Hawa Hassan Makes Pasta Sauce When She Misses Somalia
The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Hawa Hassan is the founder and CEO of Basbaas, the only line of Somali hot sauce sold in America (her flavors include tamarind-date and coconut-cilantro chutney). She’s also a refugee and an activist, and she knows that pasta is the easiest way to feed a crowd.
I was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya. When I was 7, I was sent to Seattle with a family friend and a group of Somali refugees who were leaving Kenya. There was space for a girl on their sponsorship, so I went. At the time, my mom had five children, and I was the eldest daughter.
I got to Seattle with the game plan that my mom and siblings were going to follow behind me. But sponsorships to America became limited, and my family never ended up coming. I moved in with my basketball teammate’s family, who were American.
Seattle is a metropolitan city and it’s ethnically diverse. But over time, I became distant and disconnected from Somali people and my culture. I didn’t have Somali food at all in Seattle. I didn’t have any Somali friends. I went years without speaking to my family.
I later moved to New York City to model. Once I started making my own money, I decided to book a flight to reunite with my mom and siblings, who were then living in Oslo. It had been 15 years since we had seen each other.
It was the week of Thanksgiving in 2008. I was waiting on the curb for my mom to pick me up at the airport, and I waved. She got out of the car and said, “You recognize me! You recognize me!” When we got home, it was like nothing had changed. It was like reuniting with my best friend.
One of the things about being the eldest daughter in a family is that from a very early age you start cooking. You're always in the kitchen — it's the epicenter of your life. So I was always on Mom's hip, and I was her right hand. When I arrived in Norway, we reconnected and caught up about life the same way as always; she'd be cooking one thing, I'd be stirring another. She'd be shouting instructions; I'd be following her. And so after that, I just kept going to Oslo, and I became very close with my family. I felt deeply rooted in my culture once again.
My aha moment was that I had found a group of people that did things just like me. I remember, growing up, I used to always say to myself, Why are you so loud? It was almost like I didn't have an inside voice. But there I was with my siblings, sitting on the floor around a circle together, passing food around — eating everything with bananas, like all Somalis do — and they were screaming. I was like, This is my tribe. These are my people.
And none of the flavors of Somali food felt unfamiliar, even though I hadn’t eaten it in years. Somalia was an Italian state when my mom was born. Mogadishu was an Italian city, so we eat pasta and a lot of fish, but we’re on the Indian ocean, so our flavors are warm and savory — cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, turmeric. Somali food is really a twist of Italian cuisine and Indian sauces.
Our flavors are warm and savory — cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin.
I returned home and decided that, after living in New York and modeling for almost ten years, I didn't like the direction my life was headed in. I packed up my apartment and moved to Norway for four months to spend more time with my family. I started blending basbaas sauce, which is our ketchup. We put it on everything. I told my mom, "I think I'm gonna start a different conversation about what it means to be Somali." No one has to tell me that we're refugees, or there's been a slew of famine going on over the years, or Somalia is in another drought. There has to be a way to have conversations about Somali people in a different light. I thought I could do that through food, and I could start with sauces. That's how my sauce company came to be. I used my mom’s recipes, but tailored them to the American market.
Growing up, when I was in Kenya, I felt like it was a chore to cook and it was a chore to clean. And then, when I moved with the Somalia refugees to Seattle, I was still a little girl who was cooking and cleaning behind people. Once I moved to New York, I would eat out all the time. I would hardly ever cook because, for me, cooking was still associated with doing chores. But after I got into the food business, something just changed. Now I love to cook, and, honestly, it’s the way I say, “I love you.” I invite friends over all the time, and we sit on my floor and we eat together and we talk about our day, week, whatever.
Now I love to cook, and, honestly, it’s the way I say, "I love you."
In the Big Deal, I made sugo, or pasta sauce. It's Italian and so easy and great for groups. Pull together: red onion, green pepper, garlic cloves, olive oil, ground turkey, tomato, tomato paste, and whatever warm seasonings you have in your pantry — it’s usually seasoned with a spice called xawaash, which is just cumin seeds, cardamom seeds, black pepper, and cinnamon bark clothed in turmeric. Combine the olive oil, onions, green pepper, and garlic, and sauté it for a few minutes, and add ground turkey and the warm spices. Cook until the meat is brown, and then add tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir, bring to a simmer, reduce the heat for 30 minutes, and toss in some cilantro and pepper, and serve it over pasta.
Hands down, the most used item in my kitchen is my blender. I'm the queen of blending things. But I loved the Great Jones stockpot because the food didn't stick, and I was just able to keep adding things. It felt like I had so much room. It's also beautiful! I felt like it distributed heat all over, which is important.
Sometimes people associate stew with a lot of work. But this dish of mine is easy and to the point. For years, even before I went back home, whenever I was craving anything Somali, I would just make this pasta sauce. And if I’m craving my mom’s cooking now, this is what I make.