Hawa Hassan Wants Us to Respect African Grandmothers for the Experts They Are

We sat down with the author of the groundbreaking cookbook "In Bibi's Kitchen" to discuss how important it is to bring more African voices into the fold.

Bibi's Kitchen
Photo: Khadija M. Farah courtesy of Random House; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist

Hawa Hassan, Somali chef and owner of BasBaas, has a brand new cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen hitting shelves this week. This expansive, visually captivating book is a collection of 75 recipes and stories belonging to bibis (grandmothers) from eight African countries along the Indian Ocean: Comoros, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, and Tanzania. It’s a groundbreaking collection of work in a publishing industry that has been slow to embrace the cuisines of Africa.

In Bibi’s Kitchen was a natural next step for Hassan, who already sees her business, BasBaas a line of Somali inspired hot sauces, as a way of connecting people in the West to the stories and foods of the African continent. The mission of this cookbook is no different. She notes who is, and who is not, traditionally invited to tell their stories in the food space, and she feels that those amongst the missing have been “women, elderly, [and] Black,”— ironic, given that “they have the best stories to tell.” “In my culture, we say, ‘paradise lies at your mom’s feet,’” Hassan tells me during a recent Zoom conversation, as she explains the origins of the project and how important it is to bring more African voices into the fold.

Ma Maria
Ma Maria | Khadija M. Farah courtesy of Random House

Community seems to be a huge part of your ethos. What was your process for building the community to make this book possible?

Hawa: Luckily for me, when I got into this business, I had already formed a decent sized community. I had my friends who were Ethiopians and Eritreans, I had lived in Cape Town and Kenya. Everywhere I went, I planted seeds, and I had been a part of their lives in a way that when I picked up the phone and was like, “I’m making a cookbook,” they were like, “No doubt! My grandma lives in Yonkers. You should talk to her.” It came together very organically, and I think that really shines through in this book.

Did you feel a weight on you to communicate these womens’ stories in a specific way?

Yeah! Oh my God, even today. These stories are so much bigger than one person. Oftentimes, people only see the glamorous side of it, which is like, “you get to post these stories on Instagram,” and “you get to be in Vogue and talk about them,” but the truth is that it’s too much of a burden for one person to carry. That’s why it would be beneficial if more African people were telling these stories, so that the weight of it isn’t just on one of us. One of us can’t speak for all of Nigeria. One of us can’t speak for all of East Africa. So of course, it’s like: Did I get it right? Is the recipe to their preference? Are the cultural nuances that I’m speaking about something that they would approve of? It’s all very delicate. It’s all heavy.

"The truth is that it’s too much of a burden for one person to carry. That’s why it would be beneficial if more African people were telling these stories, so that the weight of it isn’t just on one of us."

When you started working on this book, did you have a specific audience in mind?

My process is always: build the table and let people come. Everything I make is for an introduction for people in the West, but I was like: I’m going to build this thing and if they want to have it, they can have it, but if they don’t, they don’t have to. I’m going to show up as my best self. If that intrigues you, great. If that is welcoming to you, perfect.

I'm excited for future African food content and more cookbooks to come, but do you ever worry that it’ll be positioned in a way that makes it more of a moment rather than a sustained interest in our foods and our cultures?

I think not. I think the opportunity is too ripe now, and it had to come at a great cost. It had to come at Bon Appétit going down. It had to come at George Floyd being murdered. I think two years ago, it would have been a moment for some young editor at Eater to write about jollof rice, whereas now they’re fully invested in jollof wars. It feels funny when you see it, but it’s like, okay that’s great. The New York Times is interested in the essential cooking of Nigerian Food? Great. I think people are asking themselves, why don’t I know more about African foods?

In Bibi's Kitchen
Canjeero | Khadija M. Farah courtesy of Random House

That makes sense. Do you have any new projects in the pipeline? 

I’m an open book. My biggest interest is doing things that pertain to who I am, so I’m going to use the many different layers of who I am to bring stories to life. The next goal for the next couple of years is to start talking about foodways of people who have experienced civil war.

Is there anything you’d love for people to take away from this book or from your experience?

I pray that if you have a story inside of you, if you have the capacity to bring something to life, if you have room to make for other people, that you do. Especially after this year and what we’ve experienced, that’s my wish for everybody. And for people to root themselves in things that are bigger than them.

"In Bibi's Kitchen" is available now at your favorite retailers.

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Nicole Rufus is a food writer and master's student in Food Studies at NYU. You can find her in her kitchen testing new recipes and playing around with West African ingredients. You can follow her on Instagram @norufus