Hawa Hassan Is On a Mission to Bring a Taste of Africa to Your Kitchen

Somalia-born cook and food entrepreneur Hawa Hassan has all the meal inspo and ingredients you need to introduce your tastebuds to African cuisine.

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Photo: Khadija M. Farah and Jennifer May/ Pablo Jeffs Munizaga - Fototrekking/Getty

"When I think about my happiest, most authentic self, it's always centered on food with my family," says Hawa Hassan, the founder of Basbaas Sauce, a line of Somali condiments, and the author of the new cookbook In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean (Buy It, $32, amazon.com).

At age 7, Hassan was separated from her family during the civil war in Somalia. She ended up in the U.S., but then didn't see her family for 15 years. "When we were reunited, it was as if we had never been apart — we jumped right back into cooking," she says. "The kitchen centers us. It is where we argue and where we make up. It is our meeting ground."

In 2015, Hassan started her sauce company and got the idea for her cookbook. "I wanted to have a conversation about Africa through food," she says. "Africa is not monolithic — there are 54 countries within it and different religions and languages. I hope to help people understand that our cuisine is healthy, and it's not difficult to prepare." Here, she shares her go-to ingredients and the role food plays in everyone's life.

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In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean

In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers From the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean
Amazon

What's your favorite special meal to make?

Right now, it's my boyfriend's jollof rice — he makes the most flavorful jollof rice I've ever had — and my beef suqaar, which is a Somali stew; the recipe for it is in my book. I'll serve them with a Kenyan tomato salad, which is tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and red onions. Together, these dishes make a feast that's perfect for a Saturday night. You can pull it together in a couple of hours.

And your weeknight go-to?

I crave a lot of lentils. I make a big batch in the instant pot with spices, a little bit of coconut milk, and jalapeño. It keeps for a week. Some days I will add spinach or kale or serve it over brown rice. I also make the Kenyan salad — it's something I eat almost every day.

Tell us the pantry ingredients you can't live without.

Berbere, which is a smoked spice mix from Ethiopia that contains paprika, cinnamon, and mustard seeds, among others. I use it in all my cooking, from roasting vegetables to seasoning stews. I also can't live without the Somali spice xawaash. It's made with cinnamon bark, cumin, cardamom, black peppercorns, and whole cloves. Those are toasted and ground, and then turmeric is added. I cook with it and also brew a warm Somali tea called shaah cadays, which is similar to chai and is super easy to make.

How do you suggest people cook with these spice mixes if they're unfamiliar?

You can never use too much xawaash. It will make your food slightly warmer. The same with berbere. Oftentimes, people think that if you use a lot of berbere, your food will be spicy, but that's not the case. It's a mix of a lot of spices that really enhances the flavor of your food. So use it generously, or perhaps start small and then work your way up.

I want to have a conversation about Africa through food. I hope to help people understand that our cuisine is healthy, and it's not difficult to make.

In your book, there are recipes and stories from grandmothers, or bibis, from eight African countries. What was the most surprising thing you learned?

It was shocking how similar their stories were, no matter where they lived. A woman could be in Yonkers, New York, and she was telling the same story as a woman in South Africa about loss, war, divorce. And their proudest accomplishment was their children, and how their kids have changed the narrative in their families.

How does food make us feel connected to others?

I can go to an African restaurant anywhere and find community immediately. It's like a grounding force. We find comfort in one another by eating together — even now, when it's in a socially distanced way. Food is often the way we all come together.

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