The mood was festive and the fare delicious at the grand opening of Isuken Co-op’s Somali Bantu farm-to-table food truck in Lewiston on September 29. Along with plenty to eat and drink, the event featured a ribbon-cutting ceremony, words of thanks, and prayers led by Imam Haji Mayow Haji.
The first Somali farm-to-table food truck in the nation, the truck serves food made primarily from ingredients grown at three local Somali Bantu cooperative farms: Isuken Co-op Farm, New Roots Cooperative Farm, and Liberation Farm. The farming, cooking, serving, driving, and business tasks are all performed by the six Isuken co-owners, Isnino Ibrahim, Ghali Farrah, Isaack Gawo, Sarura Deqow, Habiba Hussein, and Malyun Negeye. On the menu are sambusas (a delectable East African stuffed fried pastry), soup, stew, salad, injera (a traditional sourdough flatbread), and Somali Chai. There are four varieties of sambusa — fish, chicken, beef, and vegetable or vegan.
“Isuken” means “unity” and “together” in Somali Bantu, and the co-op owners hope that, in addition to being a successful business enterprise, Isuken will play a role in bringing cultures and communities together in Maine. Mohamed Dekow of the Cooperative Development Institute, which has supported the formation and development of the worker-owned business, notes that an interest in food is universal. He says, “People have been asking all kinds of questions about the food — how to make the dough, how to form the sambusas — and this kind of conversation builds relationships, and eventually trust.”
The food truck is the brainchild of Isuken Co-op Farm members, who thought that cooking and selling food would add value to their farming. At first, they considered starting a restaurant. Then, thinking further, they decided on a food truck. They launched a Kickstarter campaign that earned $14,000 toward the purchase and retrofitting of the truck. Now the Isuken food truck is poised to become a staple at gatherings such as farmers’ markets and fairs. The truck has already visited the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market and Lewiston’s Art Fair, and is available for hire at special events, including catering jobs. Bookings can be made through [email protected].
New Roots, the first immigrant-owned farm co-op in Maine, operated a farm stand with regular hours at 966 Sabattus Street in Lewiston during the season, the site where the food truck will be based when it is not out on the road. The farm stand sold beautiful seasonal produce such as squash, carrots, beans, peppers, cabbage, and eggplant for customers to take home after enjoying a tasty treat at the food stand.
The Somali Bantu farming cooperatives are a result of the Community Farming Program of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine. Through the program, farmers are trained and given access to land. Somali Bantu have a rich history of farming and generations of valuable agricultural experience that they bring to their work in Maine. Prior to the civil war that devastated their country and led to their flight from their homeland, the Somali Bantu, an oppressed ethnic minority, lived by farming land. Although conditions are very different in Maine, the farming skills they learned in Somalia have proven transferable to this climate.
Those present at the Grand Opening were delighted by the delicious, fresh taste of the food served by Isuken. Jonah Fertig-Burd, Cooperative Development Specialist with the Cooperative Development Institute — which “helps farmers, fishermen and consumers develop cooperatively structured food businesses,” according to their website — joined others who spoke to the crowd gathered to celebrate the opening. “I am so excited to see Somali food, Somali cuisine, shared by people at festivals and events. We can connect cultures through food!” he said.
One of the co-op owners agreed. “I am so excited!” _____ said in perfect English.