Asya Mohamed Abeid’s cassava with fried fish

My water flows from Arab to Africa

Asya Mohamed Abeid arrived in New Zealand in 2014 to make a life with her soulmate.  He had lived in Aotearoa for 18 years prior, and is now her husband. Pre arrival, she didn’t know that a place called New Zealand existed. Fast forward and Avondale is now home to her young family.

It was not easy for an African Muslim woman to adapt to such a different lifestyle. “Not knowing how to drive a car was my biggest challenge,” she says. It was one of the reasons she felt a bit isolated in the beginning. New Zealanders have a busy life, she reckons, so meeting friends is sometimes challenging. Her husband introduced her to his friends however, and things started to brighten up.

Asya was born in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, known for its famous mountain, Kilimanjaro. Both her parents still live in Zanzibar, their ancestry is a mixed bag of nationalities. From her father’s side there is Omani and Zairean heritage on his father’s side and Somali and Yemeni roots on his mother’s side. Asya’s mother is of mixed Portuguese and Iranian descent on her father’s side and Mombasian, Kenyan and Yemeni on her mother’s. This sounds complicated, but it came about due to Zanzibar having been one of the largest slave ports in the vast Indian ocean slave trade, which was dominated by Arab slave traders. Asya’s parents were both raised in Zanzibar. The Arab world and Africa are in Asya’s ancestry, or as she describes it poetically: “My water flows from Arab to Africa”.

Her curriculum vitae is impressive. After attending Mount Kilimanjaro School, she studied business, continued with computer science, then computer engineering. She graduated from the Kharkiv National University of Radioelectronics in Ukraine, one of the country’s oldest universities, in 2013. Despite having a Master Degree in Computer Engineering, her talent and passion was creative. She considers herself to be innovative and imaginative. New Zealand seemed to be the right place to develop her real talent.

She started a career as a fashion designer and founded Zanzibar Limited, a design company weaving her rich multi-ethnic heritage with fashion.

“My designs are created out of kintege, an African themed fabric,” she explains. Her product range includes cushion covers, wall art, children’s, women’s and men’s clothing and accessories. Her talent doesn’t stop there either. She is also a website and graphic designer, creating logos, brochures, flyers, banners and business cards.

Asya has a young family to look after, Here is where her cooking talent comes in. She spontaneously filmed herself at home cooking cassava with fried fish for the Whau Food Stories website.  This is a dish her family frequently eats during Ramadan, the holy month for the Muslim community and a time to pray and reflect.

Cassava is a root vegetable, similar to potatoes and yams. Cassava roots have a similar shape to sweet potatoes. Like potatoes, cassava has to be peeled, washed and cooked. It can also be bought frozen in New Zealand. In her home country, organic cassava is offered by farmers.

After having cooked the frozen cassava in salted water, she adds coconut milk and onions (preferably shallots), to the dish, and continues to cook before she finishes with heavy coconut cream. Marinated fish or chicken are perfect companions to the cassava.

Finding ingredients to create her favourite dish in her new home country was not difficult. She lives in a multicultural environment in Avondale, you can buy cassava fresh or frozen in every dairy, fruit market or supermarket.  If you can see the big Avondale spider, it isn’t far away.

Her ties to her family in Zanzibar are still strong. She misses her immediate family as well as the fresh seafood and organics of her home island.  Her grandmother made Asya her namesake, and taught her how to cook. She grew up eating cassava not only on special days during Ramadan, but also as an everyday meal. The memories she has around this special dish are somewhat bittersweet. The very thought of poor people who can’t afford to buy and eat this simple food breaks her heart. Her home country is not only affected by the current Covid-19 pandemic, which is devastating enough, but it is also experiencing severe flooding.

Hence she has pledged to send a portion of her earnings to Zanzibar. Her New Zealand clients know their purchases from Zanzibar Limited are actually helping local Zanzibaris in difficult times.

Asya regards her grandmother and her parents as inspirations. She was raised to be independent, and her upbringing is the source of her innovation and imagination. In addition to cooking lessons, her Grandmother worked as a youth tutor, teaching her and others handcraft.

Currently she considers Zanzibar Limited relatively small, but it is growing by the day. She really wants to keep her beautiful African culture alive through her products and promotions. Sometime it is a challenge to find platforms to do so, but she is living her dream.

She would like to connect more with other like-minded people, working with them on creative and innovative projects and products. Stepping into the footprints of her grandmother, Asya sees a lot of potential to mentor and support aspiring young creatives.

“I would like to create a space where young people can get jobs, use their creative abilities, embrace and appreciate cultural identities, as well as exploring new ways of thinking,” she says.

When asked about advice to new immigrants, she suggests to never feel ashamed to say “Hello” to your neighbours. Join community groups, and don’t feel shy to ask for guidance from the many organisations willing to help. She also recommends to use ‘Uncle Google’ to improve your English, as it guides you well with translations.

Her final words of wisdom: “Be fearless, be kind, and stay humble. New Zealand is the best place to be.”

Written by Doris Evans

This article contains quotes from Asya’s recent feature on blackcreativesaotearoa.com

the recipe

Cassava with fried fish

Ingredients

1 kg frozen cassava

200 ml coconut milk

200 ml coconut cream

salt to taste

1 onion or some shallots

fish

500 ml cooking oil

Method

  • Put cassava in a pot. Add salted water to cover and boil for 15 minutes.
  • Drain the cassava, then add the coconut milk.  Bring to boil.
  • Reduce till almost dry, then add the coconut cream and cook for a further 5 mins.
  • Place in a bowl and serve with fried fish, cooked chicken or stew of choice.