Immigrants from around the globe have long sought safety and opportunity in America’s heartland. They still do—and lucky for us, many are chefs. Here, they share their journeys, plus recipes for a few of the vibrant dishes that are redefining Midwest cuisine.

By Ashlea Halpern
June 08, 2021
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Nina Sodji

Okra African Grill From Togo to Omaha

Nina Sodji
Nina Sodji
| Credit: SYDNEY G . JAMES

If being totally honest, Nina Sodji will say her first impression of America wasn't great. She flew into New York City, which struck her as noisy and overwhelming. Eventually she made it to Omaha, where she remembers thinking, Now this I can do. "There were a lot of cornfields, but it felt more like home," says Sodji, who was born and raised in the bucolic West African country of Togo. "I like the quietness."

Sodji was just 16 years old when a devastating civil war drove her to seek refuge in neighboring Benin, and eventually Nebraska. In 2004, she opened one of Omaha's first African grocery stores, stocking hard-to-find ingredients like calabash nutmeg and cooking West African dishes in a small on-site kitchen. Many of her earliest customers were young African men who'd been sent to the United States for school; they came for the home cooking but also the community.

After shuttering that business, Sodji enrolled in culinary school at Metro Community College. That's where she first realized the foods she loved back home were heavily influenced by those from Latin America, France, Spain, Germany, India and other African countries, a testament in part to Togo's complicated history of colonization. She became determined to use this to her advantage and find a way to introduce Togolese cuisine to a broader audience.

"A lot of people from Africa live in America 20, 30, 50 years and don't know what it's like to have an American friend, or to eat at an American's house-and vice versa," says Sodji. "I wanted to create that trust, familiarity and love."

For her new restaurant, Okra African Grill, Sodji did everything "the American way," from the logo to the social media. She even took cues for its build-your-own-bowl setup from Subway and Chipotle. If customers could choose the core elements in a dish, she reasoned, they might be more daring in what they're willing to try.

Okra opened on March 14, 2020-just days. before the pandemic shut down most of the country. But Sodji is nothing if not determined. She pivoted to a takeout model. Soon after, a local TV anchor ("my savior," Sodji jokes) stopped by for a feature, and the story she aired circulated heavily on Facebook. After the death of George Floyd, the community rallied around Black-owned businesses, making June 2020 Okra's best month yet. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, Sodji is certain she is on the right path. "Cooking is my calling, my ministry," she says. "I am on a mission to build that bridge."

West African Grilled Chicken
West African Grilled Chicken
| Credit: CARSON DOWNING

At Okra African Grill, customers mix and match bowls with proteins, vegetables and sauces. One of Nina Sodji's favorites is grilled chicken in a tomato sauce that's fragrant with onion, garlic and anise seed-a signature seasoning across West Africa. Serve it with rice, bell peppers, fried ripe plantains and fresh hot pepper sauce.

Yia Vang

Union Hmong Kitchen From Thailand to Minneapolis-St. Paul

Yia Vang
Yia Vang
| Credit: SYDNEY G . JAMES

Born in a Thai refugee camp, Yia Vang relocated to St. Paul with his family at the age of 4, joining the largest Hmong diaspora in the U.S. The Hmong are a stateless, nomadic group whose culture and cooking is a mash-up of Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese and Southern Chinese influences. Their population in the Twin Cities tops 80,000, more than double that in any other American city. Food was a cornerstone of any Vang family gathering, with the men grilling meat over a wood fire in the backyard and the women steaming sticky rice and chopping chilies in the kitchen.

After working the line in several restaurants, Vang launched Union Hmong Kitchen as a pop-up, riffing creatively on the food of his youth with a heavy dose of char and heat. His greatest hits included a Hmong hot dish (a nod to Minnesotan casseroles, complete with tater tots on top) and a fiery Hilltribe fried chicken sandwich. Magazines declared him one of the Twin Cities' top chefs, and his following grew so fanatically, nearly 900 supporters backed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a permanent kitchen. When Vang opens Vinai in Northeast Minneapolis this winter, he will join the small nationwide club of brick-and-mortar restaurants devoted to Hmong cuisine. He plans to continue buzzy collaborations with other tastemakers, like the spicy steak rub he makes with Folly Coffee. But fresh ingredients will be sourced from Hmong farmers, who've found a footing in local agriculture, and Vang will continue cooking over an open fire-just like his dad taught him.

While Vang is fiercely proud of his heritage, he's reluctant to serve as a mouthpiece for the wider community. "Hmong food is all about balance, and that's the ideology of our people too," he says." Hmong culture is not about one person; it's about the group working together. Same with our dishes: It's not about the meat, the rice, the vegetables or the hot sauce. It's about how those four elements come together to create this beautiful meal."

Coffee and Spice Grilled Ribeye with Grilled Squash
Coffee and Spice Grilled Ribeye with Grilled Squash
| Credit: Carson Downing

Yia Vang packs heat and flavor onto ribeye steak with a rub of coffee, chili flakes, cumin, coriander and other warm spices (above). Don't trim off fat before grilling, he says: "That's what gives the meat its flavor. As fat drips into the fire, it creates smoke that permeates the steak."

The same way you would salt French fries straight out of the fryer, Vang recommends tossing charred zucchini in his herby, umami-forward vinaigrette the minute it comes off the grill. A blend of cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and honey, the dressing is "stupid-easy to make," he says, "and really versatile too." Try it with Brussels sprouts or root vegetables come fall.

Maria + Juan Vasquez

3 in 1 Restaurant From El Salvador + Texas to Indianapolis

Maria and Juan Vasquez
Maria and Juan Vasquez
| Credit: SYDNEY G . JAMES

It wasn't until a caterer friend raved about Maria Vasquez's homemade pupusas that she and her husband, Juan Vasquez Sr., realized they might have a business on their hands. Born in Texas to Mexican migrant workers, Juan had never tried the thick griddled corn cakes stuffed with fried pork or beans and cheese until he met Maria, whose family ran a pupusería back in El Salvador. "I wasn't 100 percent on board at first," Juan sheepishly admits. "Pupusas resembled pizza with an extra layer on top; I didn't understand them. But when I tried them, they made sense."

The Indianapolis couple started selling to friends and neighbors before branching out to festivals and farmers markets. The learning curve was real."It's been a wonderful struggle trying to make pupusas mainstream," says Juan, explaining that many Hoosiers had never heard of the Central American staple. Doling out free samples, it turned out, was key to getting the company off the ground. "Once you try pupusas-man, forget about it," Juan says. "You're hooked."

The couple opened their first permanent pupusería, 3 in 1 Restaurant, in 2009. They pride themselves on buying locally grown and raised ingredients where they can. One of Juan's proudest moments was when a fourth-generation Indiana hunter and pupusa virgin stopped by because he had heard the eatery used good quality meats. He ordered a little of everything and then summoned Juan over to his table. "I gotta tell you," he said. "This meat is the real deal."

More than a decade later, 3 in 1 has a new location and an even broader clientele-thanks, in part, to the hustle of the couple's adult sons, Adrian, "quasi-vegan" Juan Jr., and most recently, Javier. The brothers help out with social media and by developing creative new menu items, like house-brewed CBD tea and vegan pupusas made with cauliflower or seitan. "We grew up in this restaurant," says Juan Jr. "Now we want to show people that you can enjoy traditional Hispanic food without compromising your health."

Bean and Cheese Pupuas With Red Salsa and Curtido
Bean and Cheese Pupuas With Red Salsa and Curtido
| Credit: Carson Downing

The standard-bearer of Salvadoran food, a pupusa is a flat, pan-fried pocket of corn dough-carby, greasy, glorious. This one's filled with refried beans and mozzarella. Serve topped with curtido (a tangy lime-vinegar slaw) and salsa.

Mawda Altayan

From Syria to St. Louis

Mawda Altayan
Mawda Altayan
| Credit: SYDNEY G . JAMES

Mawda Altayan was 17 when she and her husband, Mohi Alhamowi, were forced to flee Syria. Bombs were falling near the restaurant that Alhamowi ran with his uncle in Damascus; the family lost electricity, water and Internet access. When the couple left for Egypt, they packed only enough clothing for three months. Three years later, they were still there. Alhamowi was working 15 hours a day for peasant wages, and they could hardly afford milk and diapers for their three young children. Though their hearts remained in Syria, an offer of refugee placement in the United States promised a better life.

The family of five landed in Missouri in June 2016. Their first seven months were hard, says Altayan, who spoke no English when she arrived. Eventually a friend tipped her off to Welcome Neighbor STL, a nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees adapt to their new lives in the Midwest. When Executive Director Jessica Bueler first met Altayan, she immediately noticed her entrepreneurial spirit. But it wasn't until Bueler sampled Altayan's home cooking that she saw the potential for a business.

Altayan began catering events through Welcome Neighbor STL; diners raved about her kibbeh (spiced ground meat, stuffed in bulgur wheat and fried as croquettes) and pecan baklava (a Missouri twist on the classic honey-nut pastry). At Bueler's encouragement, Altayan and Alhamowi started their own catering company, Damascus Food. Altayan, in turn, helped Bueler get a food delivery service for the homeless off the ground.

"I love my job because it makes me closer to people," says Altayan, who feared encountering anti-Muslim sentiment when she first emigrated."But when I speak about my story and how I started my life here, Americans begin to feel comfortable. They ask me about my country, and about Syrian food. Then they try my chicken shawarma sandwiches or my tabbouleh, and you can see in their faces that they really love it. " That, for Altayan, is the highest compliment-and a surefire way to win over the neighbors.

Syrian Hummus with Tamarind Juice
Syrian Hummus with Tamarind Juice
| Credit: Carson Downing

Made with the tangy fruit of the tamarind tree and flavored with rosewater, Mawda Altayan's tamarind juice is refreshing and delicately floral (above). In Syria, the drink is a household staple and sold by street vendors. Look for frozen tamarind pulp at Latin, Indian or Middle Eastern groceries.

High-quality tahini (sesame seed paste) is the most important ingredient in Syrian hummus, says Altayan, followed by extra virgin olive oil for finishing. She serves her hummus with vegetables and fresh pita from ChamBakery, the "go-to," she says, for the Arabic community in St. Louis.