Local Hero: Best Restaurant, Santa Fe
An Interview with Ahmed Obo, Founder and Chef-Owner
Photos by Douglas Merriam
Originally from Lamu Island, one of a chain of seven islands off the coast of Kenya, Ahmed M. Obo came to the United States in 1995, worked in restaurant kitchens in Santa Fe and New York, and opened Jambo Cafe in August 2009. Popular with locals and families, foodies and tourists, Jambo and Chef Ahmed have been winning accolades and awards since the restaurant first opened. Starting in 2010, Ahmed won Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl four years in a row, competing against the best chefs in the city. Jambo was voted #1 Best Ethnic/International Restaurant for ten years running in the Santa Fe Reporter’s annual Best of Santa Fe competition, and Ahmed was voted Best Chef in Santa Fe from 2015 to 2020. A beloved and admired member of the Santa Fe community, Chef Ahmed contributes to events for Gerard’s House, Kitchen Angels, The Food Depot, Creativity for Peace, and many other organizations. In 2013, Jambo Cafe was featured in the “Sammies and Stews” episode of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Chef Ahmed published his first cookbook, The Jambo Cafe Cookbook: Recipes and Remembrances of My Journey from Africa to America in 2016 and is currently working on another. Chef began serving his African-Caribbean fare on the road with Jambo Hapa (Hapa means “here” in Swahili), the Jambo Cafe food truck, in 2016.
What is the origin story of Jambo? Was there a pivotal moment or formative experience that brought this restaurant into being?
I was fortunate to be born on Lamu Island, in what has been called “the cradle of Swahili civilization.” Swahili culture stretches back a thousand years, as does its constantly evolving cuisine, which has been influenced by the many different people who traded with the city-states that once spread across the east coast of Africa. Swahili cooking techniques allowed poor women like my mother, with a husband, in-laws, and many children to feed, to coax extraordinary flavor out of the simplest ingredients. My mother, Halima, was a skilled and inventive cook, and she has influenced my cooking more than anyone else in my life. At night, she would begin to prepare the meal for the following day, mixing together the ingredients for the Mkate wa Nazi, a dense savory bread made with cornmeal and shredded coconut. Early in the morning, she would light the fuel in the jikov (a charcoal-burning metal cooking stove) and begin to bake her discs of bread. Often, milky chai made with black tea and this fragrant, coconut-infused bread was all we had for breakfast.
Lunch was the main meal of the day. Sitting on mats on the floor, we shared a mountain of rice or ugali (cornmeal porridge), always prepared with coconut, garlic, salt, and spices like cardamom or turmeric, and sometimes supplemented by bananas or mangoes, which grow plentifully in Lamu. When we had animal protein, it was usually fish, which was relatively inexpensive. My mother would carefully divide it into small portions so that everyone had a piece. We ate a lot of beans. Occasionally, we had greens like spinach and, very rarely, a treat like chicken, which my mother cooked into a delicious, spicy, coconut-based curry.
All through my childhood, I watched my mother—and later my sisters—as they cooked, preparing rice, ugali, breads, and fish, and making complicated sauces that transformed simple ingredients into filling, satisfying meals for large numbers of people. After school, I and my brothers and sisters helped my mother prepare our lunch, grating coconut and mixing spices, but it wasn’t until I started going out on our dhow (small sailboat) with my father that I learned to dry and grill fish. Later, when I moved to a small apartment and began taking tourists out on overnight boat trips, I began to cook on my own for the first time.
When I came to the United States, I brought only simple cooking skills, but I carried with me the memories of the food of my childhood. The smells were delicious: coconut bread baking in the early morning, spices adding sweetness to the air, sauces simmering. My family gathered together to share the meals my mother prepared, determined that we would be nourished even when money was scarce.
Food, caring, family. These are the enduring memories I have of Halima’s kitchen, which inspired my own.
You’ve introduced thousands of locals (and no shortage of tourists) to new dishes and cuisines. Many diners who would have never expected to enjoy goat now count your goat stew as a favorite. Are there any dishes or ingredients you’d like to see more people open up to?
In developing recipes for Jambo, I have drawn on many culinary traditions, but the most profound and enduring influence continues to be the food of my childhood. I have adapted recipes using Caribbean spices and have fused North African and Indian flavor profiles into those traditional dishes, incorporating herbs and cooking methods that reflect many cultures. Some Swahili-influenced recipes might not be recognizable to people in Lamu. Soups, for example, which are an American favorite, are not traditionally Swahili, but my soups, based on fragrant, intensely flavored masalas, are a tribute to the food of my homeland.
Jambo’s menu is influenced by a multitude of global culinary traditions in addition to that of your native Kenya. Can you describe the evolution of a particular dish, or of the menu over time?
Jambo’s menu can be described as consistent. Customers return over and over to have their favorites. I think it is a good “problem” to have—every dish being so well loved. Additions, though, are fair game. The best menu change happened in 2020, when I decided to make a dish featuring berbere (an Ethiopian spice mix). A member of my team suggested that I make it vegan and then add it as a selection to our best-selling Combination Plate, making it possible to have a completely vegan option. Not only did the Ethiopian Chickpea Berbere Stew sell well as a stand-alone dish, but the Combination Plate sales (vegan version) skyrocketed.
You cook with smoky, savory, fiery spices and spice blends that are uncommon to many New Mexican kitchens. Any recommendations for the adventurous home cook on something new to try?
The goal for my cookbook is to allow American cooks to enter into the heart of the cuisine I have developed, which integrates East African, Caribbean, Indian, and North African flavors—and continues to embrace new influences—and give them tools and recipes so they can experience it for themselves. I have developed spice mixes for my recipes to assist the home cook, and I also urge them to try new combinations of foods. There are additional spice blends that Jambo has available for sale, such as berbere and ras el hanout; I suggest that home cooks give them a try.
What is a local food issue that is important to you? Why?
Ensuring that Jambo Cafe can consistently source the best for our customers. All of our meats are halal—a benchmark of quality that is vital to Jambo Cafe. We use local distributors and organic options as much as possible. The pandemic upset our capacity to source regularly and we often found ourselves unable to provide our full menu. We are hopeful that the rest of 2021 will be more amenable.
Tell us about your work with the Jambo Kids Foundation.
Jambo Kids Foundation directly supports my native Lamu. The people in the Lamu islands face serious health-care challenges. Many people, including members of my own family, have died from illnesses that are easily treatable in the United States, such as asthma.
I have lived in the United States for twenty-five years, and in that time, I have been able to help my family achieve a better life. I have felt a drive to also help my home community that nurtured me.
In 2015, we opened the Jambo Kids Clinic in Lamu. Since then, we’ve been able to help thousands of kids and adults receive vital medical care. The Jambo Kids Clinic sees about four hundred people a month, 30 percent of them kids. We’re thrilled to be able to consistently offer quality care to the people of Lamu.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
Thank you to all of our loyal diners. You have supported Jambo Cafe through 2020–21 with an avidity that was unexpected. We appreciate you and look forward to seeing you in person soon.
2010 Cerrillos, Santa Fe, 505-473-1269, jambocafe.net