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Mother Africa

Seasoned Traveler: Mariam's Restaurant


Published August 25, 2010 at 6:46 a.m.

  • Alice Levitt

It’s 3:30 p.m. and a handful of townies are hanging out in the bar at Mariam’s Restaurant in Windsor, having drinks and discussing proper tractor care. One customer excitedly describes how he once smoked a doobie with Johnny Winter.

It’s a common enough scene at a Vermont watering hole, with one major exception: Instead of beer nuts and potato skins, the working dudes are munching on Tanzanian sambusas and curry.

On December 1, 2009, Ibrahim Mahem and his now-wife, Jennifer, opened Mariam’s Restaurant — named for Mahem’s mother, Mariam Rupia. Rupia, now deceased, was once a prominent citizen of Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam: Wealthy from the diamond industry, she owned several restaurants. One was named for her son, who, across the world in Vermont, would return the favor to his mother.

Now both in their early thirties, the Mahems had long wanted to open a restaurant. They’d also identified a missing link in the Vermont food scene: homestyle African fare. When a restaurant-ready space opened up in Windsor, near their home in Bradford, the couple jumped at the chance.

Of course, the area’s lack of African food may be at least partially attributed to its lack of Africans. Ibrahim Mahem is fairly certain he’s the only Tanzanian in town. Still, says Jennifer, many of Mariam’s customers have traveled to Africa. When Seven Days visits the restaurant, a fellow diner reports that she returned from a safari vacation in Tanzania less than a week before. Many other customers are native Africans who are students at nearby Dartmouth College, or doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Ibrahim says.

Mahem left his native land when he was 13. At the time, he was being raised primarily by his paternal grandmother in the largely rural Iringa region of the southeast African country. She and his mother decided he would find more opportunity in the U.S., so Ibrahim and a cousin were sent off to live with his maternal grandmother and extended family in Boston.

Contrary to what his mother expected, Mahem says, he found school too easy when he first arrived in Massachusetts. He describes his Tanzanian education as more structured and competitive than what he found at his American school. His fancy manners and dress made him a target for teasing, as well, though he says it rolled off his back since he wasn’t yet fluent in English. At home, he continued to speak his native languages of Swahili and Mhehe, one of more than a hundred dialects spoken in Tanzania. Today, Mahem has an excellent English vocabulary. Just a slight melodic lilt betrays his origin outside America.

Mahem’s bibi, or grandmother, Hadijah Rupia, had a booming catering business in Beantown — one so well known through word of mouth that it bore no name. Mahem wagers that she catered 90 percent of all African parties held in the city. “It’s just one of those things,” he says. “In Boston, everyone knows us.”

The ease of his schoolwork left Mahem plenty of time to apprentice as a cook under his grandmother. The classic recipes that he prepares at Mariam’s are his bibi’s, but she also taught her grandson to be creative in the kitchen. Mahem says his inventions begin with daydreams of unconventional spice combinations, evidenced in dishes such as his sweet-and-sour haddock and lemon chicken stirfry. Rosewater is a favorite in Mahem’s kitchen — he says he uses a bit of the floral essence in nearly everything he cooks.

Mahem’s cousin introduced him to Jennifer Gagne’ in 2000. The pair began dating and, before long, Mahem was sufficiently committed to the blonde New Hampshire native to relocate to Vermont to be close to her parents and sister. Two years ago, the couple began a catering business of their own called Mahem Entertainment.

The couple serve both Tanzanian and American dishes to their diverse catering clientele. Either way, no entrée costs more than $15. For weddings, Jennifer and her mother, Penny, and sister, Tanya, band together to make ornate, multitiered cakes.

Mahem is now a fan of American food. Alongside his African menu items, he offers a cross-section of favorite foods from his adopted home, such as spaghetti with homemade meatballs, and barbecue beef tips.

But, popular demand is for more African fare instead. “Everyone wants more different options of African,” says Jennifer. Mahem is also working on adding more vegetarian and vegan dishes.

One recent addition has proven particularly popular: “We are the only place in Windsor where you can get goat,” says Mahem with a laugh. In fact, demand for the stew is so high that he says it always sells out within hours of preparation.

Though goat meat is rarely eaten in the U.S., Mahem says it’s a special-occasion favorite in his homeland. It’s easy to taste why: Imagine lamb, but more flavorful, less gamey and divinely tender. Mahem’s curry arrives in a mildly spiced brown sauce. Its coriander-heavy flavor brings to mind the South African cured meat known as biltong.

Few customers make a stop at Mariam’s without ordering a sambusa or two. Though they share a name and continent of origin with Samosaman’s sambusas, the fried pies at Mariam’s have little in common with that farmers-market staple, which is a Congolese take on the dish. Here, the crust resembles thin, flaky phyllo. The standard Tanzanian filling is lightly curried ground beef with fresh-tasting onions and peppers.

However, diners at Mariam’s favor Mahem’s chicken-and-spinach version. With just a hint of cheese, the sambusa is delicious on its own, but it becomes something greater than its parts when dipped in tamarind or coconut-yogurt-mint sauce. The latter has a unique flavor one can imagine being frozen into an ice cream as well as enhancing a samosa.

Many of Mahem’s dishes feature chicken, which he says is a luxury meat in Tanzania: “When people are cooking it, they make sure that you smell it.” The meaty nuggets he cooks with mangoes in his curry kuku are moist and tender, with just enough spice to leave a burn that’s lulled by the tangy, fruity sauce. The stew is best eaten not with utensils but with crêpe-like chapati bread or ugali — basically Tanzanian polenta — which is molded in the hand into an edible spoon. Ugali isn’t on the menu, but Mahem is happy to make it — and provides finger bowls to prevent diners’ hands from getting a cornmeal crust.

Jennifer Mahem gives her plating the same ladylike touch as her cakes. The already colorful food gets additional pizzazz from kachumbari, an East African slaw of cabbage and onions that is Day-Glo purple and cuts the creamy, spicy food with a bright vinegar flavor. Slices of mango cured in hot pepper also adorn the plates. The fruit is an addictive mix of juicy and sweet, tangy and spicy.

Besides being the restaurant’s only server (her parents help out in a pinch), Jennifer has her own station in the kitchen, where she prepares delicate salads and desserts. There’s homemade cheesecake and other pastries, but she recommends apple sambusas, on which she drizzles chocolate and caramel sauces.

Locals are eating it all up, surrounded by artwork featuring lions, elephants and Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president. When the bar in the back is full, there are still plenty of tables in the two clean and airy dining rooms at the front of the restaurant. South African wines have been gaining popularity at the bar, and Mahem enjoys educating guests about the native music he plays.

Watching his customers enjoying sambusas and watching a car chase on the TV news, Mahem shakes his head. “This is new to them, and we are new to this,” he says. “The locals are helping us a lot. They come here whenever they can.”