Hawa Hassan, CEO of Basbaas Somali Foods, discusses her upcoming cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, which centers African grandmothers. She also talks about how an attempt to bring African cuisines to Bon Appetit ended up in her being used for diversity...Jul 7th 2020 · 21 min read
On this episode of Extra Spicy, co-host Soleil Ho talks to Hawa Hassan, CEO of Basbaas Foods. Hassan discusses her upcoming cookbook, "In Bibi’s Kitchen," which centers on African grandmothers. She also talks about how she attempted to bring African cuisines to Bon Appétit and ended up being used for diversity points.
Plus: In this week’s Dear Spicy, Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips talk about covering restaurant reopenings and their suggestions on how you can support your favorite dining places amid the pandemic.
Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, and scroll down to read a transcript of Ho's full conversation with Hassan.
Here is a full transcript of Soleil Ho's interview with Hawa Hassan, lightly edited for clarity. The interview was conducted on July 1, 2020.
So I'd love to start with the standard question that I ask everyone: Can you tell us your name, your occupation and your pronouns? I am Hawa Hassan. I am the founder and CEO of Basbaas. It's a line of condiments from the continent of Africa. And I am a she/her.
I'm so excited to talk to you today. My introduction to you was, incidentally, your videos. A while ago, I got into this mode of watching Test Kitchen videos and I saw your videos about Somali food, and I thought they were so wonderful.
There are so many comments on the videos where people are like, "Please bring her back. Please make her full time." All this stuff must have been so surreal to you. I had my surface view of what it must have been like as someone making those videos, and then of course, you actually come out and talk about it later.
But I would love to know more about it because you mentioned on Instagram that you had a pitch deck for them — that you had this whole vision of what you were going to contribute to them. And I'd love to hear about that — just your experience from point A to point B, getting your content up on that stream.
So, it's kind of interesting, because I think my approach to food has always been from the lens of business peppered with conversations about cultural aspects of where I come from in food.
So at the end of the day — and when I got started in this industry — it was to bring a consumer packaged-goods business to market, which was then going to afford me the conversation piece of being at the table and then being like, "Oh, and by the way, we also make these other things, and also, we're not all starving, you know. Somalia is much more than you hear on CNN."
It was my initial desire to have just those conversations via these condiments. And I knew that in order for the conversation to go beyond myself and the grocery store shelves, I needed to get into cookbook writing and I needed to get into doing videos.
That was all in my business plan originally, and I think that when year three or four came around and the cookbook was almost done, I was like, "OK, it's time to start doing content," because people need to see these foods being made with things that are in your everyday pantry, because oftentimes I think people don't realize how easy it is to make our foods.
I am friends with Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, who was (former Bon Appétit editor-in-chief) Adam Rapoport’s assistant. She is my little sister. We had been featured in Bon Appétit here and there, and I ended up meeting at a healthy-ish event with the diversity and inclusion person at Condé Nast. I told her — this is before the Test Kitchen was even a thing — I said, "I’d love to do videos through you guys. I’d love to do some writing through you guys in regards to cuisine from the continent."
She said, "Oh, you really should." And then that following year I went. It was the beginning of January, I'd gone to Hawaii. I thought, "If I'm going to approach these people, I should do it from a business perspective. I think they'd understand that much better than saying, I don't know, 'I got four thousand followers on Instagram. I could bring whatever to your audience.'" I think there are a group of people who really do respect metrics and live and die by that, which is so strange to me.
So I created this deck because that's what I was good at doing. I was great at telling stories to investors, and creating a pitch deck to me just seemed like the easiest thing to do, and Adam had always followed me on Instagram. Just as I was finishing the deck, he said, "What are you working on these days?" and I was like, "Funny that you ask. I've actually been working on a deck to send to you," and he said, "Send it." I sent it over.And honestly, I didn't see myself sitting or standing in a kitchen making food every day, but I did see myself as a person who can go out into a community and have conversations about food with people who look like me. For Adam, it made sense right away. For the V.P. of video at the time, it made sense right away. But then it became very obvious that handling someone like me with care wasn’t a priority.
I see. OK, so how would you describe the handling with care? What does that mean to you?
Treating me with dignity. Treating me with respect. Speaking to me with integrity. Meaning what you say and saying what you mean. You know, if you tell me that there's gonna be a long-term relationship with me: honoring that. If there is an opportunity to negotiate monies that are being paid to me: honor that. To have the conversation and not to gaslight me. And also being very cognizant of the fact that I was the only woman who was Black, and what I was offering was so different.
So, that in itself should be enough to say, "OK, we've got to move a little bit different with her, considering that she's not a part of the fabric of the group that's here.” I'm not somebody who does really well when I feel out of place.
I always say this to people: It would be incredibly hard for me to betray myself. I've been on my own since I was 7 years old. I raised myself. A lot of who I am is based on gut instinct. My moral compass is what leads me to places and to people, and as soon as I see that things are not how people say they are, I'll have a few conversations before I pack up. And that's what I did.
So what was it like for you to see the reckoning for Bon Appétit and all of this stuff? I really found a lot of resonance with what you wrote about it, and I was really grateful that you wrote about your experience. Even to speak to the dignity aspect of it, just the fact that you point out that you're in the cast picture of the Test Kitchen in like three or four videos. And then you cut it off, but you're still kind of there as just this body, you know? Yeah. It's funny because Alex Delany (Bon Appétit drinks editor) … originally wasn't in that photo and so they Photoshopped him in. That's why we all look crowded. …
It very much felt to me as a ... I get this email that says, "Hey, can you come in for an editor's photo?" and I'm like, "Am I an editor? Because if that's the case, I need to have another kind of conversation." I have a 9-5. I spend my whole days in front of a computer figuring out the logistics of a consumer packaged goods business. I do a lot of other things that allow me to be the chief marketing officer of this business, which includes being at the test kitchen at Bon Appétit. But that's not a commitment I could make.
So I ended up having a full, long conversation with Adam, where Adam let me know that what I could do was speak to (former Condé Nast executive) Matt Duckor once again, and that's not something I was willing to do because that was someone who so clearly showed me that I wasn't worthy or wanted and continued to double down on: "You know, our audience say really nice things because they're nice people." I was like, "They're asking for a black girl." Oh God. Considering your pitch deck, considering your work to bring East African cuisines and get that representation out there, I'd love to hear about … I guess there is a line, and it feels like a spectrum between exploitation and representation. What is the difference between those two in your mind, in your experience? I think representation would be giving someone access and allowing them to build on the access. So giving someone some equity in a space. Exploiting someone to me feels like filling a void to be performative.
This is tough because the way I want to say it is not coming out, but it, to me, is much more of doing it because you have to and not because you want to. So tokenizing someone: "We have one of that here."
It felt very exploitive to me in regards to — you know, I think that there are brilliant black chefs that can make food from American culture. That's not a space I was willing to take. It just would be unfair, and what we later found out was that they weren't willing to expand: One was enough. And I think if you're paying attention, you quickly find out and know that you're being exploited and being tokenized. Does that answer your question? Yeah. No, it's something I struggle with a lot too, actually. It's nice to be picked in a sense, and it really hurts to realize why you're being picked sometimes. I know that your desire to bring cuisines that you love into the spotlight is intentional and very of service to the community, and I could sense that it's really hurtful to see that turned into something so shallow. I thought it was really weird to prop me up on Black History Month for videos that I filmed in October. I was like, "It's odd." I think it's disrespectful even to the audience and it undermines the intelligence of the people that are tuning in. It's really manipulative, if I'm being honest, to say: "We've withheld content from this woman since last September when we introduced her. But we'll give you a little bit this February, because that's what we're supposed to be doing." Yeah. God, yeah. So I wanted to talk broadly about the state of African cuisines in American food media. I think we have this illusion that American food media decides what's great, what's trendy, what's good and desirable. But I get the sense — and once you really think about it, it is really provincial — that [American food media] has a very limited scope of what it considers to be important. I'd love to hear you describe the status of African cuisines in this kind of environment.
Well, I think that American audience beyond Ethiopian food would be a little bit like, “What is African food?”
The way that I like to talk about it is that: First of all, Africa is a continent, right? So when you're talking about cuisines from a landlocked country like Lesotho, you're not talking about foods from Somalia, which is the longest inland coast in all of Africa. And so it’s vast. It's plantations. It's rice. It's cassava. It is ugali. It’s pasta. Ofte times, a lot of these countries are reflective of their colonizers' food.
So when I talk about our food and my country's food ways, you know, I talk about bariis, which is Somali rice that's similar to rice from Tanzania or from India because we're along the Indian Ocean. I talk about cinnamon, date, cardamom and turmeric. I talk about shaah, which is like chai. I talk about the similarities of food from just across the ocean.
I think my intentions and what I'm trying to do, even with the cookbook, is to really tie a thread through food for people to help them to understand that not only are we all very different, the foods that we are trying to introduce to the West are oftentimes at tables just with different ingredients. I'm not asking someone to make a food that they've never heard of. I'm asking you to make rice, but my way. So, yeah, I would say that there is a long way to go in terms of media and African foods. I think that the first step that is being taken is giving African people access to writing books from their perspective and about their cultures and telling their own stories. Seeing you one day at the Times doing the 10 essentials is — to watch that and to see ingredients that people are familiar with or to be the one writing about palm oil, which has such a bad rep from people who know nothing about it. So I think what people are doing is, first of all, dismantling the narrative that this food is far and difficult and whatever else, and then making it accessible and then having the hard conversations that Africa's not a country.
Yes. I mean, everyone in America knows what a banana is, right? And so intellectually, it can't be that hard to think: "Oh, yeah, banana plus rice could be good." But there's so much... Or this idea of sweet and savory. Right. We know this.
Yeah, I'm so thankful for the younger generation because there is nothing that they're unlearning. They're just learning as they go, and they're willing to adjust very quickly.
And they're cooking a lot more than probably we did. I'm 34. I don't know how old you are, but growing up in America, I spent a good amount of time eating at Taco Bell. Or Taco Time, growing up in Seattle. Yes, you mentioned that you came to Seattle when you were 7? That must have been so shocking, just to encounter the food of the U.S. alone? What did you eat? Like Taco Bell … it's a favorite of immigrants. I totally get that.
I mean, I ate a lot of hot dogs. I loved hot links. I thought, "This thing with this rubbery skin that is spicy is just so good." I ate a lot of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. I ate a lot of cereals: Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cap’n Crunch. And pizza. I ate foods that were just so different.
And then as I got older, a lot of the people I grew up with were Ethiopian. So I started to eat more Ethiopian food around middle school, which till today is like a staple even in my own home. My pantry is full of shiro and gomen and berbere, and so I probably make more Ethiopian food than I make American food or even Somali food.
That's awesome. It must have been like so … because that's the thing, right? With immigrants, you have to adjust; you have to learn and eat foods that are totally different from your experience. It must be so strange to see, like, native Americans — people who were born here and grew up American — be so hesitant to embrace food that they don't understand, because you had to do it and you really didn't have that much choice.
Yeah. I think my thought was always that I'm in someone else's country. And so you do whatever it takes to survive. So I couldn't even imagine what it would be like for an American, say, in a place like Somalia. Would they adjust, or would they just have bread and tea?
If I wasn't eating at school, I wasn't going to eat when I got home, because there wasn't food. I was very strategic in the way that I ate and what I consumed. I spent a lot of time eating bread, eating heavy foods so that I wouldn't be hungry at night. I grew up with a group of refugees, and oftentimes it was like, “You take care of yourself.” So, you know, for me, adjusting … assimilating wasn't hard at all, because you don't really have a choice when you come here. You're automatically made to feel like what you bring isn't good. Whether it's the way you smell from home, the hijab you have on, your accent — it's not a society that is inclusive. It's not.
And it's not welcoming, frankly. Especially for kids. I feel sad for parents who come here with children. I can't even imagine what my mother's experience must have been like — going to Oslo and then having to advocate for her children — when she herself doesn't know the language, the culture and the economy of a country. But then, here you are, a new person having to advocate for some small children and make a way.
Where for me, I was alone. I was young. I was alone. And when you're a little kid, you adapt a little bit quicker, you know?
Yeah. It's interesting because when someone tries a new food … or someone can talk about French food or Somali food or Vietnamese food as a foodie, they're seen as worldly or cultured. And that's a behavior that is really familiar to you that wouldn't necessarily be spun that way — of just like learning new foods. It doesn't come from the sort of dilettantish desire. It's so stark when you apply it to a different context: We read this behavior in different ways, depending on who's doing it.
Absolutely. Yeah. No, absolutely. I find this place so fascinating. I really do. I really, really do. If today, I was told I needed to pack my bags and go, I would go graciously, because I have no attachments here. I have no desire to be in a place where I'm so often made to feel “other” in a space. Where I so often don't even have the information I need just to thrive. And where systems are built to oppress me. At 34! No matter how hard you work...
Honestly, I have no interest in knowing American cuisine. I spend a great deal cooking food that is not American. I study food that is not American. Diving deeper into myself and my culture and East African foods and South African foods and traveling even there. I've stopped even traveling here. And then to be able to speak another language. It's too much for one person. It's too much for us.
We're too old for this. There's no time. You know, I get that.
And then our counterparts only have to know one language. One story. One history. One cuisine. I'm like, "I don't want to discuss Brussels sprouts."
I hear you. I totally understand.
It drives you to drink!
God, in this economy, right? It's like it's 2020. No. Over it. So enough about American food. Let's put that aside. Tell me what you love about Somali food. I want to hear all about it.
I love that basic dishes can be elevated with just a simple ingredient. So I love biting into a cardamom in my rice. I love the smell of it. It reminds me of home. I can be transported to my mother's kitchen just from a simple sauce. I love the earthiness of it. I'm talking about it like a lover!A friend of mine was saying the other day ... I made him rice, and he said, "You made it so quick," and I was like, "Oh, yeah." Like, it never dawns on me that adding raisins, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, and a cinnamon stick into a pot and then putting rice on it... in 20 minutes, I've got food for two days, you know.
And I love that it's complementary to each other. I love that you can have our injira or angello with just some black tea and sugar and ghee butter, and that's breakfast. Or a snack. Yeah, I love our food. I love the simplicity of it, but I love how it tastes — like it has so much care, like you spent all day making it. Does that make sense?
It makes a lot of sense. I want to get to talking about your book because I want to hear all about it. Can you tell the listeners the gist of what “In Bibi's Kitchen” is?
So, “In Bibi's Kitchen” is a cookbook from eight African countries that touched the Indian Ocean from the perspective of grandmothers — some in the U.S. and some on the continent. The countries that are featured in it are Somalia, Eritrea, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros and South Africa. The intention behind it was to talk about how similar these foods were, to examine the history of these countries, and to talk about recipes from the perspective of these grandmothers who are oftentimes the backbone of these countries and families.
How did you find them? How did you encounter them? Were they people that you just knew in your life before, through your network?
Yes, some were... Like I lived in Cape Town in 2009, so our grandmother from there was my friend Faith's auntie.
There is a Princess Bibi named Ma Vicky, who lives in Yonkers, who happens — her daughter happens to live in Brooklyn, who I know from a group of Tanzanian friends. So a lot of it was just community friendships that I've built over the years and being able to just reach out to people and say, "Hey, I'm looking for a grandmother." And then somewhere from people I just met. When I told people in my community about this project that I was trying to bring to life, they were also really excited to have something that they wanted to read come to life. So everybody was super eager to help. I think it's probably the one book that has like 30 people being thanked. It took a village to make it happen.
What was it like to approach them, the grandmothers? Were they excited? Were they surprised? Were they expecting you to call?
I think most of them were excited. What I found out about doing this book is that oftentimes we don't speak to the gatekeepers of our cultures. And they were so excited they wouldn't stop talking, you know? I get so much pleasure being in the kitchen with women who are older than me and learning from them and being taught by them. For me it was humbling because these are the people I want to spend time with. These are the folks I want to get all of the information from, and so to have them also receive me with open arms was such a joy.
And the amount of grace and generosity they have. And the lack of F’s they give. These are people who are living unapologetically across the world. So it’s really refreshing.
Yeah. For me, even asking my grandmother for recipes is always such a trip because she just doesn't care if I know exactly what she's trying to do. She's just like, "Just watch." That sense of maternal authority is so fun and just really empowering to be around, I think.
Yeah. It was funny, and we just let them do their own thing and then we just recorded and then afterwards we just ended up measuring from the video.
Because they're not going to give you like, tablespoons or grams or anything like that.
No, there was none of that. That's not how they work in the kitchen, so there was no direction like that. It was also wonderful to watch. It's like watching a magician in the kitchen — someone making a dish that they've made hundreds of times. It's rewarding, to say the least, to watch.
Oh, totally. I would imagine it's a challenge of standardizing their measurements. And I'm sure a lot of them use their hands, right? (Well, my grandmother does.) So it takes a lot of confidence to be like, "Well, it looks like she's putting in like 5 grams of salt right now."
No, absolutely. What I'm trying to do is write about African foods with the story. I don't want to tailor anything so much so that it feels far away from the actual recipe. So in keeping with having the recipe be itself, we really just stuck to what the grandmothers did. Even if it felt like it was the ugali I wouldn't make. Like, I'm not the authority on ugali, which is like cornmeal from Kenya.
So, OK, I'm super excited for this book, and I'm so curious: Was it challenging to sell it and to get people to pay attention and take your book proposal and actually pay good money for it? Or was it relatively easy?
You know, we met with some people and it was, "Oh, the market isn't ripe for that yet. Thank you." And then we met with Ten Speed (Press), who talked to us with such compassion and kindness and were very direct about their interest.
For me, I was just excited to get the book done, to put the book out. So if you gave me 5 dollars, I was willing to take the 5 dollars.
My biggest goal and my desire in doing this book was to do such a good-enough job that it would open up the market for others, you know? I'm thankful that they saw an opportunity there.
Now two years later, look at the market! They've been gracious. I think they're doing all that they can even now to support the book. I feel very lucky about that.
I'm so glad. I'm sad that I'm surprised. But, you know, I'm really grateful that that’s how it shook out.
You know, I have a friend who always tells me, "Don't be sad. Be angry."
Yes. All of those things a lot lately.
I don't have the energy to be angry. When I'm sad, I can go to sleep. Right. You can be under blankets when you're sad. That's good. I don't want to take up too much more of your time. So just to give you one last question: If someone were to cook one recipe of yours, what would that be? What is your favorite — or I guess, what would you give to people who are kind of new to this kind of cooking?
I'm not saying it's my favorite. I don't think it's my favorite. But I would give them the Digaag Qumbe, which is the chicken coconut yogurt — the first recipe I did on Bon Appétit. It's been wild to watch the success of it. It's been wild to see it be made in Australia, in Japan. I get tags from everywhere every day.
The reason why I say that recipe is because my whole intention is to say, "This cuisine can be made with things in your everyday pantry. You don't have to go to some faraway markets, source anything we're putting in here." And I think that's a recipe that really lends itself to that. It's very reflective of the modern pantry. And it's beautiful and it's easy to make. It makes the introduction of the banana so easy for them. It reminded me of like Vietnamese coconut chicken, too. Oh, my gosh.
So good. So, yes, I could see how relatable it would be to so many other diasporic cuisines. That's a great one. I want to normalize cooking with coconut every day. Like the fatty aspect of it and adds flavor and color and texture to your food. I would be open to doing like a Vietnamese-Somali restaurant pop-up cookbook thing with you. I think that would be fantastic. Say when! Growing up in Seattle, the Vietnamese and the Somalis and the Cambodians and the Ethiopians are really connected, so we spend a lot of time eating together. We spend a lot of time bringing food to outings for one another, celebrating each other's independence. Today is actually Somalia's Independence Day.
Yeah, 60 years, right? Amazing. Happy Independence Day!
Thank you! I guess the last thing is for you to tell our listeners where they can find your work, what they should look for and where they can find you. I would first say: Order our condiments at basbaas.com. Follow our social media channels and be open to cooking foods from other places. You might be pleasantly surprised. Thank you so much, Hawa. This was really wonderful.