her four siblings fled the ongoing civil war in Somalia. They settled in a U.N. refugee camp in Kenya, which Hassan later left, by herself, to live with a family friend in Seattle. She didn’t eat much Somali food there, she told us. Ethiopian food, on the other hand, was plentiful. Hassan warmly associates the cuisine with her time in Seattle, where many of her friends were from Ethiopia or Eritrea. Nothing she ate was precisely like Somali food, though; at the very least, she said, “it just served as a reminder of what was.”
Though part of what inspired her to create Basbaas was motivated by her own longing for the flavors of her childhood, Hassan admitted, she also hoped it would fill a hole in the market.
“The reason why I started my business was, for me, I felt like there was such an empty space pertaining to cuisine from the continent,” Hassan said. “I was very interested in not only introducing Somali cuisine, but how could I carry that further? How could my condiments become condiments from the continent? And then, how could I parlay that into conversations about the continent?” Africans, and their food, were being left out of mainstream food media, Hassan felt.
“All of this is really born out of not being a part of bigger stories that I felt like we belonged in.”
While Hassan has lived in cities around the world, predominantly in South Africa and Kenya, the majority of her adult life has taken place in Brooklyn – a place that, she said, is especially fertile ground for small restaurants to thrive.
“It’s diverse – it’s reflective of the world around us.”
Hassan sources ingredients for recipes from local shops like Sahadi’s, a Court Street institution that sells many of the ingredients common to Middle Eastern and African cuisines. Because of East Africa’s role in the spice trade, and its long history of colonization, Hassan explains, people unfamiliar with African cooking might be surprised that certain ingredients are identical or similar to ones they already have at home: think cinnamon, nutmeg, and the spice blend xawaash, from the Arabic hawa’ij, which Hassan said tastes similar to the South Asian staple, garam masala.
“The main thing I want people to know is that African food is not difficult to make,” Hassan said. “That is the one thing I want to demystify. I really would love for people to understand that your everyday pantry reflects a lot of the flavors we eat.” In most of the countries covered in the book, the food is also extremely vegetable-focused — not meat-heavy, Hassan said, as many people might assume.
Hassan enlisted the help of cookbook author Julia Turshen, whom she described as a “pro” at getting cookbooks published. Beyond that, she said, much of her support came from a robust network of friends in the U.S. and in Africa.
“Some of these projects can feel very far away and scary to do, but all of it very much is about community,” Hassan explained. “I think that when you’re deeply rooted in that space from the very beginning, projects like this feel a lot easier to do.”
‘In Bibi’s Kitchen’ consists of eight chapters, one for each of the eight countries represented in the book: South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea. Each introduces a different bibi, along with recipes and stories; Ma Vicky, an immigrant from Tanzania now living in the suburbs of New York, presents her version of Matoke, or stewed plantains with beef and beans. There are also recipes by Hassan herself, like the coconut milk-based Somali Cilantro and Green Chile Pepper Sauce, and for Xawaash, found in several dishes throughout the book.
The food in the book is highly personal, Hassan said; like most grandmothers’ cooking, it’s not flashy in the way food on Instagram can often be. “I don’t like the idea that food is perfect, and not very personal,” Hassan said. “With these women, food is super personal, and it’s not perfect.”
Visit the Basbaas website to buy Hassan’s products and learn more about her story. Her cookbook, ‘In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean’ is currently available for purchase.
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