Scoops of Shibumi JAMAICA
When Country Came To Town!Thursday, December 03, 2020
It's not every day that Thursday Food is left with mouth agape. Khalia Hall, principal of Shibumi Jamaica, is not only one to watch on the culinary radar, but her honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth approach to food is what, we reckon, will ensure longevity on the fickle culinary landscape. From her obsession with the Food Network to her first day at a gourmet vegan restaurant, and her food philosophy, hers is an absolutely fascinating reduction.
Khalia Hall's earliest memories go back to when “country came to town”... Growing up in St Ann, my father didn't allow us to have cable television. When I moved to Kingston for high school and had access to a plethora of new channels, I became obsessed with the Food Network. I started experimenting in the kitchen, especially with baking, and would film myself making recipes, as I imagined myself as the next Jamaican Rachel Ray. In the end, though, I pursued the sciences, and later on obtained a Master's in Mechanical Engineering.
Throughout university, my love for cooking lingered in the background, always as a hobby. However, when I started to learn about how our food choices impact the body and mind, as well as the Earth's biodiversity, water, soil and air, cooking took on a new meaning. I saw it as a creative tool to communicate without using words; that is, encouraging people to simply eat more (not necessarily strictly) whole plant-based foods.
The Ministry of Health's 2017 Health & Lifestyle Survey showed that 62% and 74% of Jamaicans were consuming less than their daily recommended portions of vegetables and fruits respectively (just two servings). So my quest began, to create satiating plant-based foods that a meat-loving Jamaican could enjoy and not think he/she was “missing” anything.
After graduation, she finally made the decision to commit to cooking as more than a hobby... I knew that working in kitchens would be more affordable and efficient than going to culinary school to learn about both cooking and the restaurant industry. And what better country to learn about food than Italy?
I had worked there for a four-month engineering internship the year before, so I also had social ties and spoke some Italian.
I showed up to my first day of work at a gourmet vegan restaurant in Milan. As I prepped orange segments for a salad, the chef said “Khalia, sei troppo lenta!” which means “You're too slow!” I quickly learnt that working in a fast-paced restaurant was going to be very different from the home cooking I was used to. Something as simple as seasoning a dish for dozens of people, compared to one for myself and a few friends or family, was a lesson. The more I learnt, the more the chefs trusted me to cook without supervision. Little by little, I advanced from doing just the food prep, to working the dinner service alongside the chefs; tossing pastas, flipping tortillas and beautifully plating dishes with microgreens and edible flowers. Something so unfamiliar and seemingly daunting became so comfortable and enjoyable with time and intention.
In addition to cooking techniques, new ingredients and being more efficient and organised, I learnt something much more important: The value of the people and relationships behind the food, ambiance and service that customers experience. My boss, Claudio, created a culture where everyone's ideas were valid and no hierarchy existed. The waiter could make a suggestion for plating a new dish. The dishwasher could step in to help with emergency food prep during the service. The chef could enter the dining area and hand a dish to a guest. Kitchens are not like corporate offices where two people working on different teams may never interact. The roles of chefs, cleaning staff, waiters and waitresses intersect, and without cohesion the business would not be possible.
What fuels her fascination with food... Cooking is something practical, yet creative. We all have to eat; food nourishes and fuels us. However, it encompasses more that its practical purpose. Raw ingredients can be taken and transformed into whatever you want. You can even experience a piece of another culture without necessarily travelling there. Food reminds me of how dependent we are on an ecosystem of many different forms of life, which we should not treat improvidently.
I was cleaning some scallion last week and as I looked down at my soiled hands, I thought, What an honour. I pick up where the farmer left off, and create a dish, that people trust me to prepare for whatever purpose they're seeking, whether it be comfort, nourishment or both.
Her larder must-haves... A good collection of spices and herbs is essential because seasoning is a big part of what makes food taste good. Combining spices in different ways also allows you to create more versatile flavours. Some of my favourites are cumin, garam masala, turmeric, smoked paprika, oregano and rosemary.
Pasta is great to have on hand for evenings when I either don't have the time, or don't feel like cooking much. Add some leftover vegetables, legumes, or sauce you have sitting in the fridge, and dinner is served.
Lastly, some extra virgin olive oil is my go-to for dressing salads, along with a sprinkle of oregano and salt. Olive oil can also add so much flavour to a cooked dish or sauce, with the added bonus of it being a healthier option.
Her most frequently requested entrée... The signature component in Shibumi's lunches is something we call the Bumi. It's a crispy flavourful ball made from a special mix of legumes, vegetables, grains and seasonings. So far, we've offered it in jerk, curry, Mexican and Italian. The jerk flavour has been the favourite! It comes with a tamarind BBQ sauce, ripe plantain and a turmeric drizzle — everything made from scratch. We've gotten many messages from people saying they don't miss the meat, and I think it's partly due to these flavour-packed Bumis.
In terms of sides, people commonly request our pumpkin pasta made with freshly squeezed coconut milk, samosas, spicy pumpkin dip, bulgur salad and chickpea frittata.
On what we should be eating more of and why... My food philosophy is to eat a diet that puts emphasis on unprocessed, plant-based foods. Whether that includes small amounts of processed foods, meat, dairy or eggs is a personal choice.
Specifically in Jamaica, where over 50% of the population is overweight and lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes are the leading cause of death, incorporating more plant-based meals could add years to the lives of Jamaicans, and life to their years.
Finally, what's in a name... A friend mentioned the word, “shibumi,” to me some years ago and when they explained what it meant, I immediately fell in love with it. It is a Japanese word that means “simple, unobtrusive beauty”; finding beauty in the everyday commonplace. It's referred to in fashion and art, but I couldn't help but connect it to: a humble vegetable, Mother Earth, our bodies and minds.
Things we so often neglect, sometimes even disrespect, but that encompass this implicit beauty, imperfection and naturalness. A big motivation to starting Shibumi was to encourage others to become more conscious of their everyday choices, which include food choices, and their impact on the environment and life in it.
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