Chef Ahmed Obo is busy. Recently minted a 2022 James Beard semifinalist for best chef in the Southwest, he has seen even more patrons flocking to Jambo Café, which was already experiencing a sort of boom in the waning days of the pandemic. “It’s a lot of attention,” Chef Ahmed says modestly, despite the number of people flowing into the restaurant during what should be the slow time of day between lunch and dinner.
Jambo Imports, the business Chef Ahmed runs in a space semi-adjacent to his restaurant (a women’s clothing store is situated in the retail space between the two), is more bazaar than market. Filled with wood-carved sculptures, djembe drums, handwoven baskets, and Kenyan textiles, the shop allows Chef Ahmed to further support his community back home in Lamu, Kenya, a balancing act familiar to many first-generation immigrants. Not only does the import shop provide artisans from his hometown with an extended customer base, but proceeds also go toward funding the Jambo Kids Foundation, established by Chef Ahmed to help provide quality medical services to those in need back home.
While Jambo Imports operates as a space of its own, its reach extends into the restaurant, occupying a section toward the back end of the dining room. More import goods are for sale, along with the spices Chef Ahmed uses in the dishes on his menu and in The Jambo Café Cookbook, which includes a short history of Lamu Island, the political conflicts that displaced his family from their ancestral village in northeast Kenya to the island, and his path from fishing guide along the Lamu coastline to rising chef in Santa Fe. The book also features recollections of his mother cooking meals that reflected the rich and diverse influences of Swahili culture.
Like all other nonessential businesses, Jambo Imports was shut down during the pandemic, though it’s slowly making its way back as restrictions ease and mandates lift. Business at the import store is picking up at a slower pace than the restaurant, but Chef Ahmed has plans to expand, hoping to extend the space within the restaurant to accommodate more imports, primarily the spices he sells for those who want to explore the flavors and aromas in their own home cooking. “I want to knock down some walls,” Chef Ahmed says contemplatively, with an open hand gesturing toward the opposite end of the restaurant.
In her introduction to 2019’s A Place at the Table: New American Recipes from the Nation’s Top Foreign-Born Chefs, Padma Lakshmi writes about the sense of belonging that ethnic markets provided for her and her mother as immigrants in a new home, along with the opportunity to engage with other immigrant communities. These are the same reasons I gravitate toward ethnic and international markets wherever I live, from local, family-owned grocers to the gleaming Seafood City, H Mart, and 99 Ranch Market chains. These markets fill the space of something that otherwise feels missing, and I find comfort and familiarity in coolers lined with pickled vegetables and jellied drinks, the smells uncommon in traditional American grocery stores, and the sound of something sizzling in a back kitchen.
The only food products Jambo Imports sells are spices and sauces, but it still gives me the feeling of being in an ethnic market. I’m curious about the different spices and consider what other cultures might use them in their cuisines. I’m even more curious about the scotch bonnet and ghost pepper hot sauces, wondering if they’re tangy or sweet, and try to anticipate the feel of their heat according to their place on the Scoville scale. I already have the cookbook—what I’m looking for are spices so I can attempt a few of Chef Ahmed’s recipes at home.
It’s not easy to decide on which recipes to try, but I propose to my family the coconut basmati rice, Lamu-style coconut spinach, green mango coconut chutney, peanut chicken kebobs (with tofu instead of chicken), and a plant-based version of the bison meatballs in a Moroccan spice stew. My partner (a vegetarian) and our daughter are in favor.
In his cookbook, Chef Ahmed writes about combining and balancing the flavors of spices as “encouraging the spices to identify themselves.” I’m unsure how to go about this, but Chef Ahmed sheds some light. “Balance is the secret,” he writes, a phrase that, as in most instances when I’m still uncertain, I pretend to understand, reading over the lists of measured ingredients while trying to forget what Chef Ahmed wrote about cooks along the Swahili coast who “rarely use measuring materials.”
I’ve learned that, except when baking, recipes seem to be more suggestive than concrete, but because this is my first attempt at these, I try to be mindful of the details as I begin to assemble my ingredients. I press, cube, and fry firm tofu. I mince garlic, dice onion, jalapeños, and tomatoes, and eyeball small heaps of curry, ginger, and sweet paprika in the palm of my hand. I mix and shape the storebought plant-based meatballs and bake them in the oven. I simmer the tomatoes and vegetables into a stew and thicken it with arrowroot powder. Once the tofu is fried, I toss the cubes in a peanut mixture with olive oil, allspice, and coriander, and they take the meatballs’ place in the oven while the meatballs are added to the stew. I split a can of coconut cream between pots of rice and spinach, and while everything is cooking through, I wash my knife, some utensils, a stack of ramekins, and the cutting board.
I taste each dish every few minutes to check how the flavors are settling. The curry has bloomed. The stew has a sheen of turmeric gilded across its surface. The kitchen is steamy with the aroma of coconut and paprika. At the table, we give thanks for the opportunity to learn and grow by trying new things, and as we take our first bites, I think about balance and realize I forgot to make the chutney.
Jason Conde is a writer and educator. He lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, with his partner and their daughter.