Hawa Hassan Cooks and Eats Like the Grandmothers in Her Cookbook (And Hopes You Will Too)
Hawa Hassan believes that expanding your pantry will expand your worldview. The Somalia-born cook has many layers to her identity — she’s the eldest daughter of 10 kids, she’s a former refugee immigrant, she’s lived in Seattle, Nairobi, Cape Town, Oslo, and Brooklyn — and food has helped her stitch all of these pieces of herself together. Now, her work is focused on building a “longer table” for everyone to take a seat and tell their own stories — especially people who are traditionally denied that opportunity.
Inspired by home and her family, Hawa founded her company BasBaas in 2014, which specializes in Somali condiments. And just last year in 2020, her first cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, was published. In Bibi’s Kitchen is an illuminating collection of stories and 75 recipes from bibis (grandmothers) from eight African countries that border the Indian ocean. The groundbreaking book isn’t about what’s trendy or Instagram-pretty: It’s about what these older women really cook, a perspective that’s not often granted in today’s publishing world. “I love hearing about the people from home who see themselves reflected in this cookbook, ” Hawa explains. “I regularly get emails that are like, ‘My mom doesn’t keep recipes, and I’ve been waiting for something like this since I moved to the States.'”
I caught up with Hawa (virtually!) while she was making tea in her Brooklyn apartment a couple of weeks ago to talk about the best cooking tip she learned from talking to the bibis, her go-to pantry ingredients, and the biggest struggle she faces in feeding herself.
Multiple times in the introduction, you say this cookbook is not about what’s new and next. I’m curious why that was so important to you?
I think that oftentimes, when publishers are buying books, they think about how it fits into their catalog, and so they’re only pulling from the experience in which they had, right? And In Bibi’s Kitchen wasn’t about Instant Pots or 30-minute weeknight dinners. It was a standalone book and something that really had never been done before.
Most of the recipes in this cookbook are so uncomplicated and affordable. And it really is reflective of the countries that these cuisines come from. And so, the whole premise of it is that it’s not new and next. This is about community. This is here to stay. It’s not a trend.
What cooking tip or technique did you learn from the bibis that stuck with you the most?
Throughout the book every grandmother I spoke to had this feeling of cooking being joyful. There was no perfection attached to it. Food in the States — especially on social media — is all about the best picture, the most beautiful-looking recipe, the brightest turmeric cake. And in the cookbook, this is how these grandmothers really eat. It’s about being relaxed enough to let the food go where it wants to go, you know?
What is your own grandmother known for cooking?
My grandmother shouts instructions, but she’s not going to get in the kitchen herself. She’s a keeper of stories, but she’s not going to walk you through her favorite Anjero, which is a Somali pancake.
Did working on the book change the way you eat?
No — a lot of the foods that are featured in the book are things I grew up with. What it really did was help me talk about the pantry in a way that I probably hadn’t prior to making the book. A lot of my focus now is building pantries, because it helps me be more aware and inclusive. I’m always educating myself about others and their foodways so I can build a longer table. A lot of my identity comes from my community. And I’m always thinking about: How do I expand the table? How do I put more offerings on the table and invite different types of people to the table? I’m always like, if you can make your own berbere spice, you can make Ethiopian food.
Was cooking something that was important to you then? Did you always dream of starting something like Basbaas?
I didn’t start out wanting to make food professionally. It felt like a childhood chore. I’m the eldest daughter of 10 children, so my role was to always be an extension of my mom. I boiled a ton of water, I made rice, I made pasta, I made a lot of tea.
But when I started visiting my family in Oslo, Norway in 2008, I always fell into serving my siblings and my mom — teaching them new recipes, or teaching them how to make American food. It felt natural. Cooking felt like an aid in terms of finding my identity. I was the girl next door in America, and then this Somali eldest daughter, former refugee immigrant — all these different layers. And I kept coming back to the same questions: How do we tell these stories from our perspective, and how do we take away these narratives that have been built on our behalf?
So one summer, I took my Vitamix with me and I started blending all these sauces for my family, and this was really where Basbaas came from.
Now tell me about these hot sauces you make for BasBass. You have the Coconut Cilantro and Tamarind Date. What’s your favorite thing to use them on?
I put it on everything. You put it on your burrito bowl. You put it on your eggs. You put it on your sandwiches. The intention is really to expand the idea of what condiments are to the people in the West. It all goes back to the pantry. If you’re able to expand that, then I think you can expand what people eat on the regular.
What are your pantry essentials?
My two everyday, go-tos are berbere and hawaij, both of which I blend myself. And then, I always have powdered cardamom.
What are you favorite place to grocery shop in New York?
I get most of my essentials from Trader Joe’s. I also grocery shop at Sahadi’s a lot, because they have so many things that are similar to home. I get my dates, baklava, sherry vinaigrette glaze, and honey from there. And then I go to the butcher at Green Grape where I get lamb, ground turkey, and fish.
What’s your biggest struggle in feeding yourself?
I find it really exciting exciting to cook for other people, but it’s really boring to cook for myself. Oftentimes, when cooking for one, I have to remind myself that not only is it the healthy option, but it’s also more affordable. Luckily, my partner cooked a lot this past year.
What are your five go-to dinners that you do make when you cook for yourself?
Generally, I make really healthy and quick things. I’m not a very complicated person in the kitchen. So much goodness can be made if you’re really flexible and work with what you have. I make a bunch of stews. I’ll make like a Somali chicken stew which I’ll serve over spinach. I also roast a ton of sweet potatoes. If somebody was like, “You’re going to eat this for the next 30 days,” I would choose sweet potatoes. I roast a lot of things: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and butternut squash. And I can eat that just with some hot sauce on top of it for days on end.
What’s inspiring you lately in your kitchen?
I’ve been really inspired by coconut milk. I like to soak my rice in coconut milk like my mom does — it softens the rice a lot, it helps it cooks faster, and it’s fluffier.
If someone was to open your cookbook for the first time, which recipe or section would you recommend first?
I would say that all of the recipes in the cookbook are incredibly simple, but if there was a chapter I would tell people to start on, it probably would be Eritrea. Ethiopians have opened up businesses all across the country, so I think it’s a food that most people are familiar with. It’s a cuisine that many people have gone out to experience, but if you can make it at your home and perfect it, I think that’s even better, right?
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.