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Desert Companion

How to Eat a City

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Nara Hayes
Portraits by Christopher Smith

Nara Hayes

Beyond the valley’s restaurant scene, you can taste the real Las Vegas — a city of many vibrant cultures — in the dishes, ingredients, and traditions of its home cooks

NARA

“I’m sure they’ll have rice there,” I tell my 14-year-old vegan, Lucy.

We’re driving to a friend’s house to eat Mongolian food. I’m confident Lucy will be able to eat something at this dinner. I am so confident I don’t even bother to pack the little just-in-case containers of nuts, fruit, and crackers that tide her over.

In this city of restaurants, we’re on a journey into home kitchens. We’re visiting home cooks, tasting their food, eating at their tables. Each time I eat and cook with someone in their home, I go with expectations of what it will be like. Each time, I am wrong.

Today, at Nara and Corey’s house, I will be wrong again. Twice, in fact.

The kitchen is a place that yields all kinds of surprises and information about the people who cook there. It’s an excavation site. An anthropological dig. The rituals of cooking help with these discoveries about people — folks can talk about something uncomfortable or intimate while they chop vegetables or brown chunks of beef or stir a pot of greens. Working with their hands takes the pressure off, as does sitting around a table of dumplings and salad, focusing on the gamey, earthy smell of the soup after you add the goat jerky. It’s a beautiful diversion that makes way for intimate conversation. People feel freer to share the story they rarely tell, the side of themselves that stays hidden when they are more self-conscious. 

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The process makes people naked. It makes me naked, too.

Hayes mealsNara and Corey live in Summerlin, and we live Downtown. Four days a week, we watch our daughters do contortion in the middle, in Chinatown. Ayana, their 10-year-old, and Edie, our 13-year-old, became fast friends while learning to do pretzelly positions with their bums touching their heads. Ayana is Mongolian on Nara’s side, African-American on Corey’s. Contortion is the reason some 200 Mongolians live in Vegas. They come here to work in shows like Cirque’s and Zumanity. They all seem to know each other. They are all connected to circus in some way.

Nara is in the kitchen with her Korean friends Haley and Sonny. They are comparing Korean and Mongolian food. They converse in Korean — Nara speaks four languages fluently — and she’s putting perfectly formed dumplings full of spiced meat into a steamer basket while translating for me.

“We don’t have sauces in Mongolia,” Nara tells me as Haley puts down a small dish of soy sauce, vinegar, and chilies for dipping the dumplings.

“Koreans have many sauces,” Haley adds.

“Sauces are too dainty for Mongolians, too fussy for the way we eat,” Nara says, and then makes a gesture as if she is ripping apart a turkey leg with her teeth, Henry VIII-style, and laughing. “We do not dip. We Mongolians attack our food.”

You might think you’ve had Mongolian food, but you probably haven’t. “Mongolian Barbecue” is neither Mongolian (it’s Taiwanese) nor barbecue. It’s more of a stir-fry joint that uses Chinese-style sauces.

Not only is there no rice in Mongolian food — my first incorrect assumption — there are no chopsticks. Forks and spoons are optional. Eating with fingers is customary. Sometimes there is a knife to carve meat from the bone, then your fingers do the rest. Communal eating is the norm, bowls passed from one person to the next. And it’s a vegetable-light culture — sorry, vegans — with only a smattering of root vegetables served with meat. Think potatoes, carrots, and beets. Things that can be stored in dug-out cold cellars under yurts on the steppe. Meats and fat keep humans alive in cold temps. Nomads, always moving, setting up and tearing down, need high-energy foods to keep going.

“Well, we didn’t move all the time.” Her father died when she was 10, leaving eight kids and her mother to run the farm. “We moved in the summer closer to the river. To get more grass for our cows. I worked on the farm and gave all my money, from odd jobs for other people, to my mother for school uniforms and books.”

They had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, and goats, but it was her cows that featured most prominently in Nara’s life.

“Sometimes the cows are still sleeping and we don’t want them to pee in certain places in the barn because the pee will freeze and make ice and it smells, so I have to get up in there with my hands and massage their bladders and make them pee before milking,” she tells us with a full-throated laugh, using her hands to describe the process. “My life was crazy!”

She is beautiful, with high cheekbones, exuberant and fun-loving but also grounded. She’s a woman who has been through it, traveled the world, hustled hard. But she is also quiet, a very Mongolian trait.

“In Mongolia, you don’t talk to people you don’t know,” she says. “Here, people yell out at each other. ‘Hey! How are you? What’s happening?’ You never do that in Mongolia.”

There is something relentless about Nara, like if she gets a hankering for something, she’ll just barrel forward and make it happen, God help you small specks who get in her way. This might be personal. Or cultural. Or both. There must be some kind of steppe-ingrained toughness that pushes little Mongolian girls, as young as 3, to practice contortion six hours a day in special schools. Edie and Ayana’s coach, Zula Ulambayar, who worked as a contortionist in , tells stories about having to hold handstands on top of blocks of needles.

Then Nara’s mom Skypes in from the chicken farm in Mongolia.

“‘The Chicken Farm’ is the actual address where Nara’s mom lives,” Corey tells my husband, David. “If you want to send something to her, you just write ‘The Chicken Farm’ on the envelope, and it will get to her!”

Corey, an ex-military intelligence officer, is the kind of full-hearted, gregarious guy whom you imagine gets into conversations with people in elevators and while waiting for coffee. He is a great storyteller, and he clearly relishes his fish-out-of-water experiences with his wife’s family.

Before I know it, I’m also face-to-face with a beautifully wrinkled, round-faced woman who has no idea who I am, and I am completely unable to talk to her, but still, I relish this connection. Dinner will wait for a bit. Nara introduces me, and the beautifully wrinkled woman on the chicken farm in Mongolia waves to me and smiles.

 

MESSERET

MesseretI am making shiro wat without telling her. I want it to be a surprise. I want to please her and maybe prove myself to her.

My friend Messeret and I are going to host an Ethiopian dinner party at my home, the food of her childhood and her heart, for about 20 friends. Some mine, some hers, some ours. She will make most of the dishes. But I’m inspired by our market trips together, and without telling her, I go back. Secretly. I go to Selam Market on Decatur, where we watched the butcher cut mounds of ruby red meat for the kitfo.

I pick up a bunch of spices and flours with no idea what I’m going to make. I explore the aisles, folding things into my arms, propping the little containers and bigger bags under my chin, carrying them like I’m a contestant on Master Chef, frantically grabbing ingredients for the competition.

Messeret says Goolit Market on Flamingo has the best injera, the bread Ethiopians use to scoop and eat their food. But I grab it at Selam — it’s a busy day — forgetting everything Messeret has told me and assuming all injera is more or less equal.

Rookie mistake.

Back at home, I begin Googling. Celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson has a shiro wat recipe, but I worry it will be too “cheffy.” Epicurious offers a recipe for a “quick” shiro wat, but I’m not using a short-cut recipe for this dish. It’s too important. I go with the very earnest YouTube video of an unknown-to-me Ethiopian chef.

I lop onions into sputtering oil in a cast-iron pot. I watch them get soft and oily and limp. I chop and dice roma tomatoes. I add a rain of salt. The house smells like Naples or Santorini or Cebu in the Philippines. Sautéed onions and garlic belong to everyone.

Then I add the berbere. Berbere is the taste of Ethiopia, and its neighbor Eritrea. It’s a blend of smoky chili peppers, and any combination of garlic, ginger, bishop seeds, fenugreek, basil, rue, carom seeds, nigella seeds, fennel flower, and, sometimes, radhuni, a celery-tasting spice used in Bengali cuisine. Every incarnation of berbere is different.

The berbere hits the oil, and the smell of it is all around me. Hot and sweet, peppery and toasty. It changes everything — the berbere makes me a tourist in my own kitchen.

I let the tomatoes cook down into liquid, stirring and watching. My face is right up in the pot, inhaling it all. In another bowl, I add water to the chickpea flour, stir it until it is saucy, and pour it into the pot. I stir. I watch. I cover the pan. I come back to it. I watch. I add more water. I scrape it all from the pot and put out some scraps of injera.

Edie, my 13-year-old, is not so sure, but Lucy takes the soft bread and scoops out the shiro wat. We watch her. Her eyes get wide. A smile. She takes more bread and more shiro wat. Then all the kids dig in, even 3-year-old Desi. She mashes up the injera in her fist to test its sponginess. It’s, like, the best thing we’ve eaten in ages.

Eventually, I make them stop, and I hide the stew and the injera in the fridge.

“This is for the party,” I say. But it’s mostly for Messeret. To honor her and show my love. The next day, Messeret arrives early to prep for the party. I take out the shiro wat. I hold it out to her. It’s an offering. She is surprised and smiles. She is pleased.

She rips a piece of the injera, dips it into the stew.

I wait.

“Meh, it’s okay,” she says.

“OMG!” I completely crack up.

MesseretMesseret, petite and maternal, is truly the most encouraging, least critical, least confrontational person I know. Yet today she has completely dismissed me with a “meh.”

I hug her. I’m still laughing and now so is she.

“I’m sorry,” she says, hugging me back. “I do not use tomatoes in my shiro wat. And you need to cook the flour longer, for an hour at least.”

I tell her about the Ethiopian YouTube chef and his roma tomatoes, and the “quick” recipes on the internet. “Well, that’s ridiculous,” she scoffs, waving the internet away with her hand. “There is no quick Ethiopian food.” She is so pointed and her arm movements so stern and dismissive that we both start laughing again.

Cooking the food of her home transforms her. Messeret and I have known each other for years, but somehow the cooking and the tasting break open a new portal in our friendship. A deeper way of knowing each other. From this day forward, we have this little joke — the one about the time Messeret insulted my shiro wat.

We work elbow to elbow, simmering, sautéing, chopping. She has her braids wrapped in a shash, a head scarf that will keep the smell of the spices out of her hair. She is wearing a brightly colored dress from her homeland. She brings a beaded necklace of red, green, and yellow for Desi to wear at the dinner. I fry the lentil sambusas because Messeret doesn’t like to fry. She puts out aluminum foil pans of azifa, a lentil salad with tomatoes, onions, spices, and a mustard vinaigrette; and doro wat, a long-simmering chicken stew with boiled eggs; the lentil-based dishes kik wot and messer wot; a finely chopped chili pepper-infused collard-green dish called gomen;  and the traditional tekil gomen, with turmeric-spiced potatoes, cabbage, and carrots.

She brings her favorite injera made in her favorite shop. She shows me how soft, spongy, and moist it is.

Injera is the most important part of the meal,” she says. “You cannot have inferior bread.”

 

ROCIO

Rocio PalaciosI would step over your dead body in the street to get to this stuff,” an administrator at my kids’ school says as I hand her a plastic container of Rocio’s ceviche. I am picking up Edie and Luna, Rocio’s daughter, from school for Luna’s 13th birthday party. Rocio is home, prepping, and the teachers score some advance tubs of her local-famous, highly sought-after ceviche.

Luna’s 13th birthday party will bring about 40 people to a Henderson backyard. Luna and my daughter, Edie, from whom I seem to acquire most of my friends, are best friends at their school, along with a third girl named Lucy. These girls brought our families together over school fundraisers, musical theater rehearsals, and history projects.

Rocio’s ceviche is simple. It’s not that loose, fragile ceviche intermittently studded with a pebble of fancy-pants fish and served in soup spoons over bowls of ice. Imagine a giant white Tupperware bowl of it, in the middle of the table, loaded — and I mean loaded — with shrimp, roma tomatoes, slivers of onions, heaps of cilantro, lots of lime, salt, a good slathering of Tapatio, and, here’s the clincher, ketchup.

When folks think of ceviche, they might think broadly of a raw dish, fish dressed with an acid, like lime juice, that “cooks” the fish. But in Mexico and across Latin America ceviche gets specific. How you make yours (or your tamale or mole, for that matter) is about place. Not what country or state or region, but your town or village, and what your parents and grandparents made. It is that micro.

“This is how we make ceviche in Leon, my village in Guanajuato,” Rocio tells me.

At Luna’s birthday party, the backyard is filling up. Elefante’s “Mentirosa” blasts from a speaker sitting in a window. Kids kick a soccer ball across desert dirt. Teenagers huddle over iPhones. Older folks chat at tables and share shots of Sauza. Sometimes they send us over a shot or two in clear plastic cups. It is a warm, sweet desert evening in May, long before the heat will come to the Mojave. The sky explodes with hot pink, orange, and purple streamers, the sun dips behind the mountains. It’s nearly magical.

Nora, a family friend, brings a gargantuan seven-layer chocolate cake with thick, stiff cream between the slabs, berries crowning the top and lightly dusted with sugar. It’s gorgeous. I’m sure Rocio hired this lady.

“Can I have a cake like that at my birthday?” Edie asks me. “With just that many layers?” I cringe because I don’t have the chops for it. Mine would be some Leaning Tower of Pisa monstrosity.

“Can I hire you to make this cake?” I ask Nora when I see her in the house.

“I do it for friends and family only,” she says. “I’m not a baker.”

Home cooks are like this. We cook. We bake. We don’t always acknowledge our own skills. We know we aren’t chefs. We aren’t caterers with hot boxes and chafing dishes. No one pays us. Our labor is often invisible. But when tasked with cooking for our cousin’s graduation party, we can pull together a kick-ass spread for 100 on a four-burner electric stove from the 1980s without a second thought.

Rocio is no different.

While she shreds the boiled chicken for the tinga, Margarita, her sister-in-law, supervises the beans and rice. Rocio and Margarita have cooked for many parties in this tiny kitchen. Margarita lets me taste the beans. They are creamy, so soft, almost like mashed potatoes, and the heat is there, but, man, so restrained and in the background, the texture almost ameliorating the force of the chili. “Not everyone likes a lot of chili in their beans,” she says. “I want everyone to eat it.”

Rocio PalaciosIt’s a beautiful pot of beans.

Rocio makes the sauce for the chicken tinga. She tells me what she is putting in the blender, stock from cooking the chicken, soft parboiled tomatoes, and onions. She realizes she is forgetting something — the chipotles — laughs at herself, and takes out a little of the sauce and blends it again with the chilies.

No drama. This is the mark of a good cook, I think, knowing how to taste and fix your mistakes. Knowing the food so well you can add a little of this, a little of that to get the flavor you want. No panic. Just knowing the work of your hands and getting down to it.

Rocio is tall and elegant, her clothes perfectly pressed. Her hair is curled into a slight pageboy. Neat. She is the most together person I know. She lives in a modest home in Henderson, with Luna and her older sister, Venezia, Margarita and Rocio’s brother, Antonio, and their two kids, Antonio and Summer. To say they are tight-knit would be an understatement. They are each other’s support. Always there for each other.

 Venezia and Antonio come home from high school starving and attack a platter of supermarket sushi. I am only a family friend, but they come kiss my cheek. This is not a house where you feel the kids have floated into North American culture and lost something of their Mexican heritage. They speak Spanish. They respect older folks. They cook and eat Mexican food. They observe the traditions of their families here and in Mexico.

“I’m going to marry a Mexican man,” Luna tells me one day.

She is quiet and beautiful. She seems like she might be shy when you first meet her, but Luna is not afraid to tell a slightly cheeky middle-school joke, or giggle at one. But she listens to Luis Miguel and her favorite song is the very traditional “Cielito Lindo,” and she has all these very specific and elaborate ideas for her quinceañera — definitely a live mariachi band.

This is an American house, firmly rooted in Mexico.

 

SUMMER

Summer Thomad

“Yeah, so you’re not actually allowed to fast while menstruating.” I’m texting with Summer Thomad, a week before she hosts her Iftar, a fast-breaking dinner during Ramadan. “All of my Muslim girlfriends and I, are always hoping that we sync up so we can go to lunch together during Ramadan, LOL.”

It’s such a mischievous work-around that I can’t help but laugh.

“I won’t write about that,” I text back.

“I don’t mind …”  she writes. “I’m personally not that shy about periods.”

That is the voice of a newly minted 21-year-old. A journalism major at UNLV. A young woman who is not afraid to talk openly about things that people might have kept to themselves a generation ago.

On the evening of the Iftar dinner, I’m with my friend Drew Cohen, from The Writer’s Block bookstore. Summer has invited us early to see what she is making. I bring a pan of vegan sheik el-mehisi. The dish, translated as “the lord of all stuffed vegetables,” is truly the damned queen mother of all the stuffed-vegetable dishes. Chinese eggplants, stripped of their skins and fried in oil until they are slick, golden, and soft, hollowed out and filled with couscous, charred zucchini, and roasted cherry tomatoes. Then, those little boats sit in a bath of thick tomato sauce, pumped with allspice and cinnamon, all of it doused with toasted pine nuts for crunch.

You see, I came with expectations again. I think Summer will make a dinner that clings close to her Iraqi and Lebanese roots. She does. But she also doesn’t. Summer has been fasting all day. She wears a hijab, and when she is nervous she straightens it at the forehead and then the neck.

“I don’t feel like a grownup yet,” she confesses, lopping small chunks of marinated halal beef into a pan of spurting oil. She is carefully making sure each of the chunks are evenly browned and seared.

Drew is impressed. “I would just dump the whole bag of beef into the pan,” he admits.

It’s an hour from showtime. The kitchen is spotless, dishes are done. She is dressed and gorgeous, not a spatter mark or stain on her. The fatoush is prepped in neat bowls on the counter and the dressing is made. This is her first time cooking for an adult dinner party.

This feels remarkable to me. An hour before one of my dinner parties looks like all the crazy. I’m deep-frying, sautéing, pots are steaming, things are smoking, doors and windows are thrown open to accommodate high-heat cooking, the floor is covered by vegetable peels, kids are crying and arguing, one of them is definitely starving and asking me to make some last-minute ramen, the sink is crammed with pots, and pieces of paper are taped to shelves over my work board with last-minute directions.

I thrive on the pressure. It’s Kim vs. the dinner party.

Summer is not that way. It’s damned impressive to see this woman be so composed this young.

She assigns Drew to assemble the fatoush. Fatoush is a mixed-herb and toasted-bread salad that breaks the fast in countries such as Lebanon and Syria. As with ceviches, there are as many fatoush preparations as there are countries and cooks and villages. Some are just herbs. Some have lettuce. Some cooks soak their bread before putting it in the salad, others (like Summer) prefer toasted pita to add crunch. Her fatoush has little precisely cut cubes of cucumber, radishes, red onions, spring onions, parsley, mint, basil. It is festive and colorful. It has a beautiful balance, with its abundance of herbs. Summer’s dressing is simple, red-wine vinegar and sumac.

She lets Drew and me smell the sumac, a rush of earthy tang and tartness. I’ve cooked with it before, but, like Messeret’s berbere, it’s not a go-to spice for me. There’s no childhood memory, no cultural point of reference. Sumac works like lemon, making food taste like itself, only brighter. I remind myself to use it more.

Summer doesn’t make Lebanese food often. “It takes a long time,” she says, which is exactly what Messeret says about Ethiopian cooking. Nara, too, complains about how long it takes to make her Mongolian food.

“We make a lot of Asian and Japanese,” Summer explains, “because we are students, and it comes together easily.” She shows us a bulging folder of recipes from Giada, their fave, and the Food Network. “We watch a lot of food television,” she says, laughing. The folder is a monster. Thick as a New York phone book.

I notice she uses soy sauce in some of the dishes. And not just any soy sauce, but light and dark, each in different ways. This isn’t a novice move. Light soy sauce is thinner and saltier. More for flavor. Dark is thicker and is used to give dishes that rich sauciness and a deep caramel color.

Summer Thomad

As a kid growing up in Vegas, with a huge Chinatown, she knows soy sauce and cilantro as well as she knows sumac and dates. This dinner will be the same — what she gives us is uniquely her, a mix of Arab and American and youthful-on-the-run, mixed with origins of TV and social media. It’s not one thing, it’s everything.

None of the other cooks in this piece grew up with celebrity chefs and YouTube cooks. They might not even care who Giada is. Their cooking is practical, for family. But Summer is a child of media. She adapts and moves and creates her own experience on the plate that resembles her global worldview. In her kitchen, she is not looking back. Not yet. Up until three years ago, there was a memory keeper in the kitchen, cooking for her, for her brother Yusuf, her sister Jinan, and her father, Mohammed. Someone who looked back for her. Her name was Amne. She was Summer’s mother. But now she is gone.

 

NARA

Nara is taking something out of the freezer. It’s white, the size of a large toaster or a good-sized picnic ham. It’s sheep fat.

I am completely envious.

Nara tells me that in Mongolia they don’t cut the fat cap off their meat. Fat is an important health component for living a rural, nomadic life. I silently vow to get myself a big ol’ hunk of sheep fat for my freezer.

Nara is serving the men first, as is customary, setting out delicate plates of potato salad, with peas and chunks of meat, a cold beet salad, and a multicolored shredded carrot and cabbage salad, some light food to counter the heaviness of the buuz, a dry dumpling filled with warm, spiced meat.

David notes how Russian it all looks. He has spent some time in Russia and Siberia.

“Yes!” Nara says. She is carrying bowls of banshtai tsai, homemade, meat-filled dumplings. They’re cooked in tea and milk, and made even fattier and creamier by the addition of a shaved chunk of sheep’s fat and a handful of goat jerky. She serves the dumplings submerged in fatty, gamey, milky broth. “We are called ‘Asian,’ but we are more connected to Russia than China. Beijing is cool, but Russia feels more like my home.”

At the table, Corey is telling David about horse meat. “I was just startled! Nara’s family brings it in their suitcases when they visit.”

Messeret mentions it, too, about family bringing in goat, and doro wat, cooked and frozen in Ziploc bags, melted shut with candle wax. 

“You know, it looks like regular meat, like what we eat here, normal!” Corey is telling David. “I was worried, but, man, it’s pretty good!”

Nara notices Lucy isn’t eating the buuz, the dry dumplings filled with meat, and Lucy explains that she’s vegan. I’m mortified and implore Lucy, under my breath, to eat more of the pine nuts she has been shelling from a bag on the island.

This is where I make my second mistake. I underestimate the fierceness of Mongolian hospitality. Taking care of people, feeding them in hard times, is a cultural mandate. It’s how they survive on the steppe. It is the mortar of their communities.

Nara quickly assembles a beautiful salad for Lucy. She does it effortlessly and in a way that makes Lucy feel special. Everyone is going to be cared for at this table, including my vegan kid.

“We had a small TV,” Nara tells us as she settles into a chair next to me. “And I saw Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video on MTV.” This was a revelation for her. Until then, she had only seen Russian and Mongolian people. She had never seen a black man before, and this was a sign that there was a whole world outside of Mongolia.

When Nara was 25, she started selling clothing on the famous Trans-Siberian Express train, buying in China and selling in Russia. She left her oldest son with her mother. She made enough money to come to the U.S. and send for her son. She met Corey while waitressing at Benihana. Two kids later — Ayana and a son, Cameron — she has the life she saw on a small screen in her yurt on the chicken farm.

We are leaving now, and we aren’t getting out of the house without parting gifts. This is also the Mongolian way. Corey hands us a fifth of Mongolian vodka, and Nara makes David take a box of milk curds, to his utter delight. The whole family walks us out to the car through the garage, a very Vegas thing to do, and as they disappear back inside, the garage door closing, we wave and promise to do this more, at our house next time. I can’t help but be happy for Nara. She has her foreign guy, her kids all together, her desert life. But, she tells me, “I still dream of cows.”

 

MESSERET

The party is one part social event, one part primer on Ethiopian food.

Messeret is a teacher by day, a natural speaker and guide. She shows the guests how to form the injera around a bite of food, popping it neatly into her mouth. Lucy and Edie’s lifelong best friends, Nakamae and Nabrakissa, are Ivorian, and they teach the kids how to eat with their hands. The girls are proud to share this with their friends.

Then Messeret tells them about the tradition of gursha — feeding your guests with your own hands. “In Ethiopia, you feed people with your hands many times during the meal,” she tells us. “It doesn’t happen just once.”

Feeding someone, putting food in their mouths with your own fingers, is as intimate as it gets. An old Amharic wisdom goes, “Gursha, like love, comes with a bit of discomfort.” Try feeding someone you know only a little — it is vulnerable and uncomfortable, beautiful and exposing.

Messeret gathers the partygoers at the prep tables stocked with portable burners, knives, and ingredients, and guides them in making two quick-cooking dishes. Some get to making the tibs, chunks of beef sautéed in niter kebbeh, a spiced butter, with onions, garlic, ginger, a good amount of berbere, salt, and a squeeze of lemon for brightness.

Others are making kitfo, Ethiopia’s answer to steak tartare: supple ropes of raw beef, mixed with mitmita, a spice mixture loaded with chilies, with a lot more heat than berbere. They pour warm, melted niter kebbeh over the meat, so that it puddles in the dish, then a rain of salt and finely chopped jalapeños. Messeret has them scoop mounds of handmade soft farm cheese next to the meat.

A consensus emerges that kitfo is one of the best things we’ve ever tasted. And before you know it, Messeret is whipping up another serving. 

The guests are eaters, for sure. I notice the bowl of shiro wat is empty. I replace it with my shiro wat from the fridge, knowing it isn’t as good. And we run out of injera, so I go to the fridge and take out the injera I bought. Our guests eat it all, not knowing it isn’t quite as good as it should be. They are novices, too. I take a bit of the bread and taste the difference. Definitely not as soft and spongy. I get it now. I’m learning.

We are digging into the kitfo, a group of us. I can’t stop eating it. We want more heat set up against that meat, more soft, broken cheese curds. We want chilies and fenugreek. We want to put fenugreek in everything. We are mad about it.

Messeret is pleased that we love it so much, but for her it’s not exceptional at all. It’s just her food. She has made it thousands of times in kitchens here and in Africa. She tastes the newest batch of kitfo, adds more niter kebbeh, and tastes again. She stirs. She tastes. She smiles. It is as she remembers.

I ask if she needs me to make the next batch. I can do this for her. Easily. I’ve been a good student.

“No, thank you,” she smiles. “I’ll do it. I want it to be right.”

 

SUMMER

She is carefully browning the meat for her mother’s beef stroganoff when we start talking about her. “This is my first time cooking for a group,” she tells us. “My mother did it all the time.”

Amne Thomad died in December 2015 after a five-year-battle with liver cancer. She was good at concealing her pain. “We were kids,” Summer says, “and we weren’t tuned in.”

She is focused on the meat, taking some out, putting new pieces in, positioning and turning them with tongs. Although I want to see her in this moment as an equal, a writer I admire in her own right, her discomfort and sadness brings out the mother in me. The more we talk about Amne the more I feel a connection to her, as well, mom to mom, as if she were with us there in the kitchen again.

“She was selfless,” Summer tells us. She is having a hard time explaining it all. “My girlfriend, Lily, was sick when I was a kid,” she says. She shows me a text Lily sent her after Amne died, telling her about Amne’s secret trips to visit her in the hospital.

“When I was sick, she provided kousa,” Lily writes of her favorite food. “She sat with me while everyone thought I’d pass away, and she’d tell me that Allah loved me. … She called me habibti.”

“That means ‘my love’ in Arabic,” Summer tells us.

She adjusts her hijab, first at the forehead and again at the neck.

I have tears now. I’m watching this woman make the dish her mother made for her family many times, knowing that I get to see something her mother will not see — her spectacular daughter making this spectacular dinner, and that she is able to be so calm and confident because she watched her mother, and learned from her, even when the child in her wasn’t looking at all.

She takes out the final pieces of beef with a slotted spoon. We cannot stay sad for long. Amne’s stroganoff needs dollops of thick cream, sautéed mushrooms, and long-caramelized onions. And the doorbell is ringing, and, like life, the dinner party goes on. Drew and I watch Summer put the stroganoff together. The juices of the meat, marinated in garlic, oil, and light and dark soy sauce, make swirls inside the heavy cream, and we crowd around Summer, dying to dig in. But it’s not ready yet, and she is a patient cook, so she puts it in the oven to broil so the top is crunchy and crusty.

Summer gives her guests the tour of her food, laid out across the kitchen island. We eat thick, chewy, sweet dates to break the fast with her. There is fatoush with little pieces of toasted pita on the side; a vegan roasted red-pepper soup; Amne’s stroganoff; my mehshi; and dolma, better known as stuffed grape leaves, which are the best stuffed grape leaves of my life. Jinan rolls rice, mint, parsley, dill, and spring onions into grape leaves, and cooks the little packages in tomato sauce. It is the first time eating stuffed grape leaves that I really taste the mint. I become simply mad for these things and eat, like, 10. A bunch of us don’t even want to sit at a table, we just want to chat standing at the kitchen island, around the food, as if we are guarding it.

The stroganoff over pasta is everything you want it to be — creamy, beefy, earthy with mushrooms, sweet with caramelized onions. Soft in the middle, crunchy on top. Amne is everywhere in this kitchen and in this dish. It is exactly the food that you make for your children so they feel a deep, deep comfort. It is no surprise it is the dish they asked her to make over and over. That makes them remember her now. It’s all warm, loving comfort. And when I think of her, and I do now, this is how I imagine Amne.

 

ROCIO

On the long table, Rocio sets out a huge bowl of ceviche, along with chicken tinga served on crunchy tostadas with shredded lettuce. There’s rice and beans, bowls of salad. And cueritos, pickled pork rinds that taste more like pickles than pig, chopped up and served in a salad of onions, tomatoes, cilantro, Tapatio, lime, oil, and salt. Rocio’s cousin is coming to the party and he is expecting her to make this dish. It is his favorite.

This food is as good as anything I’ve eaten at any Mexican restaurant. And made better by freezing-cold cans of Tecate and someone cranking up some old-school “Suavamente” later in the evening and women getting up to dance under strings of twinkling lights on the patio.

All of this makes me think of something Frank Johnson, a Las Vegas poet, said at Summer’s dinner party: “What we make is who we are.”

This means something when I think about Vegas, a city known for things that are only its window dressing. If you want to see the real Vegas, there are ways to do that — and eating with friends, tasting their food, cooking with them, is my way. Vegas, to me, is the sum of our vast constellation of kitchens and cooks. We are a community of makers and eaters, rooted in our first homes and pumping that experience into the culture of our city.

If Las Vegas is a great food city, it is largely because of them.

While I’m writing this piece, some friends get together to make lau lau, a traditional Hawaiian dish. They fill and knot taro leaves around fatty pork and chunks of salted butterfish, and while the little packages steam, they talk about island life, and the sound of the ocean lapping the sand at night.

And there is the time I meet Valai Phomvongsa, an elderly Thai woman shopping at SF market on Spring Mountain Road, my hands-down favorite Chinatown market. She shows me how to choose the perfect papaya for her green papaya salad, and then, right there, in the fruit aisle, tells me her family recipe, the one she has been making for 60 years.

There’s Nakamae and Nabrakissa Sylla, my daughter’s best friends, who make echeke with their Ivorian father, and they teach me to make the shredded cassava, the crispy-fried fish, and the gravy, made from sautéed onions, peppers, tomatoes, and touches of curry. The girls eat it with their hands. And now, so do we.

 

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