Meet the Metal-Scientist-Turned-Singer Writing a Swahili Cookbook
Zanzibar native Mim Suleiman began writing a book of Swahili coastal recipes in 2012. Six years later, it's still not done—she wants it to be something special.
Mim Suleiman is a busy woman, so when I arrive on the street where she lives in Sheffield and realise I’ve been standing at the door of the wrong house for ten minutes, I’m a little nervous about having wasted her time.
A musician originally from Zanzibar, Suleiman moved to the UK as a child in 1988. After graduating from university, she worked as a metal scientist at the University of Birmingham, before abandoning that career to pursue music. Now, she tours festivals and venues around the world with her Swahili-language songs, which combine Zanzibar Taarab (the island genre pioneered by Siti Binti Saad and Bi Kidude) with dub and disco productions from the likes of Maurice Fulton.
When I saw Suleiman perform in London last August, I was struck by her energy and immediately became a fan. Browsing her social media pages in the days after the gig, I discovered that she was working on a Swahili cookbook. I had to know more and got in touch with Suleiman, who invited me to her home in Sheffield to discuss the book and sample some of its recipes.
I wasn’t to worry about my lateness, thankfully. Peering from across the street in a bright pink dress, Suleiman spots the photographer and I hiding from the rain and welcomes us into her house with a warm laugh. Ushering us into the kitchen, she makes tea with goat milk and honey, and explains how the idea for the book came about.
“I was leading music workshops but also cooking for them [the students],” Suleiman says. “At the same time, I was starting to work with people from so many different parts of the world, like Somalia and Iraq, and finding so many similarities in flavours. What I was doing was putting recipes in my workshop books, just as gifts.”
Soon Suleiman’s methodical quality, which she admits belongs to the former scientist in her, kicked in and she began to document the recipes she was cooking for workshop attendees.
“I decided I could work through all the recipes that I knew of—we were just eating and cooking and eating and cooking,” she says. “But it was the storytelling, the research, and the connection to the recipes that was bothering me. It was the authenticity, rather than just grasping the recipes because somebody cooked it. So, I decided on an anecdote recipe book of the Swahili coast as I understand it.”
She adds: “Not to claim it’s an ‘African’ book. It’s not. It’s specific and the stories are all true tales.”
Suleiman began writing the book in 2012, piecing together the recipes from memory, as well as long phone conversations with aunties and cousins in Zanzibar, and trips to the country to further discuss flavours and ingredients.
“People are waiting for it, they know the food and they’re saying, ‘We want the book, we want the recipes!’” Suleiman laughs. “But I want it to be something special for the people around me.”
The recipes are accompanied by stories about her upbringing in Zanzibar.
“I talk about school and the recipes of the street vendors who would come to set up and sell outside and the styles of food,” she explains. “The self-employed businesses would sell a bit here and a bit there. They would come and set up so quickly and sell everything hot, hot.”
I’m desperately hoping for a glimpse of the unfinished book today, but first we must accompany Suleiman to a nearby supermarket to buy ingredients for two of those street vendors’ recipes: cassava chips and badia, a falafel-like snack made with blended pulses.
“When you say ‘badia’ at home, people just go nuts,” she assures me. “It’s one of those where at the end nothing is left. They’re just gone, so every street vendor sells them because you’re guaranteed to sell at least some.”
We jump in a taxi and head to Ozmen International, a world supermarket on Sheffield’s London Road. The warehouse-sized shop bears the slogan “The World in a Trolley,” and I repeat the phrase excitedly.
“Oh don’t do that,” Suleiman warns. “It will be the end of you, you’ll be taking home a full rucksack!”
Inside, she whisks us around the blue-lit aisles with the efficiency of a mother with sweet-toothed children, used to dodging sly additions to the trolley. She helps us pick out woolly cassava, as well as soft bread to dip in her grandmother’s rosti tomato sauce that she plans to make alongside the other snacks.
“Food has always been a big part of how I was brought up,” Suleiman explains in the taxi ride home. “At any festive time or party, food was taking place. It’s almost like I miss it because it was almost like that was the party, and when the food comes out and people are eating it everybody’s exhausted! Because it takes like three days to make and five minutes to devour.”
Back in her kitchen, Suleiman pours us a drink as she recalls those gatherings in Zanzibar. Her grandmother Bibi used to expertly manage the women of the family to produce feasts for Muslim festivals, or her husband’s business dinners.
“If you burnt something, she could just give you this look like, ‘Move out the way.’ She was really really strict on that, like a Gordon Ramsay—worse even.”
Suleiman goes on: “There was kind of a rank in the kitchen. So in my book I’ve called one of the parts, ‘Jobs I hated as a child.’”
Without the help of electric appliances, Suleiman explains, tedious or finicky tasks were left to the youngest girls, who would have rather been outside playing.
“Think of the size of the garlic out there.” she says. “It was like a nail and they stank! They were really strong and burny, and would just stick in the little cuts you’d get.”
After letting me slowly peel the cassava and chop it into finger-sized pieces, Suleiman ferociously shoves them into a blender, laughing at how grateful she would have been as a child for this shortcut.
“It’s funny,” she reflects, “I realised the recipes we used to cook with our grandmother were amazing. Whenever I’ve tasked them anywhere else, I just didn’t get that special something that I knew.”
Now she appreciates the time and patience her grandmother invested in the family’s meals, like spending hours spent supervising marinades and ensuring that as little food as possible was wasted during the cooking process.
“I wouldn’t acknowledge that if I didn’t take on this project, it would just be one of those things you take for granted, and you wouldn’t think about how amazing these people were.”
A few days after meeting Suleiman, I catch up with Dr. Ida Hadjivayanis over the phone. A Swahili language teacher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I’m keen to get her perspective on why there aren’t more Swahili recipe books when, like the Swahili language, the region’s cuisine is such an interesting coming-together of Bantu, Indian, Arabic, and Omani influences; full of spice and fresh ingredients.
“I think this comes down to the fact that we don’t really have a reading culture,” she tells me. “We have a huge history of storytelling along the coast but books are not ingrained as part of our upbringing.”
These days, Hadjivayanis notices, a lot of the Swahili diaspora go online to websites like the mapishi (food) section of Muslim information site Al Hidaaya or YouTube channels like Sheikha Agil’s Swahili Delicacies.
She adds that historically in Zanzibar, the kitchen was the domain of women. Girls usually learned to cook from older relatives in periods like the month of Ramadan when, on the 99-percent Muslim island, most schools on the archipelago would close. Hadjivayanis concludes that aside from Zarina Jafferji’s A Taste of Zanzibar, which is one of the few collections of recipes from the island and bears a Western audience in mind, “even the recipes that do go around take the audience to be quite knowledgeable already.”
Back in Suleiman’s kitchen, and with the minutes hurrying until the photographer and I have to catch our train back to London, Suleiman kindly fetches the laptop where her book is stored. We’re aware of what a privilege this is.
“Literally you’re the first person to read this, usually I hide this and say it’s not ready!” she says.
I have just enough time to scroll hungrily down the page, flicking past tales of “banana circles,” a section on the dangers of eating too much octopus, and memories of preparing coconuts as a young girl, before Suleiman interrupts my reading with our food.
“Food at last,” she says, placing a hot bowl of fried cassava chips coated in chili and salt on the table in front of the photographer and I. She also passes us the deep-fried badia, urging us to break them open and dip the insides into freshly squeezed lime juice and chili. (“That stuff is volcanic!” she cautions.) The final dish is her grandmother’s shallot-sweetened tomato sauce, which we scoop into our mouths with the soft bread from Ozmen.
“I’ve taken years to write this, now people are saying, ‘We’re bored waiting,’” Suleiman laughs as she wraps the badia we haven’t yet managed to eat into warm tin foil parcels for the train. I close down the laptop and she wafts burnt frankincense over the room before helpfully hurrying us out of the door and towards the station.
On the train back, just as Suleiman predicted, there is not a crumb left of the badia by the time we’re ten minutes clear of Sheffield station. Speeding southwards, the photographer and I firmly agree that we too are now eagerly awaiting Suleiman’s cookbook.