Cooking in Nashville since 2001
When Khadra Yusur came to the United States as a refugee in her early 20s, a search for the foods she grew up eating helped her find a place to put new roots.
Resettled by the government first to Richmond, Virginia, she had never experienced snow; she didn’t have the English skills she has today; and she needed to learn to drive for the first time on foreign streets. She also had to travel an hour or more to find the halal butchery (meats prepared according to Islamic law) and ingredients that were important to her diet.
But after a visit to Nashville in 1991, where friends had been resettled directly, she found an environment that was less diverse than it is today but where she could feel more at home.
“I came here and see that my friends lived on Murfreesboro Road, and I said ‘Wow. You just have to take this road to get to the downtown? Interesting. And then all the halal stores all on that road?”
The increased access to food had her feeling more at home in a small but significant way.
“When we moved at the time, there wasn’t a Somali restaurant or store, but we could at least find biryani and garam masala at the Indian and international market at the farmers’ market. There were a couple [markets] on Nolensville Road.”
“And the mosque,” she adds. “When I moved here there wasn’t a Somali mosque. They used to have a house they rented to pray, and it’s located in East Nashville at the pizza place, Pizza Real. That was the mosque. Then the community collected money and found another place of worship.”
She passes on her culture to her two children through the foods that she cooks. Her “dirty pages” dish for Sukhaar, for example, is traditional in homes and Somali restaurants, which we do have in Nashville now.
“I’ve seen my mom cooking, grandmom cooking, or aunties. It’s usually the females who cook. But I change that. My husband, God rest his soul, was different and was willing to help his wife and cook, like my father. I say ‘I don’t like chopping onion. You chop, and I’ll chop the tomato.’”
She also learned to make potatoes and cream and other Russian dishes from her father, a Somali man who attended medical school in Russia for seven years.
On a recent trip to Somalia, Khadra learned for the first time about her father’s inspiration to become a doctor. When he was in high school, he witnessed his older sister hemorrhaging during pregnancy. He rushed her to the government hospital where they had to wait for a long time. “He decided something is wrong with the system and needed to do something. He saw a need to change. He got a full scholarship actually,” she says.
When Khadra came to the United States, she couldn’t yet enroll in college courses in Virginia, and she was turned away initially at Tennessee State University. But, she enrolled in Nashville State and took ESL classes as a way to continue to grow and learn.
Meanwhile, she volunteered at a center for the Somali community (it eventually became the Center for Refugees and Immigrants). After receiving her degree, she became involved in outreach and nutritional classes for new Nashvillians. She now has a master’s degree in public health.
Just like the Sukhaar or the Russian creamed potato, Khadra passes along cooking skills and traditions just as she passes along a resilience and drive to make a good life.
“He passed it to me,” she says of her father, “and now I pass it to my kids.”