Since I’m not Muslim, I felt a little funny going into the Halal Market on Washington Avenue. Halal describes foods that are prepared according to Muslim law. Would a non-Muslim be welcome in there? What reason would one have to go in? In my case, I was hoping to find some fine bulgur wheat near my office so I wouldn’t have to drive through traffic to the Iraqi store out on Forest. Inside, the place was dark. Shelves were packed with dusty merchandise; some of which I recognized, some I didn’t. The lack of windows made it feel like a cave.
But then the cashier smiled brightly from the back of the store. He was a black man from Uganda. His name was Mubarek. I told him about my quest to learn one dish from every country in the world. Did he, by chance, know of a Ugandan who could teach me a dish? “My sister is a great cook,” he said. “She can teach you. She lives in Boston but she comes up a lot.” He gave me her number. When I called his sister, she responded, “I can teach you. I’ll call when I am in Portland.” Their immediate willingness was shocking.
When she called a couple weeks later, she didn’t even say her name. She just said, “Hello. I am in Portland.” I met her the next morning at the Halal Market. Mubarek was working again. He introduced me to his sister, Zabib, and their other brother, Haroun, who’d also come up from Boston. They were all going to show me how to cook one of their tribe’s favorite meals: choroko (a type of bean), chapati (flatbread), pilau (rice cooked with meat broth, onions, and spices), and catchambarat (a fresh salad of shaved green peppers, red onion, tomatoes, and carrots dressed in lemon juice).
The bandsaw behind the counter at the Halal Market whirred loudly as Mubarek cut frozen, bone-in goat meat into bite-sized pieces for us. Those went in with the rice and gave it great flavor. Haroun introduced me to choroko, tiny little pond-green beans also known as moong or mung beans. In Vietnam the sprouts grown from these beans are used for garnishing a soup called pho. In Thailand, the sprouts are stirred into pad Thai. In Uganda, cooks boil the dried beans in water until they’re soft and then cook them a second time in oil that has already fried onions, carrots, green peppers, and salt. Choroko, prepared as they taught it to me, tastes a lot like smoky refried beans.
At their dad’s house, while Haroun cooked the beans and rice, Zabib made the flatbread. She kneaded flour, water, salt, and oil into a loose, wet dough, covered it, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Then she rolled out the dough, cut it into strips, and rolled each strip into a shape like a miniature cinnamon bun. Then she flattened each of these with a rolling pin into a disc about a quarter-inch thick. She cooked the discs one at a time on a hot, dry pan until they turned light in color with toasty brown spots.