Few Contemporary Cookbooks Feature African Food. Hawa Hassan Is Changing That.

With recipes like kicha fit fit and zanzibar pilau, 'In Bibi's Kitchen' features grandmothers' dishes from eight African countries.

October 24, 2020

Hawa Hassan has never been all that interested in trends. That might be surprising for a former model turned founder of a cult-favorite condiment company, who has been featured in the likes of Vogue, Forbes, and The New York Times. After just a short conversation with Hassan, however, it all makes sense.

The video personality and CEO of Basbaas Somali Foods released her first cookbook last week: In Bibi’s Kitchen, coauthored with Julia Turshen. The book shares recipes and stories from bibis, or grandmothers, hailing from eight African countries—Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, Comoros, and Hassan’s native Somalia—that border the Indian Ocean (plus additional recipes developed by the authors). But this volume is more than just a collection of inviting dishes: It’s a vibrant document of intergenerational cooking.

In Bibi's Kitchen “fills a deep and vast void in the contemporary cookbook market,” Hassan writes in the introduction. “There are barely any cookbooks published by American publishing houses that feature African food,” adding that Africa is time and time again mistaken for a country or a homogeneous place with one cultural point of view.

“My perspective is interesting, but my perspective doesn't speak for all of Africa. Africa is not monolithic,” Hassan told me when we spoke this month.

The countries highlighted form the foundation of the historical spice trade, shedding light on the context that needs to be explored as home cooks develop their interest in what she refers to as “global flavors.” Hassan feels that far too often, a recipe is put in the spotlight, devoid of context, and “everything else is secondary. I think it's really interesting to not only be knowledgeable about what it is you're cooking, but to also pay homage to the places it comes from.”

Though it’s a strange time, to say the least, Hassan is feeling “grateful for the stillness of this moment.” We spoke about the process of developing recipes with her collaborators on video chat, her hopes for regional African cuisine getting more attention from the mainstream media, and the significance of preserving cultural legacy through food.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

REBECCA FIRKSER: You didn’t originally intend to have a career in food. Can you talk a bit about your work before starting in this field?

HAWA HASSAN: Before becoming a food entrepreneur, I was a young model in New York. My intentions were to model until I was in my 30s, or until I got kicked out. Then I was going to start a career at the UN as an advocate for people who were part of the inadequate system. I was really interested in advocating for refugees.

RF: You ended up creating Basbaas. How did you land on the idea to launch this business?

HH: Ultimately I continued being a part of conversations about my origin that did not serve me or people who look like me. It's the idea of always being sold this story about being Somali and being “other.” It was always for people who had never been to these countries. I really wanted to be a part of developing a new narrative of what that looked like. Creating Basbaas would be an easier way to do that than to model.

RF: How has it been for you transitioning from food entrepreneur, where your products are the star, to cookbook author and media personality, where you personally are the draw?

HH: It's weird because I think the one thing I always knew to be true was that, if I was going to have this business, it was going to take conversation. The idea behind Basbaas was to bring people to the table and have a conversation. In doing that, very quickly people were interested in my story. In my research, I found out that people were attracted to brands that had identities they could relate to. I started to talk about what I like to call my “origin story.” I had to quickly talk about what it meant to be Somali, and how I intended on bringing Somali food to the forefront, and what tools I was going to use. Basbaas set the stage for that. Now a lot of that has come to pass because of, again, me turning kind of into a personality or a brand of sorts, but all of it was intentional.

I was very cautious not to force it. Modeling really did prepare me in regards to being on camera. That was an easy thing for me to do. It was a natural thing for me to do. I think about that often—being on TV is not easy, being in front of the camera is not easy. It just so happens that, because of how lucky I sometimes can be, my past career really does intersect with my new life in a really healthy way.

RF: Let’s talk about the book. As opposed to recipes developed by one cook, In Bibi’s Kitchen shares recipes from grandmothers hailing from eight African countries. How did you land on this concept?

HH: In the beginning, my interest really was in developing bigger conversations about where I come from, and people who look like me. I knew that I would need to involve a lot more people. I was really cautious to share the mic, and also still be in position to learn. I knew that if I could create my company and get it to a place where people are interested, as a marketing tool, I could speak about the continent and cuisines from there. I could talk to folks who were being left out of the narrative, which for me was people who were older. Our elders. No one was speaking to the matriarchs of families anymore, which was weird to me. You're watching TV and there is not a single grandmother. I was like, “Where—where is everyone?” I really wanted to have conversations with these women for selfish reasons [laughs]. But also, I was like, “I want to share you with everybody.”

RF: Can you tell me a bit about how you selected the women you highlighted in the book?

HH: A lot of the women were either family friends or were in countries I had lived in. I really did go through people in my community. I reached out to friends. It was really important to me to use my network to find the women.

RF: In the introduction, you talk about how valuable technology was in the process of making this book—the virtual connection through calls, texts, video chats, and shared folders made for the strongest relationships between you, your coauthor, your photographer, and the bibis you worked with. Why did you want to specifically call out the value of these connections?

HH: I think it was really important, one, to demystify for people that Africa is not like this pothole, middle of nowhere, and everyone lives in a hut. It kind of was a very subtle way of saying not only did some of us travel to some of these places, but here's how we wanted to preserve the integrity of their recipes. We used all the tools we had available to us and them to get the recipes to you.

RF: I think one of the most beautiful things about this book is that it's so evergreen. Many cookbooks these days are rooted in trends, like a certain diet or cooking tool, or they’re intended to be filled with the newest possible recipes. In the book’s introduction you write, “In Bibi’s Kitchen is not about what is new and next.” Why was it important to you to emphasize the significance of cultural legacy through recipes that have been made for generations?

HH: Yeah, we didn't want to be talking about what's new and next. We want to talk about what is. I am not a very trendy person. I've never been somebody who follows what's new and next. For me, I wanted to preserve these stories and share perspectives from these people who had just kind of been left out. It was really important for me to be able to create something to not only to educate a larger audience, but also to help people to feed themselves in a different way, too. One of the things I find myself always doing is telling people that these folks may seem very far away, but my ultimate dream is that everybody sees themselves in this book.

RF: I imagine translating dishes that these women have been making by heart for years into a formal recipe presented some challenges—what was the recipe development process like?

HH: A lot of it was just watching videos that either I took or our photographer took and then doing the measurements from the videos and creating the recipes that way. Then a lot of it is just recipes that are from my family, like the Somalia chapter and the Eritrea chapter. It's things that are indigenous to that country; everyone knows how to make doro wat, or shahan ful. It's something that's eaten all the time. A lot of that was research. And for 24 of them, we developed the recipes from the grandmothers through videos.

RF: We’re featuring the recipes for Zanzibar Pilau and Kicha Fit Fit, which call for spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, fenugreek, and dried chiles. You’ve noted that the countries featured in the book create the foundation of the spice trade along the Indian Ocean, and point out the home cook’s growing interest in “global flavors,” which has been a big conversation in food media recently. Why is it important for cooks to recognize the cultures behind these ingredients?

HH: I think oftentimes in food media, in the U.S. especially, the recipe comes out first and everything else is secondary. I think it's really interesting to not only be knowledgeable about what it is you're cooking, but to also pay homage to the places it comes from. That sets up a wider table. It brings you a lot closer to cultures, and my intention in doing this book and anything that I do is to use food as a gateway to cultures. What better way to do that than to say, here's berbere; let me tell you about the Indian Ocean and how these spices came to be in this country.

It’s also to educate the audience about the Indian Ocean because there's a thread through there. You could easily relate Pakistani food to the food from Tanzania because of the settlers in Zanzibar. You could easily relate Somali food to Italian food because of Italians taking over Somalia. If you're willing to educate yourself a little bit about what it is you're cooking, I think that not only enriches your plate, but it enriches your entire life.

RF: What are you excited about these days? Is there anything else you’d like to share with Food52 readers?

HH: I think I'm very hopeful for what's to come in the next year, next two years, in terms of Africa. I'm excited to see books that are going to be regional. I think Africa deserves the same attention that Asia has gotten all these years. I'm looking forward to seeing regional books from the continent. I'm looking forward to seeing up-and-coming chefs that are able to tell their own stories.

I'm really excited about growth stories. I'm excited about how everyone is going to pivot after this pandemic, in regards to the way we educate ourselves. Who's afforded what. I hope that Food52 holds space in a way that is authentic for a larger audience. Not that you have to put that in there.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.