Three immigrant women launch new ventures as entrepreneurs and culinary ambassadors of their homelands.
By Caroline Musitu, Nasrin Noori, and Theary Ngeth as told to Naomi Tomky
Caroline Musitu, Nasrin Noori, and Theary Ngeth each run a stall at Spice Bridge, a newly opened food hall run by the Food Innovation Network, a program of nonprofit organization Global to Local, set in the Seattle suburb of Tukwila. Previously, the immigrant and minority food entrepreneurs participating in FIN’s Food Business Incubator catered or sold at farmers markets, but now the hall offers the opportunity to serve their homeland cuisine to a wider audience. Ngeth immigrated to the US from Cambodia via refugee camp in 1985 and runs Theary Cambodian Foods. Musitu arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, and her business is Taste of Congo. Noori came to the US from Afghanistan in 1991 and serves Afghan and fusion food from organic, locally grown ingredients at Jazze’s.
THEARY NGETH: I hated cooking when I was young. My mom cooked, and I didn’t want to help her—she was always mad. Every time she asked me to peel garlic, I’d say nothing, I’d just procrastinate and forget. Then when I helped her, she’d get mad because I’d do it wrong, so I’d be like, “Fine, do it yourself.”
But I loved my mom’s food. All of her food. I just didn’t cook with her because the older generation, they had their ways set, and you can’t come in there and say “Oh, why do you put the fish first? Why can’t you do this, for example?”
“No, no, no, that’s not how my mom did it, that’s not how my grandmother did it, that’s not how I’m going to do it!”
But when my mom passed and I started living on my own, that’s when I started cooking.
NASRIN NOORI: I wanted to be in the kitchen with my dad or whoever was cooking, my stepmom. You didn’t want to peel the garlic and onion, I was willing, I was happy to be given those chores.
But then it backfired because I became so good that I was cooking for everyone in the house. I had half-siblings, and all of them were boys—I was the only girl. In the culture that I come from, unfortunately, it’s the girls that are in the kitchen and cooking.
I would cook for 10 people that were in our family. And here I am, a young girl. That continued, even when we moved into the States, I was in the kitchen a lot. I didn’t like having to be the girl that cooked and cleaned, and my friends used to make fun of me, like, “Cindarelly, Cindarelly,” because they would ask me to come hang out and do normal teenage stuff, and I couldn’t. Even when I was in high school and college, I was juggling school, work, and taking care of the home. I’m the youngest, but I’m the girl—the only girl. There’s a lot of pressure.
CAROLINE MUSITU: I used to cook with my mom back home in Kinshasa. I cooked for family and for weddings, church parties, or friends’ parties. The first thing I learned to cook was cassava leaves—we call it pondu in my language. You have to grind it in a mortar and pestle by hand, then you put eggplant, cilantro, garlic, and onion. And then you put it onto the stove, and it changes color. After that you put palm oil and fish. Fish is optional, but palm oil isn’t. I think I was 10 years old.
Back home I was helping my mom, but I am by myself here. I started with my husband’s niece’s wedding. It was 200 people. It was for two days. Friday, I go and do all the seasoning and marinate, then Saturday morning at 5 a.m., I start cooking. But I cannot take money because it is my husband’s niece, I cannot ask for money. It’s a cultural thing you have to do.
NASRIN: I did those, too. But then it finally clicked to me, I was leaving my children for hours to go do an event. This was precious time.
THEARY: Back in the late 80s, my mom and dad’s friends formed a Cambodian senior center. She cooked at home first, and then took it to the center and served the seniors. We were freshly into the country, and this is how they got together and would keep the culture.
Two years ago, my friend called me and said, “I want you to cook for this new Cambodian senior center I’m forming.”
I said, “No way! I don’t like cooking, too hard work.” He’s like, “Just do it for your mom, remember your mom started this thing without technology, without all these things, and they made it happen. I already have the center, I already talked to them, they say it’s okay to cook Cambodian food, just do it for your mom.” That’s how I got into cooking … without any schooling, without any practice, any training.
Because my mom passed, it’s like every food is part of my memory of her now. When I cook the food, it also brings back the memory of the food for the seniors that were my mom’s friends. Cooking for the center, I realized my hidden passion, that I actually can talk to my food, make my food, and not deal with anyone.
NASRIN: Similar to what Theary says, I used it as a more therapeutic thing. It became like a healing thing for me. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m creating something, and I serve it to people and it lifts up people’s moods. Even if people are upset, I notice in my home, when a beautiful meal is laid out, everyone comes and sits down and they enjoy the meal, and I feel a sense of … like, you have some power. You feel like you’ve done something good. Everyone feels better after they’ve had a good meal.
CAROLINE: In 2015, I started cooking just in my community—they came to me and I did weddings. Then I started at farmers markets in 2018. People at the markets were asking me, “Do you have a restaurant?”
Everybody loves the chicken mayo. Chicken with mayonnaise. It’s small pieces of chicken, with mayonnaise, celery, mix it, put it in the oven for thirty minutes, bring it out, serve it on plantain. That is my best seller here.
NASRIN: Growing up with Afghan food, the fusion part is growing up here. I have a paleo quesadilla on my menu—I eat gluten-free, and quesadillas are my kids’ favorite. It’s definitely inspired by Afghan tradition, but anywhere you go, your food changes. It adopts the culture of where you’re at.
This is just the beginning of what I want to do. I want to expand this and use it as a platform for many different things. I think our cultural food, for everyone here—that’s what makes me feel so good to be a part of this team, is that everyone brings in their own culture and it stems from cooking from scratch. It’s not packaged food, it’s not canned food. Everyone is bringing their passion and not doing shortcuts. For me, I’m investing so much time.
The way I shop for my home, I do the same thing. If I can’t find that particular ingredient, I’m going to multiple places to get that ingredient, to find it. That’s the same way I provide for my kids at home, so it’s not just, “You go to Restaurant Depot and you get everything and you’re done.”
CAROLINE: No, there’s nothing there! All the ingredients I use are mostly the same in Africa as here, but some I get in the African store. Like cloves—you can also find it here, but they’re not like what I need.
THEARY: My thing about Cambodian food is, I’m like, “Don’t eat my food for the luxury of eating food. Eat my food for the healthiness, to nourish.”
The thing with Cambodian food is that it is not known to anyone, unless you have some friend that invites you over. Then you know bits and pieces of Cambodian food. I think Cambodian people are more shy about using that fermented fish as the base for a lot of things. I think that’s the non-confidence part of it too.
NASRIN: I think we all sort of share that, because we’re trying to cater to everyone. We use lots of yogurt with a lot of garlic in it in our dishes. My pulled lamb sandwich—when I made it, my husband is like, “It needs more garlic!” But I’m trying to make it so the general public will accept it, not him or me. They will be turned off by it with too much garlic, that’s the sad part. You are kind of coming away from your authentic ways of preparing dishes for a meal. But you should be mindful of that, keeping it in the back of your mind while staying as close as possible to your cooking traditions.
THEARY: I believe my food is good—you just have to try it the right way. If you try it in the wrong way, you will hate that.
NASRIN: The other thing to keep in mind is you can’t please everyone. Everyone has unique taste buds, and that’s why there’s so much variety. I think we are just doing our best to stay close as possible to our authentic ways.
CAROLINE: Congolese food is just good food. Try it and then tell me. I want to open the first Congolese restaurant here.
THEARY: I want a drive-through, just like the Jack-in-the-Box or McDonald’s of Cambodian food. I do not want any dine-in because I do not want to have to clean up their mess. But I do want customers to have authentic food with their family, where they can have a conversation. Not fast food. The drive-through would have their own kitchen—a drive-through but not processed food. Prepared throughout the day, fresh throughout the day.
NASRIN: That’s what we’re creating. We’re more like the slow food movement, as opposed to the fast-food movement. I want to convey this with love to the clients that come. Don’t expect me to just give it to you in five seconds. Because when you want great food, it’s going to take me a little bit of time to make that.
THEARY: I want to do a food business now, I am so much more passionate about my own culture. It’s not so much about the food. I want to reclaim some of the lost name—a name being used by a neighbor culture that claims it’s theirs, when it’s not.
NASRIN: Food is the biggest expression of most cultures.
THEARY: You come to a Cambodian stall, for example, and I have a curry. That curry, when you eat it, I want you to know that it’s made by a Cambodian chef that grew up in a Cambodian family, and that’s Cambodian curry. I cooked Cambodian curry, which is my mom’s, that gets it from her mom, and her mom. People taste my curry and tell me, “I love Thai curry.” I’m cooking Cambodian curry. “Oh, I love Thai curry.” It’s just automatic, Cambodian is just mashed into Thai, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. I just told you! You know me, I’m a Cambodian chef, I’m cooking a Cambodian dish. Leave me as Cambodian.