**RESCHEDULED** Soumu highlights West African comfort food

Soce Ahmed will create eight African dishes for the Soumu celebration of African music, food, dance and art. Photo by Hayley Benton

UPDATE: Due to inclement weather the Soumu has been rescheduled for Friday, March 20, at New Mountain. Doors at 5 p.m., show at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12 advance/$15 at the door/half-price for children under 12/free for children under 5. African food is available for purchase.

As its billing suggests, musical performances by Asheville’s Zansa and Carrboro-based Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba are a main draw of the third annual Soumu: An African Celebration of Music, Food, Dance and Art. But as New Mountain’s space teems with culture on Thursday, Feb. 19, and attendees help Zansa frontman Adama Dembele raise funds to rebuild his family’s home and music center in Ivory Coast, the second biller is primed to be just as popular.

For $10, guests at Soumu may get a plate with as many and as much of chef Soce Ahmed’s eight traditional African dishes as they’d like — a rare opportunity for Asheville foodies to sample cuisine that’s difficult to find locally.

A native of Senegal, Ahmed (whose first name is pronounced “SO-see”) began cooking when she was 8 years old, learning the craft from her restaurant-owner mother. She came to New York City in 1992 and later moved to Atlanta, where she scrimped and saved to start a small buffet restaurant in the Five Points district.

In 2000, Ahmed arrived in Asheville to cook at the Goombay Festival with her cousin Iba Taye, now manager of the Sonic Drive-In on Airport Road. A lack of local food industry contacts kept kitchen work elusive, but with the assistance of landlord John Cram — whose continued support she credits with keeping her and her three daughters financially afloat — she soon opened Soce’s Afro-American Hair on Eagle Street. Although she’s developed a loyal following at her salon, she’d much rather be cooking.

“I do hair because people don’t know me,” Ahmed says. “My heart is restaurants.”

Under the name Soce’s African Catering, Ahmed cooks for weddings and birthdays as well as meetings for a few local businesses, including Celtic Sea Salt producers Selina Naturally. She’s also been the featured chef for African Nights at Westville Pub and at the former Mo Daddy’s, shared her skills through LEAF in Schools and Streets and provided food for Isaac Dickson Elementary School’s first carnival.

A friend and ally since they met at Skinny Beats Drum Shop across the street from her salon, Zansa bassist Ryan Reardon calls Ahmed’s style “West African comfort food.” He is particularly fond of the maffe peanut stew (made with tomato, bell pepper, sweet and white potatoes and garlic), which he likes to have with a side of jollof red rice (cabbage, eggplant, yucca, carrot and tomato) and roasted lamb.

“Everything is spiced just right,” Reardon says. “It’s not too hot, so everyone can enjoy it, but there are always some roasted habaneros lying around to mix in as one sees fit.”

Many of Ahmed’s dishes are vegan (e.g., yassa, made with carrot, onion, olive, bell pepper and a lime-garlic marinade) or pescetarian (e.g., seafood okra gumbo made with scallops, shrimp, crab, tilapia, okra and spinach). She primarily gets her ingredients from local farmers markets and tries to get organic produce whenever possible.

“In Africa, that’s what I know,” Ahmed says. “We don’t have frozen food there. If we cooked with frozen, we’d mess up what we’re cooking.”

Ahmed is careful to separate her vegetarian and meat items and cooks with water and her own blend of spices instead of using stock. In addition to the eight dishes available at Soumu, she has mastered countless other recipes and would love for a local restaurateur to give her the opportunity to have a full-time job as a chef highlighting these dishes.

“Every morning [in Africa] we cook, and we eat fresh every single day, three times a day,” Ahmed says. “Every day someone goes to the market and brings [fresh ingredients] back. I want to cook like that here.”

Recent tragic events have given this year’s Soumu a heightened significance. Soumu was originally intended as a fundraiser for Djembeso Music and Dance Education Center in Dembele’s Ivory Coast hometown of Abobo. In December, the facility was in need of a solid roof, a floor suitable for dancing and locking doors for security.

But on Jan. 12, citing erosion and unsafe conditions, the Ivory Coast government demolished the music center, Dembele’s family’s home and many other structures after a mere week’s notice. Numerous families and children are now homeless, and there is little expectation that the government will provide housing or reimbursement.

Fortunately, Dembele’s bandmates and friends are more than willing to help. “We will be donating every penny that we can back to the Dembele family,” says Reardon, who has also launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise additional funds.

For details on the Indiegogo campaign, visit Indiegogo.com/projects/rebuild-music-education-center-and-dembele-home.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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