Hawa Hassan clears something up right away in her first cookbook, “In Bibi’s Kitchen.”
The book is “not about what is new and next,” she writes in the introduction, a daring departure for a food entrepreneur and recipe developer whose YouTube videos garner hundreds of thousands of views.
Instead, Hassan decided to go back, way back, to the kitchen wisdom of grandmothers.
“In Bibi’s Kitchen,” which Hassan co-authored with Julia Turshen, is a primer on the dishes that originate in the African countries bordering the Indian Ocean, from Eritrea to South Africa, as seen through the lens of the matriarchs who pass those recipes down from generation to generation.
“I want to preserve the stories that have always preserved me,” Hassan said in an interview. “I want to pay homage to the people who’ve taken care of me, and I want to share our food with people.”
But sharing the food of eight countries that hug thousands of miles of coastline was a daunting task for the founder and CEO of Basbaas Sauce, a line of Somali condiments.
So, she turned to the experts: 16 bibis (that’s Swahili for grandmother) with a combined “gazillion” years of experience, who share their stories and cooking techniques in interviews at the start of every chapter.
“I kept wondering why grandmothers were being left out of the narrative,” Hassan said about the framework for her book. “Why was no one speaking to grandmothers anywhere? Why was it that when men traveled far away to countries where women were the people who sustained cultures and kept recipes, why were they not being spoken to on TV?”
“In Bibi’s Kitchen” invites readers and home cooks to trace the influences of geography and natural resources, religion and culture, and trade and colonialism on East African countries’ signature flavors. Part of Somalia, for example, was an Italian colony, and Hassan has included a recipe for spaghetti sauce that’s infused with coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, black pepper and turmeric — the spices that comprise the essential Somali blend called Xawaash.
The chapter on Somalia, where Hassan was born, naturally led her to a bibi in Minneapolis, which is home to the largest Somali population in the United States.
Ma Halima (Ma is an honorific) was born in Ethiopia and raised in Somalia and Saudi Arabia before emigrating to Minnesota, where she at one time owned a restaurant. She contributed two recipes to “In Bibi’s Kitchen,” one for the flatbread Sabaayad, and another for Beef Suqaar, a kind of stir-fry of meat with vegetables.
“Ma Halima embodies the essence of a Somali woman in that she is vocal, she’s lively, she’s inclusive, she was somebody who had traveled a great deal and she was willing to share that,” Hassan said about meeting her interview subject, who is shown in the book wearing bright yellow and holding a platter of food.
Giving others a voice
A former model, it was important to Hassan to share the spotlight with these oft-overlooked women, especially on a topic that has also been desperately overlooked in the publishing world.
There’s a lack of cookbooks about African cuisine, and the reason is obvious, she said.
“There are not enough of us in the rooms where these decisions are being made. It means that the audience is not being served in the best way that they can be served, and that they’re not having introductions into others’ cultures.”
But Hassan wasn’t comfortable being a lone voice tasked with amplifying a continent’s cuisine. “It’s not my job to tell the whole story,” she said. “That’s why it’s really important to make sure that other people have the room to tell it themselves.”
Born in Mogadishu during civil war, Hassan fled with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya, staying there for three years until she was resettled — without her family — in Seattle. It took 15 years for her to reunite with her mother and siblings, who had gone on to live in Norway. Going back and forth from New York City, where she was modeling, to Oslo, Hassan immersed herself in her family’s culture while learning to cook Somali food.
Using her mother’s recipes as a jumping off point, Hassan founded Basbaas in 2015. Her jarred sauces — tamarind-date and cilantro-coconut — can be ordered online (basbaassauce.com).
Hassan, 34, hopes to one day sell her sauces in stores in Minnesota, a state with a flourishing Somali food culture. There at least 65 Somali restaurants here, possibly many more, said Osman Ali, founder of the Somali Museum of Minnesota.
The richness of the community amazes Hassan every time she visits (she has a cousin in St. Louis Park).
“Every time I go there, I’m so shocked at how deeply rooted the Somalis are with one another, how Somalis migrate to a place all together. I’m like, did everyone telephone home and say ‘I’m moving to Minnesota?’ ” Hassan said, laughing. “I’ll meet young people and they’re like, ‘Oh, I was living in Boston and then I moved to Minnesota for community.’ That is really interesting to me.” Especially compared to New York, where Hassan lives, and where the Somali community is harder to come by.
“I don’t see that here,” she said. “You have to be really intentional if you’re going to hang out with Somali friends.”
While growing up in the U.S., Hassan felt a need to “humanize” her homeland for Americans. “I spent a good amount of my life as a young kid in Seattle defending not just Somalia, but Africa, because the idea of Africa was always starvation and destitution and hunger and war, and I was like, that’s not real. That’s not my Africa that I know.”
Now with her cookbook, she’s using the food of Somalia and that of neighboring countries to destigmatize those still-lingering impressions. “The way that I share food is to dismantle that narrative,” she said.
And helping her accomplish that goal are the bibis, from Comoros and Tanzania to Madagascar and Mozambique.
“Elders are an important source of information,” said Ali, who owned a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis for nine years. “As people moved from nomadic society to the cities, moved again and emigrated to another country, they had to learn [to cook] from there again. Elders can talk about what they were using,” and can fill in their descendants on customs that might have otherwise been lost, he said.
“In Bibi’s Kitchen” preserves, in print, foods that when tasted or smelled, send Hassan right back to the comfort of her mother’s kitchen. Like the Italian-influenced and yet unmistakably Somali pasta sauce. That dish is “what has sustained me all these years,” she said, served with a side of banana — a pairing of two “rock stars.”
While the food of Africa is not a singular story that one person could — or even should — tell, Hassan hopes her own passion for the flavors of East Africa, and for the grandmothers who help those dishes endure, will be a gateway for people who want to learn more.
“My goal is to always talk from the space I occupy,” she said. “I’m Black, I’m Somali, I’m Muslim-raised, I’m a girl from Seattle, I’m a girl from Kenya — there are these many layers to me. So all I can do is share that and hope that at some point, whatever table I build, people have the audacity to sit down.”
Get a taste of East Africa
Here’s where Somali chef Hawa Hassan eats East African food when she visits Minneapolis:
The groundbreaking Somali restaurant by brothers Jamal and Sade Hashi, beloved for the camel burger, is a longtime vendor at Midtown Global Market.
920 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-874-0756, safaritogo.net.
With outposts in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, Abdirahman Kahin’s restaurants fuse East African, Mediterranean and American-influenced cuisines.
720 Washington Av. SE., Mpls., 612-871-5555; 5 W. 7th Place, St. Paul, 651-888-2186, skyway locations temporarily closed. afrodeli.com.