by Bunthay Cheam
“Freshly brewed green tea with cardamom that was poured in everyone’s cups while waiting for the call to prayer or the call to break fast — smelling cardamom is always soothing to me,” said Nasrin Noori, the founder and owner of Jazze’s, which serves organic and locally sourced Afghani cuisine, when asked what reminded her of Ramadan back home.
Noori, originally from Kabul, arrived in the Seattle area in the 1990s after having lived in Pakistan for six years. She has stayed ever since, raising her family in Kent where she now lives.
“Fresh seafood … fried fish and a porridge, there are certain items that you break fast with, something heating your tummy … you have it to open [you] up,” said Adama Jammeh, co-founder of Afella Jollof Catering. Jammeh grew up in Bakau, The Gambia, which sits near the confluence of the River Gambie and the Atlantic Ocean on the West African coast.
Jammeh opened Afella Jollof Catering with her sister Oumie Sallah and started off providing free meals to community. The menu features “Senegambian food,” said Jammeh. “Jollof is derived from the word Wolof … Afella means ‘anything that’s good.’ It can be a place; the place is nice, the food is good. So that’s what Afella means.”
Ethnically and religiously, Senegal and The Gambia share many similarities, their borders defined by their colonial history; Senegal was a French colony while The Gambia was once under the control of British Empire.
Jammeh arrived in the U.S. in the 2000s, first landing in Atlanta, Georgia, then making her way to St. Louis, Missouri, before finally coming to the Pacific Northwest to reunite with her sister.
Ramadan, its tradition, and the food provide a connection to their culture and home. This year, Ramadan begins on April 12 and ends on May 12.
For those who fast during the day, Iftar — or the breaking of fast — means a chance to be with family and community from the past and the present. “It’s the culture of bringing people together … because everybody sits on the table, eats together. And that’s where we remember those who were with us during Ramadan [in the past] … that’s the time those memories come back … that’s how it brings us together because we believe that the more we eat together, the closer you get to someone [from the past],” said Jammeh.
“I think that’s the one way that we connect to the Afghan culture and people, is with food … there’s always a bunch of little dishes … first people start breakfast with something small like fruit, and then they get up and go do their prayer, allow that food to kind of digest, [and then] they come and sit down and feast on the actual meal and drink jugs of tea or water to hydrate — that’s how I remember being a child, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Noori.
Noori grew up spending much of her time in the kitchen. “Because I was the only girl in my family, I was immersed in the kitchen quite a bit. And I did a lot of the family cooking and meal preparation. As I got older, I was in charge of all the meals, even when I was in college, and had to program my day in a way so I would be home to cook for my family.”
Both women run their businesses out of Spice Bridge, a food hall featuring everything from Congolese and Ethiopian to Khmer and Filipino cuisine. It sits along a strip of Pacific Highway South dotted with East African businesses and cultural centers just south of SeaTac Airport.
In all, over 11 types of cuisine are featured at Spice Bridge. Part of Food Innovation Network’s (FIN) Food Business Incubator program, Spice Bridge is the program put into practice, its goal to create access for Women of Color, immigrants, and refugees into establishing small businesses. FIN is part of a larger nonprofit, Global to Local.
Located within Tukwila Village, a mixed development that also includes 400 affordable and market-rate apartments, the businesses share a 2,800-square-foot facility including a commercial kitchen with four cook stations and four food retail stalls. The business owners can also use the kitchen for off-site business, such as catering and farmers markets.
Spice Bridge is just one part of Global to Local’s food justice arm. They also operate a farmers market and a community meal program.
“It just kind of fell on my lap, to be honest,” said Noori on how she connected with Spice Bridge.
“I was like, ‘Okay, my youngest son is ready to go to kindergarten. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom. I haven’t held a full-time job or career for about 15 years.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to enter the workforce.’ But I didn’t want to go back to work for anyone, I wanted to start my own business — and just being a mom for that long … you just have this [want] to do things on your own,” said Noori.
Cooking for family since she was young, raising kids, and doing catering in her community gave her all the right expertise and experience in providing delicious Afghani food, but it was the world of small business that was daunting.
“Food Innovation Network just really held your hand and kind of guided you through a lot of the hoops, because it’s really a confusing journey if you don’t have anyone helping you, and it could be intimidating. I’ve looked into the catering business a while back and I looked at the costs and everything, and I didn’t have the funding. That was another big thing. I didn’t have the funding to start the permitting and licensing and all that. So they assisted me with that, and I’m really, really, truly grateful for this amazing opportunity,” said Noori.
Jammeh and her sister honed their skills serving meals to community, and she credits FIN with helping them pivot to establishing an official business. “We’d still be making free food for community … [FIN] made a huge difference because now we have business ideas, we have marketing strategists, we have coaches that we work with, and we have those connections that they connect us with catering services as well.”
One of those connections is Jammeh and her sister offering a Gambian cooking class at PCC in the near future.
On top of providing delicious West African food, Jammeh is grateful to be able to share her culture’s stories. “We bring the Senegambia culture to the area … we like sharing our stories because customers come in and ask, ‘Where are you from?’”
For Ramadan, both Jammeh and Noori plan to spend time with family and will be shortening their days at their respective businesses. Jammeh also plans to donate meals from Afella Jollof Catering to area masjids. “We call it Zakat … back home we take food to the masjids and the needy.”
If you’d like to support the BIPOC women of Spice Bridge, you can find more at FIN’s website.
Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.
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