“Grandmothers are the ultimate home cooks,” says Hawa Hassan. That’s why, for her new cookbook with Julia Turshen, In Bibi’s Kitchen, she decided to make them the focus. Part cooking guide, part educational material, and part journalistic exercise, the book features the beloved recipes, and stories, of matriarchs from eight African countries that touch the Indian Ocean. There’s Ma Gehennet, an Eritrean who emigrated first to Canada and then to New York, who shares her shiro (chickpea stew), Ma Wambui from Nairobi, who wants to dispute preconceptions that Kenyan food is “bland and uninteresting,” and Mozambique’s Ma Maria, a complete master of coconut sauce. As each talks about their food, family, and life choices, a diverse and uplifting portrait emerges about both the Eastern African coast and the African immigrant experience in America. “My ultimate goal in life is really to tell an accurate and beautiful story about the continent, not one of despair,” says Hassan.
Hassan’s book comes at an important time for the food and restaurant industry which, over the past several months, has faced a reckoning over whose culinary stories get told, and whose cuisines get supported. It’s a fact not lost on Hassan, who was born in Somalia, then escaped to Kenya during the country’s civil war before settling in Seattle. “African people have not been handed the mic,” she says. “There’s a misconception that [the cuisine] is difficult, that it’s far, that it’s not ‘sexy,’ for lack of a better word. But that’s not true. Everything you need, for the most part, is in your pantry. We want to dismantle that this food is somehow at a reach.”
It’s a goal that In Bibi’s Kitchen succeeds at. Full of delicious and easy-to-make dishes, you’ll find yourself wondering why, exactly, a Somali restaurant serving canjeero (sourdough pancakes) and suugo suqaar (pasta with spicy meat sauce) hasn’t popped up in your neighborhood, or why we aren’t downing more Mozambique ginger-beer or rum berry-soda cocktails on Friday nights. As Hassan notes of her East African coast recipe collection: “It’s clean, it’s lean, and it’s beautiful.”
Inspired to cook something for yourself? Below, find the recipe for suugo suqaar.
Italy’s colonization of southern Somalia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a lasting impact on Somali cuisine. Suugo is the most popular of Somali pasta sauces and resembles an easy weeknight meat sauce but the added flavor of Xawaash Spice Mix makes it distinctly Somali (and distinctly tasty). You can substitute ground turkey or ground chicken in place of the beef if you’d like. Serve with cooked pasta (any shape will work, whether it be a strand-like spaghetti or a shorter cut like penne).
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
3 tablespoons Xawaash Spice Mix (see below)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with their juices
Cooked spaghetti (or whatever shape pasta you like) and coarsely chopped cilantro, for serving
Place the oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic, bell pepper, and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Add the beef, Xawaash, and salt and cook, stirring occasionally to break up the beef, until the meat is browned, about 15 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and diced tomatoes (and their juices). Fill the tomato can halfway with water and add it to the pot. Stir well to combine, being sure to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Increase the heat to high and bring the sauce to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally as the sauce cooks, for 30 minutes. Season the sauce to taste with salt. Serve hot over cooked spaghetti, with the cilantro sprinkled on top. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days and rewarmed in a heavy pot set over low heat (stir while you heat).
Xawaash Spice Mix
One 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
½ cup cumin seeds
½ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
6 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons ground turmeric
Place the cinnamon stick in a small zip-top plastic bag, seal it, and bang it a couple of times with a rolling pin, skillet, or mallet (anything firm and heavy) to break it into small pieces.
Place the cinnamon pieces, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, cardamom, and cloves in a small heavy skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the smell is very aromatic and the spices are lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Let cool. Transfer the mixture to a clean coffee grinder and grind into a fine powder (or use a mortar and pestle and some elbow grease). Transfer the ground spices to a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl and sift. regrind whatever large pieces remain in the sieve and add them to the bowl with the ground spices. Add the turmeric. Whisk well to combine and transfer the mixture to an airtight jar. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.