African Chop

Eclectic Instapot of Flavors

Food is so ingrained into the culture of Cameroon that even the West African country’s name, camarão, means shrimp in Portuguese. Throw in some 250 ethnic groups and the influences of colonization by Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Add the Portuguese explorers who named the country after a crustacean and you get an eclectic Instapot of flavors.Flavors served up in African Chop, as far as I can tell the only sub-Saharan African food truck in Los Angeles, California.

"African food was not represented…”

African Chop is part of what has become a fleet of an estimated 400 food trucks in LA. The culturally diverse meals on wheels include the trailblazing Kogi truck which started selling Korean BBQ tacos back in 2008.

It’s only been just over a year since African Chop started cooking, but Hector Tantoh, one of the owners of the food truck, says they are still culinary pathfinders. "African food was not represented in the food truck space in Los Angeles. We are happy to be one of the pioneers,” says Tantoh.

African Chop’s menu features chicken legs, mackerel, beef and even a vegan dish, The to-go meals are all served with a side of  what’s known as jollof rice (more about that later) and puff puff, a savory version of a beignet. It’s a taste of home for Tantoh.

From Young Street Vendor to Food Truck Owner

He grew up in Doula, the biggest seaport in Cameroon. The city is also the country’s financial center. Tantoh compares his birthplace to New York City. "I grew up around street food and street vendors—people selling puff puff and other food on the street,” he says.

His family even got into the act.

"My mom had us selling food on the street too. The values--the hard work I learned in Cameroon have added to the food truck.” He brought those values to the United States where he earned an MBA before landing in Los Angeles. It’s here where he joined forces with fellow Cameroonian Opportune Akendeu, his African Chop partner. It was easy for the two come up with the name for the truck. Back in their homeland “chop" stands for food.

"Easy" Transition to Food Truck

"I never saw a food truck before coming to the US, but it's easy for me to see how it would catch on. I buy food from street vendors all the time. For me it was an easy transition to sell food on the street,” says Tantoh. He and Akendeu take turns when it comes to running the truck. During my visits Tantoh was in the driver’s seat at spots two regular spots. One is near city hall and the other is in front of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as LACMA.

The customers he welcomes are as varied as the city’s food trucks.That includes Whitney Butler, a transplant from Arkansas. She walked passed food trucks in front of LACMA offering fragrant falafel, bulgogi beef and tempting tacos in order to stand in line at African Chop. She’s a regular who always orders the chicken plate. "Once I moved here I tried all kinds of food and I fell in love with African Chop’s chicken,” Butler says.

Actor Kwesi Boakye needed no introduction to African Chop’s fare. Though he’s American-born, his immigrant family is from Ghana. He is very accustomed to the items on the food truck’s menu. A particular favorite of Boakye is jollof.  The tomato, onion and pepper-flavored rice is a side dish at African Chop. But throughout western and central Africa jollof is smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest cuisine conflicts in all of Africa.

The Best I Have Ever Had

With that knowledge I prod Boayke, with his Ghanian ancestry and all, to reveal his favorite version of the dish."Is African Chop’s jollof the best jollof you have ever had?” I ask not so innocently.Tantoh listens and laughs, knowing where I am going with my line of questioning. "For sure! I’m from Ghana. This is one of the best I have ever had,” he responds. Tantoh continues laughing before I go all in. “So jollof from Cameroon is better than Ghana’s?” I ask. Them’s fighting words. Tantoh continues to laugh as Boakye stammers his response.  He recants his previous tasty testimony.

“I can’t say that. No. No. No,” he says. "This is the closest thing to the jollof in Ghana.  It’s up there, it’s up there.”

“My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…"

Boayke’s largess may be due to the fact that jollof beef is especially piquant between Ghana and Nigeria. To calculate the popularity of jollof all you have to do is search the internets. You’ll find jollof festivals. There’s a podcast called “Jesus and Jollof.” There are multitudes of jollof love songs. My favorite lyric from the jollof jam “Ghana Jollof" is “My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…”

Many of African Chop’s customers, like regular Whitney Butler from Arkansas, don’t have a clue about the origins of the rice that’s served along with every African Chop plate. She did not know anything about jollof until I asked her about it. And I’ll admit that I didn’t have a clue about jollof until doing this story. My family heritage traces to the south eastern nation of Malawi where we like our rice plain and uncontroversial.

Schooling Diners

Tantoh says schooling his diners is part of his charge. "In LA where people are very open to trying new cuisines there is still a challenge. They’ll say ‘What is West African food? Oh, it’s rice.' People don’t understand the variety and how big Africa is. There is so much variety within the continent,” he says.

An Education Process

"And because people haven’t been eating this for long they don’t know about it. But you can ask an American and they will tell you about Thai food and different kinds of nuances of Thai and they have never been to Asia. But they can tell you because they’ve experienced it around them. I think part of what we’re doing is an education process." says Tantoh.

In addition to educating patrons about African food the food truck also serves up a healthy helping of African culture.  African Chop is like a walking, make that rolling, billboard festooned with posters and leaflets advertising events around Los Angeles featuring the African diaspora. It’s all part of the general mission.

An Insertion Point

“This is an insertion point. So this is how you break into the cuisine is through jollof. If you’re curious you want to try more.” The business-minded Tantoh believes an introduction to jollof and other foods from his native Cameroon will stimulate consumer interest in say a sit down African sit-down restaurant.  And even perhaps to the African Chop food products Tantoh and his partner hope to distribute to supermarkets one day.

African Chop’s owners are happy to share their roadmap with other food trucks from the continent. They do not see them as competition.

“…we want more people in the market."

The current market is sparse. As far as I can figure there are fewer than a dozen sub-Saharan African food trucks in the United States.

“Opportune and I help people. If somebody wants to start an African food truck we are going to help them because we want more people in the market,” says Tantoh. Because that’s just how he rolls in his drive to make jollof and puff puff as popular in the US as hot dogs and hamburgers. But I have a feeling he settle on making those dishes or at least as well-known as pad thai.

African Chop Food Truck


Los Angeles, California
408 429 5458

About the author

Lena Nozizwe is and  visual and verbal storyteller. The Emmy-award winning journalist’s book, “Starring in Your Own Life,” was published by Simon and Schuster. Her work and passion has landed her in fabulous eating spots, from Paris to Portland, and from Dakkar to Detroit. Nozizwe loves them all. Keep up with her via her Instagram account.

Sambuxa NYC

I met Chef Gladys at the headquarters of what was described to me by the house staff as “basically, the Grammys of food.” In a beautiful kitchen in the basement of a brownstone building on the lower west side of Manhattan, Gladys Shartou, alongside eight of New York’s most creative and inspired chefs, was preparing one of the six courses for diners at the James Beard Foundation “Odyssey Across Africa” dinner, prepared by African Woman chefs and business owners. As the chef, manager, CEO, COO, and holder of every other position in the company she built and still builds from scratch, Chef Gladys was representing Sambuxa NYC at the table, a catering service (and so much more) serving up a delicious menu of traditional and modern Sudanese dishes. Shartou, born with a skill for the seasonings and an affinity for the flames of the food world, offers a healthy selection of flavors from her homeland at Sambuxa NYC, including the titular sambuxas which I was so lucky to try – but more on that later. Because before Chef Gladys was sought out by the enlightened palates of Manhattan, and before she regularly pitched her tent at the Queens Night Market, she saw the world from the eyes of an immigrant several times over, getting a taste of both ends of the horizon, and in between.


Chef Gladys was born in Khartoum, Sudan’s largest and capital city. She stayed there until she was about 5 years old, and then for the first of many times, left to begin a new life in a new place. She went from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring country Ethiopia, and after a few years to Queens, New York, and then a quiet village in Sweden close to the border of Germany. All throughout her young years, no matter where she was, Shartou grew in the cooking traditions and culture of her Sudanese family. “I started cooking around eight,” she tells me. “Before that I was in charge of preparing salads.” She was always in the kitchen with her family, helping to chop vegetables, but when she was eight years old her father asked her to prepare a whole chicken. “I was like, how do you make chicken? He was shocked that his Sudanese daughter didn’t know how to make chicken. So he showed me how, and that gave me the confidence to help cook real food.”

Outside of the kitchen she also faced new challenges, those of adjusting to her new Swedish surroundings. “They were very conservative when we arrived in the 90’s, the girls had to wear skirts, they had their braids, really Christian. Some of the churches didn’t want people to watch TV.” When her family moved there they were doing well financially in Sudan and in New York, so they were very used to modern living. “They were judging us...they were like ‘oh, you’re from Africa you don’t know anything’ but we were in more developed environments than they were... Even now when I go back, people look, and when I get on the train they’re like ‘who’s this?’”

Stepping in to yet another life as an immigrant in a new country, Shartou left from college in Geneva, Switzerland with a degree in International Relations and moved to Bordeaux, France. and for the first time put on the metaphorical chef hat, cooking Sudanese lunch food to make extra money while in school for International Management. “I put it up [on] a craigslist type page, like ‘hey, try a different kind of lunch.” She hung up the apron when she moved back to the states, working for the Swiss mission to the UN, and then for the Democrats in DC until 2017. “But after the election they let a lot of high level people go, [and] so then I came to New York and I’m like, ‘what’s the next best thing I know? baby-sitting.‘ So I baby sat and I decided to start my business.” And thus, was born Sambuxa NYC in 2018.


Fast forward through countless months of vision, business savvy, non-stop cooking and outright hard work and determination, and Chef Gladys is showing me her peanut chicken skewers sizzling over the blue propane flames beneath the world class dining room that will soon be full of flavor seekers of the highest caliber, embarking on a gastronomical odyssey across Africa. We made our way through the buzz of the kitchen, past Liberian plantain cake and tacos from Benin, out to the patio behind the house, sitting on a long bench opposite a black marble bar to have a chat. I had to know, despite cooking in the cultural smorgasborg of New York City, what challenges Shartou faced serving food from another land. ”You have to educate people about the food, you have to always draw similarities to other cuisines.” When I asked why she chose to start cheffing again in New York, she smiled and confidently told me: “I had nothing to lose, my food is amazing.” She had always dreamed of opening a restaurant and being able to introduce Sudanese food and culture to the world, and her company is “a dream come true.” Her business model as modern and adaptable as her cuisine, Sambuxa NYC is a food entity that caters, sets up at various popups, and takes online meal orders, without the heavy costs of a brick-and-mortar restaurant face. “I do want to open a restaurant some day, just as a sort of home base, but I don’t need that right now.” She mentioned to me that she always felt like New York was home, but when I asked if she considered herself more of a New Yorker or Sudanese, she assured me that she will always be Sudanese. “I am going to back soon... my end goal is to actually [create] a business incubator in Khartoum, to encourage young Sudanese to come in and think about what their talents are and get them some grants, and then start growing our economy.” Far more than just a chef, Shartou is a visionary.


Back in the kitchen, Chef Gladys has two items cooking to be served during the multi-course, multi-chef meal. One, the vegetable sambuxa, I am delighted to be trying; the other, a skewered chicken strip with spices and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, falls outside the margins of my plants-only diet, but please believe my left hand slapped my right away from reaching for the stick end hanging off the grill. And what are the flavors that define Sudanese food? “The first one, specifically, what I learned from my mom is cumin. But we don’t use like two tablespoons, we use a lot, but you would never know the way we cook it down with the onions and everything.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get Chef Gladys to disclose many details on the secrets of her rich food culture, but she assured me there was an abundant use of onions, garlic, and bold spices that other cultures have yet to orchestrate in such a way. My questions fizzle out as she pulls a basket out of the deep fryer and places 4 four vegetable sambuxas on a small white plate and hands it to me, and while I wait anxiously for them to cool I am enlightened to the dish in front of me and its history. Sudan, a place of international trade in the Eastern hemisphere, has seen many cultures come through its gates. The sambuxa is a triangle of fried crust wrapped around a filling of spiced beef or vegetables, similar to the Ethiopian sambusa or the Indian samosa. Sambuxa crusts, however, are made with a rice-based flour akin to that used in some Asian cuisines, and so they have a very light and crispy wrap much like that of a Thai spring roll.


The time has come. The four crispy, golden triangles rest on my plate like crown jewels on a satin pillow, the faint glisten of a thin oil coat, corners and creases expertly folded into the dimension where food and art become indiscernible. I bite in to the first one, and everything Chef Gladys promised came to life on my taste buds. The thin crust collapses easily into light, pastry-like flakes and the filling of potatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers is indeed uniquely flavored in comparison to its cousin dumplings in the eastern cuisines. I could write line after line mounting a futile attempt at what can really only be discovered through experience. In retrospect, I should have taken much more time to truly savor the fruits of Shartou’s craft, but as with all delicious food, my crispy quartet was devoured in short order, and maximum self-discipline was exercised in my effort to leave any sambuxas for the diners upstairs.


Aside from the veggie sambuxas I ate and the grilled chicken skewers, Sambuxa NYC offers a range of #foodanese flavors for everyone, including vegan selections such as veggie and sweet potato-spinach sambuxas, peanut butter eggplant salad and vegetable stews, alongside beef and chicken sambuxas, and as many stews, salads, and wraps as you could want at your event. She may not have a restaurant, but if you’re looking to taste the works of Chef Gladys you can contact her for catering at sambuxa.com or find her at any number of events she serves at around New York, frequently posted on her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter under the same name.

Visit:
Sambuxa NYC

Abyssinian Restaurant

Abyssinian Cuisine

As I walked eagerly over to my destination, I began to feel the chill of the night air as the sun descended behind the clouds. The dusk from the evening sun just lightly illuminating the restaurant’s sign. Ethiopian Eritrean Abyssinian Cuisine. I was prompt to catch the owners of the restaurant at the opening.

While waiting down the pathway leading to the front of Abyssinian Cuisine for its open, I noticed a man mingling in close proximity to where I stood. Cliff, whom I later discovered in conversation worked as a dishwasher for Moses and Sophia Russom’s restaurant. As we both waited, occasionally peering through the front glass windows, for someone to unlock the front door - Cliff to begin his shift and myself to dive in to a serving of Ethiopian cuisine - Cliff noted to me that the owners are usually always on time. I glanced down at my phone to check the time. 5:05 pm. And as I lifted my head, I saw a woman appeared in the door turning over the CLOSED sign to OPEN. Cliff and I entered, Sophia greeting us with a warm smile and welcome as we passed through the doorway. The dining area is cozy with incandescent lamps mirroring either sides of the artfully ornamented walls.

Abyssinian Cuisine

I walked to the end of the restaurant; Abyssinian Cuisine, and took a seat around the bar. Just across from me, Sophia and Moses’ 7-year-old son sat doing his homework. Moments later, Moses came out of the kitchen and placed a menu in front of me. After perusing through the menu for quite some time I settled on an appetizer. Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs mixed with onions, green peppers seasoned with herbs and spices. The entrée arrived on a bed of lettuce sliced tomato, and onion. The meatballs were tender and well-seasoned. The tomato lettuce and onion came together like a salad and were drizzled with a light vinaigrette pepper dressing.

Along with my appetizer, Moses brought out a sample of injera and cooked vegetables for me to try. Injera, is a traditional style Ethiopian flatbread. It is made from sourdough and takes on a spongy-like texture. It is a staple in Eritrean cuisine.
“Some places (In Ethiopia), it is eaten morning, noon, and dinner… once you like it, you crave for it”, says Moses.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

He demonstrated to me the custom way to eat injera. Typically, it is eaten with the hands. A piece is torn off and then used to scoop up the meat or side it is being eaten with. A vast majority of the menu is served with injera, but entrees served with rice are available as well.

As I continued to finish up my appetizer, people began filling in Abyssinian Cuisine. A diverse flow of people came in and out. Although Ethiopian food is not very popular in the Hartford region of Connecticut, Moses says he gets a lot of new customers all the time. While the restaurant itself has been around for over 10 years it just reopened in December of 2018.

Over the last couple years, they experienced some issues with their heating system. Abyssinian Cuisine went two winters with no heat. Just last winter, one of the pipes burst, flooding the restaurant and caused its temporary closing. During this time, Moses shared they lost a lot of customers.

His wife Sofia does a majority restaurant’s cooking along with two other chefs. Their family also helping out when needed. It was his brother-in-law to whom he modeled his restaurant after. His brother in law owns his own pizza restaurant out in California.

After migrating to the U.S., and living in Connecticut for only two years, Moses and Sophia opened their restaurant, in the hopes of introducing the Eritrean culture and food to America. Moses’s family hails from the Tigrigna tribe in Northern Ethiopia (Eritrea). There are 9 different ethnic groups in Eritrea, with 9 different languages. Tigrigna is among the 9 ethnic groups shared Moses to me.

Sprinkled throughout the restaurant, cultural artifacts, sculptures and paintings reflect their homeland and different tribes of Ethiopia. The restaurant’s name, as Moses explained is derived from the ancient name for the northern region of Ethiopia, Abyssinia.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

After finishing my appetizer, I had decided I would return on another day to try a full-sized entrée. On my second visit, I had a comrade of mine accompany me. I came this time on a less busy day.
I ordered the Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, beef and potatoes cooked with vegetable oil, garlic, carrots, onions and green peppers served with injera of course.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

My friend ordered the Doro Wot. Moses says this is favorite dish on the menu. The Doro wot is tender chicken marinated in lemon, sautéed in seasoned butter stewed in red pepper sauce flavored with onions, garlic and ginger root. It is served with Abyssinian homemade cottage cheese, a boiled egg and injera.

As we ate, Moses explained some of what goes into the food. The Doro Wot, uses a special Awaze sauce. There are 16 different spices used in the awaze sauce.

“It’s what gives the flavor of the food”, Moses exclaimed. “Back home, normally at the house, you have somebody who knows how many of what kind of (spices) to combine”.

This spice mixture is actually brought back from Ethiopia and is completely organic. For the awaze sauce to come out just right, one must know exactly what amount of spices to use, otherwise other flavors can become overpowering.

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).
Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert

After our entrées, we finished up with dessert – Baklava. Baklava is a pastry, layered with walnuts and syrup. When it arrived, I sliced my fork in and was surprised to find that it was a rather thick texture almost hardened even. It is very sweet, sure to curb any sugar craving.

Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert.

Whether sweet or savory, there was definitely no lack of zest in Abyssinian Cuisine. For Moses, his dream for the restaurant is to be just that - “To grow…and have the best Eritrean food and flavor.”

Moses Russom, owner of Abyssinian Cuisine Restaurant.

Visit:
Abyssinian Restaurant
533 Farmington Ave, Hartford, CT 06105
(860) 218-2231

Hours:

Monday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Tuesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Wednesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Thursday 5:00 pm – 9:30pm
Friday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Saturday 5:00pm – 10pm
Sunday CLOSED

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

It has a very unassuming exterior. If you were in the area, you may stop at the Starbucks on the opposite side or the Raising Cane’s next to it. Perhaps you would just drive by the huge eyesore that is the Chase drive-through ATM next to it, and never notice its diamond-in-the-rough neighbor – “Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine”. But that is how hidden gems are – hidden in plain sight, humble and inconspicuous.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The first time I walked in, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Outside the restaurant, a few men were sitting on metallic patio furniture having hookah and tea. A traditional samovar sat on their table, along with two glass teacups stuffed with fresh mint leaves to the brim. Walking past them I entered an elongated room with orange walls and modest decoration reminiscent of Persian and Moorish times. A tiny door chime rang my entrance and its sound was quickly replaced loud Arabic music playing on the LCD in the top left corner of this softly lit space. Towards the front, a small alcove displayed some dusty paraphernalia from distant lands unknown behind a wooden hostess stand. At the back, a small refrigerator stood displaying all kinds of soda.

Basic, comfortable and warm – I thought to myself as I took a seat. Two minutes later, the owner Khalid Boujaidi, walked out of the kitchen and greeted me asking what I would like to eat. I asked him to get me his best dish – and I have never looked back ever since.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Like his restaurant, Khalid is a simple man – modest and unpretentious. When you meet him the first time, he seems like a man of few words who lets his food do the talking for him. But become a regular (and for Khalid that is anyone who visits his restaurant more than three times), and you will have earned yourself a friend as well as a gifted chef.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Khalid’s chicken Tagine is now one of my favorite meals, the true definition of comfort, soul food – prepared fresh every day with rich, wholesome ingredients and painstaking attention. His menu is minimal and easy to navigate. To start up an appetite you can order some robust falafel or hummus. If you are in the mood for something light, there are salads and wraps. But for the real taste of his cooking, order one of the entrées with saffron rice and salad. Round off your meal with some special Moroccan tea.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Khalid, rather, I stood in his kitchen as he prepared his masterpiece Tagine, to ask him how he decided to become a chef and ended up as the owner of this little Moroccan gem in the middle of San Antonio, Texas.

‘It’s not been easy. When I came here at first, it was very hard. For the first three months, I just wanted to go back. My wife would keep asking why we moved. I kept questioning my decision, I wondered how I would succeed, what I would do. I don’t like remembering those days too much. It wasn’t easy’. He shakes his head as his hands chop the vegetables almost automatically for the side salad that goes with the Tagine.

Khalid’s kitchen is systematic and functional. He has distinct corners (and stoves) for rice, meat, vegetables, and his tea. This ensures that his service always runs like a well-oiled engine. At any time you will find at least two kettles of his special Moroccan mint tea brewing in the kitchen. There is a large salad bar that doubles up as his chopping and assembling workspace as he lowers a granite slab over it. In one seemingly forgotten corner, there are two mini microwaves stacked atop each other, collecting dust. Khalid admits that they are almost never used since all his food is made fresh, to order.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The outfit opened its doors in 2013 and Khalid has been running the whole show on his own. The one-man front means that his patrons may need to wait a bit longer than usual on busy nights, but as fresh as his food comes out, it is always worth the wait. He takes immense pride in his process and it shows. Many restaurants of this size sometimes fail to run efficiently and get enough business, let alone maintain a stellar sanitation record. Moroccan Cuisine boasts a 98% Health Score from its latest inspection, displayed proudly next to the hostess stand inside the restaurant.

Like many immigrant chefs, Khalid’s cooking is laden with nostalgia and remembrance of his homeland – Casablanca in Morocco – where he grew up. He confesses that when he decided to open up this place, he knew there was nothing else he could name it, it had to carry a piece of Casablanca – where his journey began.

His earliest memory in the kitchen is when he was just 10 years old – the youngest among his siblings – always a keen helper in the kitchen. ‘My mother knew how much I enjoyed cooking and saw that I was good at it, so she would let me help at times. My father was away a lot on business and when he would come back, sometimes I would cook for them. They always enjoyed my food’.

Even though his commitment to the craft continued into young adulthood, Khalid explored many other professions before becoming a full-time chef. In his late teenage years, he ran a business importing and exporting clothing brands into his country from Europe. He even tried his hand at fitness training for a while. During this time he would travel to Europe frequently. That is where the amalgamation of different cultures and the possibilities it held enamored him.

‘But wherever I was, I always loved to cook for myself, somehow I never wanted anyone else to cook for me’. He tells me as he shakes his special in-house dressing for the salad in a steel flask – a mixture of Mediterranean herbs, olive oil, and lime juice.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The salad for his special Tagine was ready. He arranged a small heap on a plain white plate next to him and then in two take away containers as well. Then he scooped a few spoonfuls of his fragrant saffron rice next to the greens. Here he asked me to move closer and smell the delicious aroma of the steaming rice as he plated them: ‘Notice how every grain is separate from the other? This is how you know that your rice is perfectly cooked’ he said proudly.
Khalid made his way from Europe to America in 2005, when he finally moved to San Antonio. This is where he decided to start a new life by zoning in on his lifelong passion – cooking. It started off by taking a few cooking classes and then joining a local French restaurant in the area. French cooking is a big departure from what he makes at his own restaurant but for Khalid, it was important to learn the best techniques in the industry so he could turn his passion into a hard-earned skill. He worked as a line cook and then a chef for nearly a decade at the French place, before finally taking the leap to set up his own restaurant. ‘I knew I had moved here (USA) to build something of my own. To make use of the opportunities available here. I was not going to work under someone forever, even though he was a great boss. That was not why I came to America.’

If on a weekday night, you came into his eatery and found it relatively empty, it will be because Khalid has been packing away his glorious food in take away containers long before you arrived. On a busy day, he can get as many as 30 take away orders. His location in the city’s medical center makes it a popular spot for students and health professionals looking for wholesome food on the go. By night, the restaurant transforms into a tea and hookah café as well for shisha enthusiasts because it is among the few in the area that stays open until 2 am.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

But I was here for the star of the show: the Tagine meat. The Tagine is a clay or ceramic container characteristic of Moroccan cuisine, shaped like a pyramid that is used to cook this style of meat. It helps to trap the steam inside so that the meat becomes amazingly tender and flavorful as it cooks. For me, he plated a juicy, tender piece of chicken on the bed of rice. For the takeaway containers, he approached a second pot and pulled out a scrumptious lamb shank. He finished off the plating with a few drippings of his special white sauce, a blend of sautéed chickpeas and onions, and finally some olives.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

I sat down to eat and everything on this plate complimented everything else perfectly. The saffron rice is creamy and distinctly fluffy. The meat is tender and falls off the bone effortlessly and the fresh salad compliments the richness of the meat and rice.

After the delicious meal, I poured myself a cup of Khalid’s warm and hearty mint tea as I marveled at the care and joy he put in cooking and serving his food. I asked him to share what it was that he liked most about the process of cooking? He glanced into the distance and smiled, shaking his head, ‘It is just that I love it. You cannot explain it. It is like Love, how do you explain Love?’

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Chef Khalid

Visit:
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
7959 Fredericksburg Rd Ste 215
San Antonio, TX 78229
Phone number (210) 549-4031

Author: Qudsia A. Rana - https://medium.com/@qudsia.rana

Merhaba Shawarma Restaurant

Merhaba Shawarma

On the morning of November 14th, 2018, Manna Samuel arrives at Merhaba Shawarma four hours before it opens to begin her day. She readies the restaurant for the shift ahead, preparing for the next twelve hours that she will carry on her shoulders alone. Merhaba Shawarma is quite literally a one-woman show.

This rainy morning, however, is unlike those that have come before. The atmosphere is bright, happy, and full of excitement. On this particular morning, the UN unanimously voted to lift the nine-year-long sanctions that had been imposed on Eritrea, Manna’s home country. A celebration of food, dance, and patriotism lie ahead. But before the festivities begin, Manna commits herself to Merhaba Shawarma as she has for the past six years.

“I came here as a refugee in 1983,” Manna says, and adds, “When refugees were not famous.” Her country, Eritrea, has been an area of conflict from the 1950s until July 2018. When she first came to America she worked in the banking industry, but in 2012 when fear of being laid off came into view, she bought Merhaba Shawarma from the restaurants previous owners and learned to cook Mediterranean food. “[The previous owners] trained us, but never gave us any of their recipes,” Manna admits, “So my friend and I had to come up with our own.”

Merhaba is an Arabic greeting that means “hello.” It’s commonly used in Eritrea. Merhaba Shawarma invites guests into that welcoming circle of a warm-climate culture. Manna explains that some patrons really care about customer service; they want a familiar greeting and genuine care. Others find themselves there for the food alone, “They could care less what you say,” Manna laughs. In her line of work, it’s necessary to read people when they walk through the door, a skill she learned long ago banking.

Merhaba Shawarma is located in what has come to be known as the most diverse square mile in America: Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston became a refugee resettlement area in the 1990s and since that time hundreds of unique cultures have come to call the small town home. It’s a town that does things in a slightly unorthodox fashion, a little messy, and because of that is just a little more refreshing than your average suburban setting. Those who know Clarkston best, know that it is more of a community than a town- people are bound more by their relationships than by their shared zip codes.

Manna’s restaurant is not a large building. It sits on the corner of an intersection in the small downtown area. The parking is sparse, but many customers in the community walk there on foot. Despite serving Mediterranean food, Eritrea is paid homage to with the colors of the restaurant: blue, green, and red like the Eritrean flag. Indoors there are five small, crowded tables, a cooler full of drinks, and a bar behind which spools of meat are roasting. Despite the weather outdoors, Merhaba Shawarma is always warm. The walls are decorated with homemade art, thank you letters, and a sign that reads- “never trust a skinny chef,” while Manna, petite and slender, stands underneath shaving meat. One piece that stands out on the wall is a gift from a local music school. Students and community members painted a map of the world and added different words for “hello” to represent the various cultures of Clarkston.

At Merhaba Shawarma there’s usually a line. It’s customary to order first and Manna will bring the food to you when it’s ready. You eat, enjoy, grab a drink from the cooler, and pay on your way out. Manna recommended the Gyro wrap with Taziki sauce, her personal favorite, which we ordered. She also added that the Chicken Shawarma is the most popular dish. I had the Falafel wrap.

While preparing our food Manna yells out from behind the bar, “Do you want it spicy?” We say yes. Everything Manna makes is delicious. The spicy sauce added to any dish gives it a nice kick, but never too overwhelming. Each bite is filled with meat or, in my case, falafel and a generous amount of veggies, all wrapped in a fluffy grilled pita. These wraps are the comfort food of Clarkston. They’re not too exotic, not too spicy, and not too expensive. The seasoning is fragrant and all dishes are made to order. Walking inside and smelling the spices, warm bread, and roasting meat makes your stomach rumble in anticipation.

Manna Samuel

Not everything sold at Merhaba Shawarma is a wrap; most have a plate equivalent that comes with salad and fries or rice. You can also find plenty of sides ranging from stuffed grape leaves to hummus to baklava. Manna also serves Fuul, an Egyptian stew made of fava beans and perhaps the only dish Eritrea can claim on the menu.

“It’s not the food we make at home,” Manna says when I ask about the menu, but she adds that it’s a good fit for the community of Clarkston. I asked Manna if she would open an Eritrean restaurant if she had the opportunity and quickly she replies, “No.” Others have tried before and struggled to maintain their businesses. Her Mediterranean food is what attracts, in Manna’s words, “the refugee, the immigrant, and the American.” She wouldn’t want to market anything else.

Manna believes the food she serves at Merhaba Shawarma brings all walks of life through the door. The restaurant truly is a community hub. During our time there we saw college students, nurses, business professionals, and locals come through the door. An Eritrean grandmother came just to sit, not eat, with Manna and when Eritrean music started to play the two began dancing in the small kitchen space. College students spoke of their travels around the world. An American businessman came in and greeted Manna warmly, hugging her before ordering.

Merhaba Shawarma
Merhaba Shawarma

There we sat, Manna the refugee, my second-generation American companion, and myself. I asked Manna what she wanted families like each of ours to know and she told me, “Refugees are not monsters. We are hardworking and we have to do what we came here to do: be safe and work hard. It is not easy to establish yourself here as a refugee.” Manna admits she never felt uncomfortable with her position, until two years ago. The change in the American political climate has shifted Manna’s perspective as well. She described that nowadays you never know who will walk through your door- they may feel one way about your food, but have a very different opinion about your right to live in their country. Still, Manna greets everyone with a kind “Merhaba.” You would never know she had any fear.Now, more than ever, it is necessary for conversations with people like Manna Samuel to take place. Food brings people together. It teaches us about our families, our neighbors and the owners of our favorite corner restaurants. Food reminds us that we are not all so different from one another, and as Manna displays at Merhaba Shawarma, it is a gateway to community.

Visit:

Merhaba Shawarma
4188 E Ponce de Leon Ave,
Clarkston, GA 30021, US

About the Author

Laura is a Maine native who now lives in Atlanta. She loves exploring the different the stories food has to tell about culture, family, and life itself. You can find her on Instagram at: @elska