“For me, when I have such joy, and where I pull a lot of my strength, is just being in kitchens with women—commotion and stillness at the same time,” says Hawa Hassan, speaking by phone from her studio apartment in Brooklyn. It’s just past noon on a recent Saturday, and her kitchen is momentarily still: coffee not yet drunk, delivery on the way. But the picture she paints is a vibrant one, full of chatter and smells and pots bubbling with the pasta sauce suugo suqaar. Hassan, a Somali native, founded her condiment line, Basbaas, in 2014 on the basis of such memories, drawing inspiration from her mother’s recipes. This week—with the publication of In Bibi’s Kitchen, a new cookbook written with Julia Turshen—Hassan broadens the scope to eight African countries along the Indian Ocean.
Hassan’s own story could fill a book—childhood in Mogadishu, a year in a U.N. refugee camp in Kenya, followed by a solo voyage to Seattle at age seven—but it’s matriarchs who take the spotlight in this ode to home cooking. Structured as a series of grandmotherly house calls, the book is the antithesis of star chef braggadocio; it’s also a counterpoint to a food-media landscape lately criticized for overlooking such perspectives. Plainspoken interviews sit alongside domestic scenes photographed by Nairobi-based Khadija Farah. We meet an elegant Ma Gehennet in Yonkers, New York, as she makes an Eritrean flatbread called kicha. In South Africa, Ma Khanyisa gives her recipe for imifino (wild greens with porridge). Wearing a yellow apron and brightly patterned head wrap, she talks about a spirit of resilience. “There’s a term called zenzele, and it means ‘do it yourself,’” the woman explains. “But even when you do the zenzele thing, you do it in a community. People support you. If you have a piece of land, people will come, and you will plow together, you harvest together.”
That kind of wisdom—threaded between plantain stews and primers on East African colonialism (hence the prevalence of Italian-style red sauce in Somalia)—makes the book feel especially well-timed in a moment all about home cooking and community. Early in the pandemic as people retreated indoors, Hassan joined efforts to deliver food to overburdened hospitals. Later on in the summer, she nailed down a new production facility for Basbaas. The original two condiments, a coconut-cilantro chutney and a tamarind-date sauce, are soon to be joined by four more—one based on a suugo recipe in the book, which will have pasta fans rejoicing come winter. In the conversation below, Hassan talks up weeknight meals, recalls her rebellious palate as an immigrant teen, and tells us about the smiling spoons in her kitchen sink.
Vanity Fair: When did the idea for a cookbook come about? Was it already in mind when you launched the condiments back in 2014?
Hawa Hassan: I was very strategic in terms of producing condiments first off. I really wanted to have a healthy conversation about my origins, and I wanted to introduce people to the cuisine of the continent of Africa. If I can get to their table, then they’ll be interested in the larger picture. For me, the larger picture then became the stories about where I come from—and what better way to do that than through grandmothers and recipes of just one country, but eight countries.
I spent a great deal of my childhood being at the feet of my mom and my grandmother. So I just kept looking at photos and videos [in the food media] and I didn’t see these women getting the camera time in the way that men were. I thought, “O.K., what about a book that focuses on the matriarchy?”
The food narrative is so often about a star chef or celebrity, and this book feels decentralized in a nice way—from the bibis to your book collaborators. What were your considerations there?
I believe, as I rise, it’s my responsibility to make sure that my community also rises with me. So when I went to Ten Speed and said, “I’m going to be using this not-well-known photographer in this industry on this big project,” I think originally there was some hesitation, but very quickly everybody was on board with Khadija Farah, who’s based in Nairobi, who’s also Somali, who’s hijabi. All these things for me were really important because I want my community to be visible in the work that I do. I never want to be the only person at the table who looks like me. And when Khadija was brought onto this project, she was made well aware of that: “When this book comes out, you’re going to get opportunities that you maybe otherwise wouldn’t have seen.” My hope is that she then extends the offer to someone else who looks like us, or comes from where we come from.
I imagine a female photographer also made these women feel at ease.