By Megy Karydes
Events like Small Business Week help to remind us of the contributions of small business owners throughout the country, including those started by refugees. New American Economy research found that nationwide, refugees earned more than $77 billion in household income and paid almost $21 billion in taxes in 2015 alone. Refugees also have some of the highest entrepreneurship rates in the United States.
To shed a light on the struggles and successes of these refugees who are making the United States their home, New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration non-profit created a new short documentary featuring Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba, a refugee couple from Burundi who are opening an East African restaurant called Baobab Fare in Detroit’s New Center.
The film reveals the challenges they faced after fleeing Burundi and deciding to become entrepreneurs in this country. The film captures their ambitious vision to put their restaurant in the center of Detroit. As the owners of (what will be) one of only a few East African restaurants in Detroit, Nijimbere and Mamba want their restaurant to serve as a symbol of East African culture, and a home for East African cuisine in the hearts and minds of Detroit restaurant goers.
“We both grew up with families who shared a love of food,” says Nijimbere. “I grew up watching my mother cook every day.” During the summer and during school breaks, Nijimbere recalls her mother teaching her and her siblings how to prepare food. She’s grateful that she shared those delicious recipes and her knowledge with them because they’ll be part of the menu this fall.
“The meals that we will offer at Baobab Fare are the dishes we made at home,” explains Nijimbere. “Mamba’s family owned a restaurant back in Burundi called Baobab, named after the legendary African ‘tree of life’, which thrives even in the arid desert.”
The parents of five-year-old twin girls were inspired to start a restaurant in Detroit so they could introduce East African cuisine to a city that is predominantly African-American and more familiar with West African food.
Nijimbere doesn’t want their restaurant to be just a place to eat, though. She’s hoping to make it more of an experience and to introduce guests to their culture, too. “Besides offering an array of prepared menu items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we will also host a juice bar and market offering groceries, juices and other retail products from East Africa,” she adds.
Still, East African fare is their specialty and the food they’ll be offering will feature the flavors and spices one would expect from East Africa.
How does that differ from West African cuisine? “The cuisine of East Africa is spicier and more vegetable-based than that found in West Africa,” Nijimbere explains. Beans are the most common protein of choice in Burundi, according to Nijimbere, who plans to feature a rotating menu of seasonal vegetarian-friendly and Halal dishes. “Some of our specialties are beef stew, chicken mustard with onions, spinach with peanuts, yellow beans, rice pilao, coconut rice, and plantains,” she adds.
Many of the same dishes she and her husband will be offering at their new restaurant are the ones she cooks for her kids since it’s important to her that she pass her Burundi culture and history to her children. “I cook for them the same foods I grew up eating, including ugali, chicken, beef, fish, plantains, beans, spinach, rice, and potatoes with green beans.”
She’s especially known for her spinach and peanut recipe, which she adapted from her mother’s recipe by adding peanuts. For those who want to try it, it will be on the Baobab Fare menu come fall.