Part 2: The Food.
Last month, we told the stories of the talented artists, crafters and dancers of Salt Lake City’s 33rd Annual Living Traditions Festival (happening this month May 18-20 at Library Square). This month, we take a spoon to the vanilla-looking exterior of Utah’s food culture and dig through to the flavorful, rich and diverse culinary heritage represented each May. These varied food cultures (and the stories that accompany them) indeed represent what makes Utah, as a hub for refugee relocation, a delicious place to call home.
In four the short years of her presence at Living Traditions, West Valley City’s Mama Africa Grill proprietor Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, the woman called Mama Africa, became known for her Mama Africa Pili Pili hot sauce, beignets and goat dish (a celebratory dish in her native country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Lokemba tells us that many working-class mothers and grandmothers in the Congo sell beignets, the fried balls of dough covered in powdered sugar, as street food, day after day, using the extra cash to give their children better opportunities. “Those beignets have sent so many children to Europe for education,” says Lokemba who now makes the beignets too. “I never knew I would do it, but it’s in my blood.”
Since the official language of the Congo is French, as it was under Belgian rule from the late 1800s until 1960, Lokemba speaks with a French accent. She is a woman who laughs easily, and believes in showing people the beauty of Africa. Her other business is called Mama Africa Kitoko. Kitoko means “beauty” in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in the Congo.
Lokemba grew up between the Congo, the U.S. and Europe. After studying fashion design in the Congo, she came to the United States in the 1990s during the first Congo War. “I was so scared, I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to stay here.’”
She made her way to Salt Lake City via Staten Island, Arizona and Dallas. Lokemba got a little lost at first. She learned that without a plan, you are at the mercy of the needs of those around you. Becoming an entrepreneur empowered Lokemba to follow her own path and provide for herself.
While in Dallas, she had a successful wedding décor business, catering to wealthy Nigerian families and the like. There, she met her husband, who brought her to Utah. With the DIY style of Utah weddings, her wedding décor business in Utah did not have the same market as in Dallas. “But what I did notice about Utahns is that they like to eat,” so she started cooking at the Spice Kitchen, and cooking at the Farmers Market. In early 2016 she opened up her own place, Mama Africa Grill in West Valley City. She hopes to eventually move the location closer to SLC.
“When people think of Africa, they often think, oh, poor people,” but Lokemba’s goal and the purpose of Mama Africa Kitoko is to focus on the beauty from her culture, the dancing, the smiling, and especially the food. “We have this vast culture that we want to share. It’s just amazing when people come together for food. Food speaks only one language,” says Tshilombo. (SS)
Edwin Romin and his wife Janderry Hurtado are no strangers to the Living Traditions Festival. Their family has been involved in sharing the culture of their home country, Peru, since 2000. The whole family has been dancing in the Peruvian Traditions group and playing music for the band Chakis. After not seeing any Peruvian food booths at the festival, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Hurtado went to culinary school in Peru and owns her own Peruvian food catering business, Antojitos Peruanos. People love her traditional dishes, so it made sense to bring them to the festival.
Some of the dishes they plan to bring to Living Traditions include Arroz con Pollo (cooked chicken with cilantro rice), Anticucho (meat brochetas, potatoes and corn), Aji de Gallina (shredded chicken, Peruvian chili sauce, rice and potatoes), and Romin’s favorite, Papa a la huancaina (potatoes with a creamy Peruvian sauce, Peruvian olives and corn). “What makes Peruvian food stand out from other Latin American food is the Peruvian yellow pepper,” says Romin. “We put it in everything and it really gives the dishes a special flavor.” The family also plans to bring traditional Peruvian drinks like Chicha Morada (a drink made from boiled purple corn) and Inca Kola (a lemon verbena soda). (CC)
Seng Hy Tang, a member of the Utah Cambodian Community Buddhist Temple, arrived in the US in 1981 from Bhattam Bang, Cambodia after her family fled the regime of dictator Pol Pot. Tang’s family bought a bunch of gas stations in the Valley, and made their living running gas stations.
Tang began making and selling Cambodian food to raise money for the Cambodian Buddhist temple, which began construction in 2013. Their temple’s first big event was serving food at Comic-Con, which turned out to be a raging success. Next they did the Living Traditions festival and since then the food booths have not only brought in plenty of funds for the temple, but have also strengthened the local Cambodian community. “The people who helped from the beginning are still the same people helping; now there are just more and more people,” says Tang. “Most every day of the week, we feed the monks at the temple; afterwards we eat.”
Their most popular dishes include pork fried spring rolls and chicken sticks. She says it is a Chinese-Cambodian fusion, as many Cambodians are also Chinese. “It’s important to me, wherever you come from, you should never forget. Teach the little ones that they are [Cambodian] so that they never forget. Some Cambodian kids don’t even know how to eat our traditional food. My kids, they eat everything. Nowadays if you don’t keep up, all they will know is hamburgers and hotdogs,” says Tang. (JL)
The Basque Club has been a part of the Living Traditions since the festival’s 1986 beginnings at This is The Place State Monument.
The Basque people come from a region in Northern Spain and Southern France. The Salt Lake Basque community, which began immigrating to the state in the 1920s, now goes back five generations.( Boise, numerous places in Nevada, Wyoming, and northern California are main hubs of Basque immigrants). Utah’s community, like most in the U.S., started with a couple of sheepherders. They moved to boarding houses in Ogden and downtown SLC.
As with many of these groups, the ones involved most with the performances, are also key players at representing the food of their heritage as well. Playing the accordion for the dancers, and also the head chef of the Utah Basque Club booth, is second generation American Jean Flesher. Flesher grew up spending summers in the South of France, in the Pyrenees Mountain region of Basque country his mother is from.
The food most significant in meaning for him, Flesher says, is the chorizo. Chorizo has spiritual meaning in his culture, dating back to Medieval Europe, where preserved meat was crucial to the isolated Basque community’s survival. Back then the entire community would come together around the killing of the pigs belonging to individual families, sometimes in farmhouses in the middle of nowhere. The ritual, and the reverence around the meat on special occasions bonded the community together. It is still customary in Spanish culture to gift ham or celebratory chorizo on holidays and special occasions.
Flesher, who fondly remembers the town festivals in the Basque region, has participated in Living Traditions, over the past 30 or so years, whether cooking, dancing or playing the accordion, and watched it transform into what it is today. “Living Traditions became our own town festival,” he says. Around 100 members of the Utah Basque Club, young and old, each take shifts at the booth to bring all the churros, chorizo and nearly 2,500 croquetas to serve at the festival. “A lot of the first generation members are still heavily active in the group, but we don’t let them cook anymore, they come and boss us around,” says Cirbie Sangroniz. “It’s a big part of our lives. We hope to be part of Living Traditions another 35 to 40 years.” (SS)
You may have to block out breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire weekend to try all 20 of this year’s food booths. And what a treat, not only to enjoy centuries-old cooking traditions, but to also know your support helps keep those communities alive and well in Utah for many more years to come.