‘Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go,’ said the late American celebrity chef, writer and TV personality, Anthony Michael Bourdain.
Encapsulating that is food enthusiast Amr El-Sheikh of DAKWA, a food stand serving the best of the Sudanese cuisine at souqs, flea markets, festivals and events in Oman. Since the beginning of 2018, with DAKWA, Amr has embarked on a mission to educate non-Sudanese about the rich Sudanese cuisine by attending international festivals and events and serve drinks such as karkade (hibiscus), tabaldi or gongalez (baobab), abreh or helo mur, and food such as agashi, mulah niamia with aseedah, fool (fava beans) and as well as shai laban with legaimat. Amr also runs an Instagram account @dakwa.official, which has recently gained over 1,000 followers.
500 Words Magazine chats with Amr El-Sheikh about DAKWA and popularising the Sudanese cuisine.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was born in Saudi Arabia. At the age of five, I moved with my family to Turkey for three years. After graduating from the University of Khartoum, I moved to Oman to work full-time as an architect. I have always been a huge food enthusiast. My earliest memory with food belongs to my grandmother when I was three years old, she found me in the backyard of her house with a can where I mixed mud with rough sand and bit of powdered red brick. When she asked what was I doing, I answered, ‘I’m making mulah al harmi‘. That’s ‘thief’s stew’ — my own version of mulah tagaliah.
Growing up I used to watch cooking shows instead of cartoons. My childhood hero wasn’t Batman. It was Chef Osama Elsayed.
What inspired the food stand, DAKWA?
I started the Instagram account back on 8 January. I held my first event on 2 February, which was a Sudanese-themed BBQ on the beach. I got a few jalabiyas and tiab and served agashiand karkade while we jammed to Sudanese music. Seeing the people’s reaction to Sudanese food and culture and their fascination with its uniqueness made feel responsible to share it with more people not just with my close social circles.
Why DAKWA — as the chosen name for your food stand?
Dakwa in the Sudanese Arabic dialect means peanut butter or more precisely, peanut paste. It is very prominent in the Sudanese cuisine as you can find it in salads such as salatat dakwa and salatat aswad (Sudanese baba ganoush); and stews like mulah naimia; and even chilli sauce and sweets like foolia. To top it off, peanuts are referred to as ‘fool Sudani’ in Arabic.
Funny story when I told my mom about this venture, she wasn’t very happy with the name. She said, ‘You couldn’t find any other name but this?’ Because growing up, we were not allowed to say dakwa in our house. My mother wouldn’t allow it. So instead, we used to say ‘fool mashoon‘, which is ground peanuts.
You have an Instagram account for DAKWA (@dakwa.official). Have you thought about expanding to other social media platforms?
I’m not a big social media person. I’m not active on Facebook. I haven’t posted anything on my account in two years. I’ve never understood Twitter. I see myself as a visual person so Instagram was a natural choice. Plus Instagram is popular for businesses like mine so that’s why I chose to start on Instagram. I have a Facebook page for DAKWA but it’s not active at the moment. As the business grows, I’ll expand to other social media platforms to reach a bigger audience.
From your experience attending food festivals and events, what is the most popular food in the Sudanese cuisine especially with non-Sudanese?
Street food is one of my favourite things to eat, so agashi was my first choice due to its unique taste and how fast it can be prepared. It’s a crowd pleaser and a best seller.
Before l decide on which dish to present, I always test it out with my close friends. I’m blessed to have a diverse circle of friends from different backgrounds. I take their feedback as an indicator for what sells and what doesn’t.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from the beautiful array of people from around the globe that we served so far and they all seem to enjoy the Sudanese food. I believe Sudanese food is the next big thing.
How do you decide what to put on display from the Sudanese cuisine at food festivals and events?
What’s good about Sudanese food is it’s very accessible and doesn’t have any exotic ingredients that may scare people off. Most the flavours are familiar. It’s just how it’s brought together to create certain dishes that make it unique yet very familiar.
As you’re currently based in Oman and serving Sudanese cuisine to its community, what similarities did you find between Omani (or other cuisines) and the Sudanese cuisine?
Oman has a long history with east Africa since Zanzibar has been a part of the Omani empire for many centuries. That had its impact on the local cuisine, which has a lot of African influence.
What are your thoughts on the lack of presentation/presence of Sudanese cuisine around the world? Why do you think Sudanese struggle to represent the Sudanese cuisine?
I’m a firm believer that Sudanese food has the potential to be a world-recognised cuisine just like the Ethiopian cuisine. The problem is most of the Sudanese pages on social media platforms are targeted mainly towards a Sudanese audience. You come across a lot of beautiful photos but most of them lack an accompanying description of what’s on display so foreigners gain no further information other than a beautiful picture.
Have you come up with your own recipes or twists to Sudanese dishes?
Most Sudanese recipes are very traditional. I try to take a spin on things and modernise it a little especially to cater to new dietary restrictions whether it being vegetarian or vegan without compromising the flavour of the original recipe. I’m working on developing a vegan agashi to serve at the next market.
What are your goals or future plans with DAKWA?
Currently, I’m planning to start a supper club that offers a private fine-dining experience with Sudanese flavours. In the future, I see DAKWA as a space that serves an immersive Sudanese experience, food, art, events, and products; and a platform that celebrates the talents of Sudan and puts Sudan on the world map.
For more information, follow DAKWA on Instagram @dakwa.official.