SUDANESE COMFORT FOOD Ekhlas Ahmed's gheema, a meat-and-potatoes feast
Headed to the home of Ekhlas Ahmed for a Sudanese cooking lesson, I felt the thrill of heading into the unknown. We’d only met once, briefly, at the Marriot Sable Oaks conference center where I’d watched her and the rest of the Pihcintu Multicultural Children’s Chorus sing harmony and dance with joy. Many of the girls in the Pihcintu chorus are refugees from the world’s most dangerous countries. After the show, I asked the first chorus member I saw if she would teach me how to cook her favorite food from home. Ekhlas Ahmed, a beautiful 22-year-old from Khartoum, Republic of Sudan, said with a wide smile, “Yes. Sure.”
When I arrived at her condo in Portland’s East End, she had already peeled and cut six potatoes into half-inch cubes and deep-fried them on medium heat, making essentially a bowl of cubed French fries. It was hard not to snack on them. She says that before I came, her brother kept coming in and eating them so she had to keep making more.
A metal mortar and pestle, which she calls a foondook, rings out repetitively as she muddles garlic, salt, pepper, and fresh cilantro. In a large pan she sautés the garlic mash in oil and then adds some tomato paste. “It gives the oil a nice color right from the beginning,” she says. “You want to make sure your food is red.” She stirs in ground beef. Once it’s browned, she adds water until the meat is almost all the way covered. “You don’t want to eat something dry. The water makes it come together.” Into the pan go lemon pepper, bouillon cube, and salt. Once most of the water has cooked off and the meat looks juicy and moist, she adds two piri piri chili peppers, more fresh chopped cilantro, and a mound of cooked corn, peas, and carrot cubes. After about five more minutes stirring on medium heat, she gently folds in the fried potatoes and then transfers the mixture to a serving platter, garnishing the dish with green stems of cilantro.
This Sudanese dish, called gheema, is at once surprising and familiar, a kind of inside-out shepherd’s pie with the zing of chili pepper. You can taste each component individually — fried potatoes, ground beef, vegetables — but they combine into a unified flavor.
When she’s not cooking, Ekhlas is earning her bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Southern Maine, working at the West End Inn, translating for the city of Portland, or helping her parents sell clothes at their new international clothing store on St. John Street across from Save-A-Lot. (There’s no sign outside yet, but they’re open.) While Ekhlas is upbeat and friendly in social situations, she is deeply saddened by the ongoing genocide in Darfur, where, she says, “Part of our family is dying. Houses are burning down.” It is a great challenge navigating feelings of helplessness about her homeland and feelings of promise being here in what she calls, “the land of opportunity.” Here in Maine, she says, “I have found a voice. In Sudan, women and girls don’t have a voice. If they have something to say, they are afraid to say it. Here, I have a voice people will listen to.”
I look forward to hearing more from Ekhlas Ahmed, including her life story, called The Bridge Between, which she began writing at Casco Bay High School and continues working on to this day.
Visit immigrantkitchens.com for the recipe, how-to-photos, and live cooking class info.