In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean is a book of extraordinary beauty.
Written by Hawa Hassan, a chef and Somali refugee, and noted food writer Julia Turshen, this lovingly curated book is a fascinating study of cultures and cuisines we rarely, if ever, take the opportunity to experience.
“’Food is … just like language,” according to South African Ma Khanyisa. “For me, stopping traditions would almost be like throwing my culture away,” she told the authors.
And that, to Ms. Hassan and Ms. Turshen, formed their central theme: keeping traditions and connections alive despite the passage of time, despite turbulence and disruption, and despite distance, then passing on those traditions and connections to subsequent generations and, now, to readers.
Starting to the north, the authors take us from Eritrea and Somalia on the Horn of Africa to Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and the island nations of Madagascar and Comoros. We learn a bit about each country’s geography, history, and demographics.
But most importantly, we get introduced to the wonderful bibis – grandmothers, in Swahili – who are addressed with the respectful honorific “Ma.” They are the heart and very soul of the book.
They brag about their families, share treasured memories, and discuss the concepts of home and community, which can be particularly poignant given that some of the women are refugees and emigrants.
These proud women also seek to dispel perceived misconceptions about their countries. As Tanzanian Ma Vicky says, “We’re not as miserable as people think,” because “the first thing which makes [people] happy is family, and once they are around family, they can cook and eat together and they are happy.”
The bibis offer recipes for their favorite foods to prepare for loved ones, which run the gamut from everyday home cooking to special occasion delicacies.
The dishes share some common traits: extensive use of spices for complex flavors, due to an integral location along trade routes; fish, thanks to the countries’ coastlines; tropical ingredients, such as plantain, banana, and coconut (“one of the most important ingredients in our food,” according to Mozambican Ma Josefina); and also generous quantities of vegetables, beans and legumes.
Frugality is another feature. In Eritrea, for example, leftover flatbread is torn into pieces, fried in butter and spices, then topped with yogurt to make the breakfast dish Fit Fit.
In another instance, the authors advise: “[Do] as Ma Jeanne and so many other home cooks in Madagascar do: make ranovola, or burnt rice tea.” Scoop out prepared rice then cook leftover tidbits until they’re brown. Add water, simmer and strain it, and serve it chilled.
Unsurprisingly, East African cuisines bear colonial influences, particularly from Italy, Portugal, Britain, and France. For example, pasta dishes are extremely common in Somalia, while a Mozambican cake features potatoes – an Iberian tradition.
While many of the bibis’ recipes are familiarly approachable, others are uniquely distinctive.
An example of the former is South African Imifino, which is the Xhosa and Zulu word for leafy greens or a stew made from them.
The dish, served over a cornmeal porridge, is Ma Khanyisa’s favorite from childhood, she told the authors. Greens were “usually eaten by women,” she said, as “there was a myth that they made [men] weak. So that might be why African women are so strong – we’ve always had these traditional meals for ourselves and our children.’”
By contrast, Roho is an ancient sweet from Comoros that’s often served at weddings along with small cups of strong coffee. The fudge-like confection calls for whole eggs plus yolks, sugar, ghee, cardamom, and sweetened condensed milk all simmered together and stirred patiently for an hour until it caramelizes.
Ma Zakia, who contributed the recipe, said, “It’s very special to here.”
In Bibi’s Kitchen tells these East African women’s stories through their own words, striking photographs, and, of course, the universal language of food.
And as Ms. Hassan and Ms. Turshen write: “We believe that grandmothers hold the world’s most important stories.”
Ma Halima’s Beef Suqaar
Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen write that, “Roughly translated from Arabic, suqaar means ‘small ones’” for its minced pieces of meat (usually goat). Serve it with a banana, to be enjoyed along with the stew “for the most authentic Somali experience.”
2 tablespoons canola oil
1½ 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).Note: Ma Halima serves this with cooked rice, as well as chopped lettuce “and big pieces of lemon to squeeze on top of everything.” Yield: Serves 4 Source: Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen, In Bibi’s Kitchen Ma Maria’s Mbowa (Leafy Greens in Coconut Sauce) “Ma Maria uses wild pumpkin leaves in this dish (which are readily available in Mozambique),” write Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen, but “any dark leafy green will do.” 3 tablespoons canola oil 2 small yellow onions, thinly sliced 2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped 1½ cups full-fat unsweetened coconut milk 1 cup water ½ pound mature (not baby) spinach, coarsely chopped ½ pound dark leafy greens (like collards or kale), tough stems discarded, leaves thinly sliced Kosher salt Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot set over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.Add the tomatoes and cook just until fragrant and hot, about 1 minute. Add the coconut milk and water and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and add the spinach and greens in large handfuls, seasoning each handful with a pinch of salt as you add it to the pot (this helps to distribute the salt evenly). Cover and simmer until the greens collapse and begin to become tender, about 5 minutes.Uncover the pot and stir everything well to combine. Simmer, uncovered, until the greens lose their brightness and become extremely tender, another 10 minutes. Season the greens to […]