Thursday August 2, 2018
It's summer and the sun is
slowly setting over the hilly green space near Fozia Ismail's house in
Bristol. Her husband Andy opens the door as Foz, as she likes to be
called, makes final preparations in the kitchen.
Fourteen people are
arriving tonight to sample Foz's take on Somali food as part of her
monthly supper club "Arawelo Eats." Fozia was born in Kuwait but moved
to the UK whilst she was still young and grew up in London.In some stories she is portrayed as having
castrated men but for Foz it's the fact that she forged her own path
which is important. Fozia studied social anthropology at Cambridge
University and started off working with young people before she became
interested in exploring her roots through food.
name Arawelo Eats comes from stories of an ancient Somali Queen who was
known for female empowerment.
"With the EU
vote, with all this kind of hostile environment, I was just really
wanting to reconnect with my culture through the food."
laughingly admits that her mother was the main cook in her house and
moving to Bristol meant that she missed the Somali food she was used to
eating. So she had to learn to cook it herself.
Connecting through food
mother, Foz explains, grew up as a nomad on the Ethiopia-Somaliland
border. She is illiterate and didn't get the chance of an education. In
the kitchen, cooking with her five brothers and four sisters for the
crowds of visitors who visited over Ramadan and other big festivals, was
where she really connected with her mother through food.
just feeding so many people, so you have bags of onions and you are
just cutting through again again and again and again," to make the
Somali style samosas or sambusa, Foz explains.
Foz thinks that
her mother's intelligence and love was expressed through food despite
the lack of her formal education; she still regrets not having learnt
how to make all the specialties. "I didn't really learn any of the
stuff. I would love to learn Lahoh. Lahoh is the sorghum based pancake,
She [my mother] makes great Lahoh. Certain skills, I think, I still need
to practice. That's why it matters to me, because I feel like she shone
through her food and she really taught us through food.”
is teaching her guests through food. She introduces each dish to the 14
people who have arrived for the supper club and are congregating in the
kitchen accompanied by the sounds of sizzling, chopping and frenetic
As a welcome, Foz stirs big jugs of vodka and lime
cocktails and pours them into glasses graced with a cinnamon stick
twizzled in honey. "This is rocket fuel," she jokes, admitting that most
Somalis, being Muslims, don't tend to drink but this cocktail comes
from Kenya where many Somalis live in the diaspora. The ice breaker
works and the guests start chatting happily in the garden whilst Foz and
her husband prepare the big communal table in their kitchen for the
Uncomfortable about the 'white gaze'
in Cambridge sometimes made Foz feel uncomfortable, as a Somali British
woman who grew up on a council estate in London. In Cambridge she
suddenly found herself in a rarefied world of privilege and a majority
of rich white people.
"I liked the challenge of being there but I
also felt like it is so removed from reality. Because you'd have all
these super rich white kids who were completely thoughtless about the
way they traveled around the world —in a completely entitled way. I felt
very patronized by the whole process of doing social anthropology there
as a Somali woman."
But, she explains, it gave her the tools to
understand the food world; which she is now essentially part of, having
written for The Oxford Symposium of Food - an annual weekend conference
in which members of the academic food world meet to discuss issues in
food studies and food history - and appeared on the BBC Food Program; as
well as hosting supper clubs and cooking for pop-up restaurants. That
trendy food world of supper clubs and the latest interests in world
cuisine also tends to be white dominated says Foz:
"Part of me is
a bit angry about the fact that the links between food, travel and
wealth have not been made. And that actually, it is wealthier white
people that travel abroad and it is wealthier white people who
'discover' new foods. This idea of 'discovering' food as though it never
existed before the white gaze, I really find offensive."
Exploring indigenous Somali culture
food and Somali identity bear the marks of centuries of trade,
colonization and spheres of influence. From pasta, which they call
"Basta," dating from the Italian presence, to trade with India resulting
in samosa style parcels called "sambusa" and middle eastern influences.
Somali food is rich and diverse and shares a lot with its neighbors
across East Africa and the Horn of Africa. But it is indigenous Somali
culture which interests Foz the most. Engaging with her blackness and
her African roots is where she and many other young Somalis are now
"I think there are lots of Somalis who are re-engaging
with their blackness. I have always identified as Black British Somali.
But there are a lot of issues of internalized racism, where some Somali
people don't want to be associated with Africa. They want to be
associated with Arabs and Arabic culture more than the Somali culture.
But I think there is a real fightback against this way of thinking.
There are so many young Somalis who are re-educating themselves about
their own indigenous culture, pre-Islamic."
Forging your own path
she places every dish on the table, Foz explains the background to the
food and gives some insight into how different generations of Somalis
react to these dishes and what they mean to them. And she clarifies that
the exploration of Somali indigenous culture ties in neatly with the
idea of hospitality and the supper club; because inviting people to your
home and cooking for them is also part of being Somali for Foz.
love that aspect of hospitality, which is really important to nomadic
culture. I think all Somalis grow up knowing and caring about
hospitality because you rely on your neighbors and you rely on your
community and you help out when you can because the next year you might
need help when your crops fail. I think that's really important."
guests are all white and middle class at this supper club; they've paid
to come and try something new. But the feeling of hospitality and
exchange runs strongly through the whole evening. It is all about
forging your own path through the food scene, thinks Foz, just like
Arawelo is said to have done all those centuries ago,
"I need to
carve it out for the others. Hopefully the food scene will get more
diverse and there will be a bit more nuance. Hopefully there will be
less white people talking about the best new ethnic foods. Let's talk
about food in a way which is a bit more meaningful and a bit less
consuming of otherness."