CLEVELAND, Ohio — It is a kitchen truth universally acknowledged that mothers cook with expediency and grandmothers cook with love. Across cultures and classes, grandmas are the tender guardians of their family’s culinary history. They know all the cherished recipes for every occasion, and mostly for better, though sometimes legendarily for worse, they dependably prepare the defining dishes that make family traditions, well, traditions.
One cooking grandmother seems to be the customary allotment; if you’re really lucky, two may be lavishing food love on your family. But pick up “In Bibi’s Kitchen” and you win the grandma jackpot! Fifteen bibis — Swahili for grandmother — from eight African nations share their kitchen lore and life lessons through traditional recipes and warm personal interviews in this compelling book. It sheds light on these little-known cuisines, not by the usual fly-by curious culinarians, but with the deep knowledge of grandmothers who have been steeped in their cultures, and raised in their kitchens, from birth.
First-time author, Hawa Hussan (working with veteran cookbook writer, Julia Turshen), a food entrepreneur who immigrated here as a seven-year-old refugee from Somalia’s brutal civil war, took their stories and recipes — adding valuable historical notes, eloquent location photos by Khadija M. Farah, and a well-designed pantry and equipment section — to shape “In Bibi’s Kitchen” into a book meant to be, as Hussan says, “a tool that serves food’s highest purpose; to connect us all.”
And it does. These stories elucidate the bibis’ multi-faceted cuisines that comprise a vast feast of indigenous flavors influenced by nearby cultures and long-distance, sometimes not-so-long-ago, colonial occupations precipitated by the rich spice trade in the region. And nowhere are these influences more evident than Hussan’s native Somalia. One of the country’s most popular dishes, Suugo Suqaar, a simple spaghetti with ground meat sauce, directly reflects the Italian colonization of southern Somalia during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Another suqaar— basically Arabic for finely diced quick-sauteed meat — is a fragrant beef stew, with the rich flavors of mid-eastern cumin and turmeric, that is a specialty of Ma Halima, one of the grandmothers in the book.
Her life, like many of the others, has been one of transition. Born in Ethiopia, she was raised in Somalia, spent time in Saudi Arabia, then moved halfway around the world to snowy Minneapolis. But she identifies, always, as Somali, saying, “Somalia is the best country to live, but we misunderstand because of the war. My dream is to go back to Somalia and build a house and live there.”
And her cooking, no matter where she is, remains the same. As one of the other grandmothers, Ma Vicky, remarked about food traditions, “it means a lot because it keeps people together….you can tell stories through food like “my grandma used to make it like this” and I can tell about my grandma, and I’m a grandma now, so traditions can go on.” And thanks to these stories of the bibis in this book, traditions from another part of the world can help us appreciate, and perhaps re-evaluate, our own.
Ma Halima’s Beef Suqaar
Roughly translated from Arabic, suqaar means “small ones” and the dish is basically a quickly cooked mixture of small pieces of meat and vegetables. Think of this as a Somali stir-fry. Suqaar is a very flexible dish and can be made with any type of meat. Goat is the most traditional, but here we opt for beef. Serve it just as Ma Halima does with cooked rice or Bariis (see recipe below), chopped lettuce, and big pieces of lemon to squeeze on top of everything.
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 ½ pounds boneless beef chuck or other stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
¼ cup water
1 small green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Large handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot set over medium-high heat. Add the beef and onion and sprinkle with a large pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is browned in spots and the onion is beginning to become tender, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and sprinkle the cumin and turmeric over everything, along with another large pinch of salt. Stir in the water, cover, and cook until the carrots are beginning to get tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper, cover the skillet again, and cook until the carrots and peppers are just barely tender, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir in the lime juice, and season to taste with salt. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve immediately. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days and rewarmed in a skillet set over low heat (stir while you heat).
Bariis (Basmati Rice Pilaf with Raisins)
Bariis is a rice pilaf that Somalis often serve with cooked meat like Somali Beef Stew or stewed chicken. The mix of savory and sweet, more specifically the combination of cooked onions, warm spices, and sweet raisins, is very typical of Somali food. Bariis even makes for a wonderful breakfast with a fried or soft-boiled egg on top. Rinsing and soaking the rice ahead of time really helps the grains let go of their dusty coating and also cook more quickly and evenly. A pot of bariis helps Hawa feel at home and connected to her Somali family and roots even when she is very far away from both of those.
1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 garlic clove, minced
Pinch of ground cardamom
1 small tomato, finely chopped
3 tablespoons golden raisins or regular raisins
1 tablespoon Xawaash Spice (see recipe below)
1 ½ cups boiling water
Place the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse with cold tap water, stirring the rice gently with your hands, until the water runs clear. Place the rinsed rice in a bowl, cover with cold water, and let it soak for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes. Warm the oil in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon and cloves and cook, stirring, until the mixture smells very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cardamom and cook, stirring, until they’re also quite fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomato and a large pinch of salt, then increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until the juice from the tomato has evaporated and the mixture is like a thick paste, about 2 minutes. Drain the rice and add it to the pot, along with another large pinch of salt. reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring, until the mixture is quite dry and the rice smells nutty and is opaque, about 5 minutes. Stir in the raisins, spice mix, and boiling water. reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid and is tender, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice sit, covered, for at least 10 minutes before fluffing with a spoon or fork. If you can find the cinnamon stick and cloves, fish them out and discard them (otherwise, just warn your guests to avoid eating these). Serve the rice immediately, while hot. Leftovers can be stored in an air- tight container in the refrigerator and rewarmed in a 300ºF oven or in a skillet over low heat.
Xawaash Spice Mix
Xawaash (pronounced HA-wash) comes from the Arabic word hawaij, which is used to describe Yemeni spice blends. Xawaash touches just about every Somali dish. It’s like the garam masala of Somalia, and the mix of flavors is truly the flavor of the Indian Ocean. Each Somali home cook prepares hers differently. You can toss it on vegetables or chicken before roasting or use it as a dry rub on any type of meat before grilling.
Makes about 1 ¼ cups
One 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
½ 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.