Q&A with Entrepreneur and Cookbook Author Hawa Hassan

A talk with Hawa Hassan on her cookbook, grandmothers, African cuisine, and being a flexible cook.

Hawa Hassan profile photo

Khadija M. Farah & Jennifer May

Hawa Hassan is a former model, home cook, cookbook author, and the CEO of the Somali condiment company, Basbaas.

We had barely begun talking last month when we started sharing our histories and love of food: Hawa was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and moved to Seattle at the age of seven. I was born in Korea and also moved to America at the age of seven. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different on the surface, immediately we found a connection through food and the commonalities of being from war-torn countries. We agreed to share a meal together when we find ourselves in the same city.

Her book "In Bibi's Kitchen" is an invitation to that table of women.

Not only does it give us history, culture, and flavors that originated along the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, it is also a book about community and sharing food and stories. It’s a celebration of the flavors and traditions from eight countries – Eritrea, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar and Comoros – told from the point of view of the grandmothers who live there.

Hawa artfully weaves the stories and recipes of the grandmothers in her book with her own recipes from Somalia and beyond.

I spent some time over Zoom with her as she spoke to me across the continent from her Brooklyn apartment. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Q: What do you want people to know about this cookbook?

I think this book gets a bit boxed in, that it's East African cooking, but it really isn't. It's about the eight African countries that touch the Indian Ocean.

For me, it was really important to create a thread through what we already know about cuisines. My whole thing has been to demystify what it means to be African, what it means to cook African food.

When this book came out, and because I started a business pertaining to foods from the continent, I was thinking about the many different ways I can have these conversations from a healthy place. It was, ‘What do people in the West already know?’ They know India. They know a lot about colonization, what they’ve done to other countries that they’ve taken over.

That's what this book is. It educates from what people here already know. The thread is the Indian Ocean; it's about trade and migration and community and family and diaspora.

It’s like I’ve always said: I want to inch my way onto the table, and then I want to take over the table. And that's what this book kind of represents. For me, it's a gentle tug at, ‘Let me show you how we do things.’

In Bibi's Kitchen cookbook cover

Khadija M. Farah & Jennifer May

Q: What’s the key feature of the food of all of these countries?

I would say that the key feature, outside of ingredients really, is community, is talking to these women.

Twenty-four of the recipes are from the grandmothers; the rest are ones I created. All of the food is meant to be shared. It’s communal. The thread even with the grandmothers is, ‘I want to be in service to my community. I want to be in service to my neighbor.’ That is the biggest key component of the book outside of the women. 

Q: Describe a few of the flavor profiles in African cuisine.

It depends where you are: in Somalia, sweet and savory; places like Ethiopia and Eritrea, it's spicier because of the berbere, but it's also on the savory side. They don't have anything sweet. The thing I learned the most in regards to a lot of these flavors is that the base of many of the cuisine in these countries was coconut milk, which is already a hint of savory and sweet. So, there's a thread of that in this book.

In the beginning, when I started talking about Somali cuisine to people, they were really shocked at how much we have borrowed and changed from the Arabs and from the Italians. They're like, “Oh, there's pasta?”

The same is true for places like Tanzania. We talk about Tanzania. You talk about pilau, and people are like, ‘I had no clue!’ Somalis have something similar, which is called bariis. It’s a rice, and we use raisins and cinnamon and cloves and cardamom and turmeric. Then, Indian people are like, ‘Wow! I see myself reflected in that dish.’

This book is all of the flavor profiles of the thread of the Indian Ocean, which is very reflective of the spice trade.

Zanzibar Pilau from Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen in a bowl with a cinnamon stick.
Zanzibar Pilau. Alison Bickel

Q: What did you love about making the book?

I think my favorite part has to be the relationships that I've made with the woman in the book, and the community that I've built for myself across those countries. Now there are people who tell me, ‘Come to Mozambique! You can stay with us.’ And that's priceless.

I also learned, and I don't say this lightly, the business of cookbook making. It's not glamorous. I think a lot of people have to remember, three years ago when this book sold, no one was mindful of the things that they are trying to be conscious of today. That, for me, was a great learning curve, because I didn't have those tools that I have now.

Q: Were you able to meet all of the bibis?

I was not able to meet all the bibis. Khadija, our photographer (God bless her heart!), she's a big part of the reason why this book is successful. I chose her, because I knew that, first of all, she lives in Kenya, so it's easier for her to move around. She also speaks a bunch of languages and is really soft and kind and just can get anyone to open up.

Khadija went to Madagascar, she went to Mozambique, she went to South Africa, but I would be up [here in the US]. If she was there for three days, we'd be on the same time schedule.

Q: So, I’ve got the book and I want to start cooking. What spices should I have on hand?

You get cardamom. You get cinnamon. You get coriander, cumin. I'm assuming you have pepper and salt. You get ground turmeric, nutmeg, ginger, fenugreek seeds. You get vanilla. And then you start there. Because from that place, you can build different flavor profiles. And then, the dishes won't feel so far away, because you've done the groundwork already.

I say this often: If you can create a global country for yourself, nothing will be too far away from you.

Ground cardamom and cardamom pods on a white platter

Lori Rice

Q: What are your personal favorite recipes in your book? What's the first thing you would feed somebody?

I have to be honest: Somalia is basically my whole family. The Digaag Qumbe (pg. 73) is a staple in my family and in my life— chicken stew with coconut yogurt. I love the Sabaayad (pg. 76-77), the Somali flatbread. If you were to ask me what is stocked here in my kitchen, it would be mashed limas with onions, which is the Shahan Ful (pg. 47) from Eritrea. I eat a lot of that for breakfast. I eat a lot of Shiro (pg. 45)— ground chickpea stew. I eat a lot of beans.

I think a lot of people are well aware of Ethiopian and Eritrean food, so I would start with a Doro Wat (pg. 53) — chicken stew with berbere and eggs. That is a stew that most people just go out to restaurants and try. But to bring that flavor into your home, and then to make it, I think, would be rewarding.

If you’re going to go into this book – and I can only speak for this book – but if you're going to start, just go ahead and go right to the Doro Wat. You will not be disappointed.

Q: What are you cooking right now? What is inspiring you at the moment?

I am a very, very plain cook. My partner says I make basic look really good.

Like last night I sautéed a little bit of garlic, a red onion, two cups of spinach, a cup of cherry tomatoes. Then I roasted a salmon with just chili flakes, salt, and pepper, and then I took the salmon apart and tossed it into my spinach and onion. Things like that are what I'm eating.

I'm eating very light right now because I feel like the weight of, literally and figuratively, the world has finally caught up to me. I'm eating a lot of roasted broccoli, cauliflower. I've really gotten into cauliflower during the pandemic.

And then sometimes I crave home, so we make peanut soup. We make a lot of stews. We make rice soup and coconut milk. But outside of that, I'm just roasting sweet potatoes, cauliflower, salmon. And I’m eating a lot of hard-boiled eggs, too.

Q: If you could talk to our readers cooking at home, what would you tell them?

I would say be flexible. I think that all great cooks are people who are not attached to an outcome but are on a journey of seeing where the meal is going to take them.

Q: What’s your next project?

My next book is about civil war and what happens to a country when it fights within itself; what happens to the people of the country and what happens to the food.

The book is really about restoring, talking about war from a place of integrity and love and family and not from a place of despair, and returning agency to the people it happened to.

Thank you so much, Hawa!