How this Detroit chef uses halal barbacoa for cultural storytelling

Photo by Gabriel Guzmán. From the left, service team leader Artemis McGettigan, ceramic aquatics technician Bud Steel, kitchen team member Dan Santillana, chef Omar Anani, and kitchen team leader Jonathan Smith enjoying a laugh after the first service rush on April 22, 2022. The team had a Ramadan Ode to Mexico City all-halal iftar menu that evening.

Chef Omar Anani isn’t impressed with the idea of fame.

If he was, he’d still be offering those wildly popular Moroccan-spiced crispy chicken sandwiches that customers went crazy for at the close of 2019. He could take the lead of many of his peers who insist that their place is in the kitchen cooking, not chit-chatting with customers.

Instead, you’ll inevitably find him in his dining room at Saffron De Twah, the award-winning, modern Moroccan restaurant on the city’s east side, giving guests a history lesson on the Lebanese immigrants in 19th century Mexico who brought the shawarma spit to the western world and influenced the taco al pastor or extolling knowledge about how the spice trade influenced culinary traditions across the globe.

In his free time, he might spend hours researching his many cookbooks or YouTube in search of more culinary fun facts, which he’ll use to create a storytelling experience in the form of a new menu that challenges diners to expand their horizons.

Anani sees his restaurant as not just a vessel for delicious meals, but a platform for change — whether it be through telling stories about culture through the lens of food or or in the way that he treats his workforce.

“I think what I look forward to most is creating a sense of community, and showing what hospitality is in a different way than what people are used to,” says Anani. “I feel like our industry is so messed up right now, with chefs who are like, ‘I don’t talk to diners, that’s not my job, my job is to cook,’ but like, how are you telling people about the food? How are you portraying the story?”

Photo by Gabriel Guzmán. Chef Omar Anani chops up cilantro to be used in pico de gallo salsa in his kitchen at Saffron De Twah, the celebrated modern Moroccan restaurant on the city’s east side. Anani and his crew prepared a series of special iftar menus in observance of Ramadan, including an Ode to Mexico City meal on April 22, 2022.
Photo by Gabriel Guzmán. Chef Omar Anani cooking in his kitchen at Saffron De Twah, the celebrated modern Moroccan restaurant on the city’s east side. Anani and his crew prepared a series of special iftar menus in observance of Ramadan, including an Ode to Mexico City meal on April 22, 2022.

That storytelling is precisely what Anani was after on a recent Friday night during Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. Anani, along with a small crew of cooks were ready to reveal a special Mexican-style iftar meal — the meal that takes place to break fast during Ramadan which this year was observed April 2 through May 2. Not only was it a way for him to celebrate his own faith, but a means to explore the shared connections between Muslims and Mexicans.

I stopped by the restaurant just before the menu was to be revealed. He showed me the bag of Maseca flour used to prepare small balls of masa to make a fresh batch of tortillas. Though the food history buff would have liked to try his hand at nixtamalization — the foundational pre-Hispanic method of processing corn to make the dough used for tamales, sopes, gorditas, and of course, tortillas — he recognized that he’d have to forgo the labor-intensive ancient practice in favor of the more convenient method. To keep the masa hydrated and so the tortillas will have a nice, subtle crisp after they’ve heated up on the comal, he added cornstarch to the mix.

That’s not the only compromise that he made for the evening. The handle of his tortilla press had broken, requiring him and his team to make due by pushing extra hard on the contraption with their palms to help flatten the masa. He’d also hoped to be able to take a trip with some friends to Mexico City just weeks prior where he would have been able to witness firsthand the days-long process of making lamb barbacoa, in which the whole animal is dry rubbed in chiles and spices, wrapped in maguey leaves, and cooked low and slow in a fire pit. No thanks to a missing passport, Anani couldn’t make the culinary excursion so instead he did his best to recreate the heirloom recipe by sourcing ingredients at Honey Bee La Colmena in Mexicantown and digging a not quite up to code fire pit where the lamb was cooked.

Photo by Gabriel Guzmán. A platter of lamb barbacoa braised chicken in mojo sauce over a bed of rice, a whole fried snapper fish over rice, accompanied by a variety of salsas, pinto beans, fresh-made corn tortillas, and a non-alcoholic cocktail — all prepared by the crew at Saffron De Twah, a celebrated modern Moroccan restaurant on the east side Detroit. Chef Omar Anani prepared this special Mexican menu as part of his iftar offerings during Ramadan.
Photo by Gabriel Guzmán. Chef Omar Anani standing in front of a mural and behind a spread of Mexican-inspired dishes that he and his crew from Saffron De Twah prepared for a series of special Ramadan menus.

Despite the improvisations, his “Ramadan Ode to Mexico City” menu was a hit for the one-night iftar affair. In addition to the incredibly tender barbacoa and handmade, aromatic corn tortillas, the menu featured whole fried snapper, spiced chicken, beans and rice, a medley of salsas, and a dry bar with refreshing craft mocktails.

“You know, Muslims aren’t just Arabs, they’re (from) all over the world, and so let’s bring people together and break fast together and talk about these things, and how do we make community better,” says Anani, who adds that one of his kitchen team leaders is of Mexican ancestry and would love to one day open his own restaurant where he can inject aspects of his culture into the menu.

The hard work for iftar paid off when a small but steady stream of Muslims and non-Muslims made their way to Saffron to get Anani’s take on a style of food not typically associated with iftar. Some diners arrived before Anani’s menu rolled out promptly at 9 p.m. but were unable to wait to take their first bites of the day. Others bided their time, sipping on tea, patiently waiting to dig into some barbacoa. Carlos Parisi, one of Anani’s would-be travel companions and a native of Mexico City, arrived around 11 p.m. to offer his constructive criticism.

For Anani, the dining event (one of several late-night offerings held this year at the restaurant during Ramadan) wasn’t just his way of flexing his talents in the kitchen. It comes after a two-year hiatus from major gatherings as the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay home and stay safe. Anani opened Saffron De Twah in 2019 to critical acclaim, but almost immediately afterward the pandemic effectively shut down restaurant dining rooms in March 2020 throughout Michigan and much of the rest of the country. The Egyptian American chef closed his restaurant temporarily and later transformed his space into the Saffron Community Kitchen to provide meals to those in need as well as hospital workers, until he felt that it was safe to reopen to the public. 

After two years of uncertainty surrounding COVID, Anani finally had the opportunity during this year’s Islamic holy month to use his beloved restaurant to serve his fellow Muslim community with a proper dining experience for iftar.

He wasn’t alone. Muslims in Metro Detroit increasingly used the month of Ramadan to showcase shared connections through food. Dearborn’s popular Ramadan Suhoor Festival ushered in tens of thousands of revelers of all faiths each weekend during Ramadan to a parking lot at Fairlane Town Center to sample “Lebanese sushi,” halal tacos, and Instagrammable spins on elote.

Meanwhile on social media, the Michigan Halal Spots private Facebook group was created in 2021 and includes nearly 7,000 members of all faiths and backgrounds interested in the latest trends in the local halal food scene.

“We don’t discriminate against any caste or sect, we welcome covert and reverts, we also encourage people of different religions to join the group if they please – we are open to anyone who is interested in being a part of our group and appreciate and care for all our members,” says Zahabia Lakrawala, an administrator for private Facebook group.

The shared appreciation for cross-cultural exchanges is a reflection of how diaspora communities across the country relate to one another. Roy Choi, the famed chef who grew in polyglot Koreatown in Los Angeles, helped popularize the modern food truck in the late aughts with his Kogi Korean tacos. In 2018, in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s much-derided Muslim travel ban, a pair of residents in Orange County, Calif., banded together to organize a series of #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque event that explored the shared foodways (and potential political power) between Muslims and Mexicans in the United States.

Locally, along Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit it’s commonplace to see a traditional halal produce market sharing the same block as a small business that caters to Latino clientele. Meanwhile, the Mexican steakhouse El Asador has sourced its meat from halal suppliers for years, in response to demand from Muslim foodies.

While this restored sense of cultural appreciation was welcomed for many who’ve been itching to resume public gatherings, it hasn’t come without risk. The percent of positive coronavirus tests in Michigan was at 10% over the past week, up from 8% the previous week and COVID-related hospitalizations are again on the rise, according to Bridge Michigan’s most recent case tracker updated on May 2.

Communities of color, including the region’s roughly 250,000 Muslims who reside in southeast Michigan have faced a unique set of challenges related to COVID and it has prevented many from resuming life as “normal.”

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), says the region lacks an adequate number of places of worship for Muslims — there are roughly 80 mosques in southeast Michigan — creating an environment where social distancing is all but impossible. And with many diaspora communities — regardless of religious background — living in intergenerational households, the threat of school-aged children passing along the coronavirus to their vulnerable grandparents, further exacerbates the problem.

Anani understands these challenges. He says he’s taking this slow restoration of normalcy as an opportunity to look at more ways to better his role in the community. During the pandemic, he used his downtime to expand his restaurant to include a heated, enclosed outdoor patio area where diners can easily spread out. Employees are encouraged to stay home if they’re sick, and while he doesn’t check vaccine cards, he counts on guests to avoid eating at the restaurant if they’re not feeling well.

Regardless of how the pandemic continues to shape our lives, Anani wants to lean on his and the community’s hunger for real connection when we’re all too-often segregated in our own little bubbles.

“I would love, love, love to be a part of the southwest (Detroit) Muslim community and talk about how do we create more in that space and how do we bring together that group of people and allow them to shine and show what they do with Mexican cuisine, because that’s important, too,” says Anani.

Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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