PHOTOGRAPHY: SAI AUNG WIN
Culture

Tastes Worth the Trouble

Culinary importers won’t let political crises deter dreams.

By Naomi Tomky


Updated on December 10, 2021

Growing up in New York City, Manal Nasan’s friends all came from elsewhere: China, Italy, Yemen. “We're all from different backgrounds, and I would love going to their restaurants,” she says, to try the foods of their cultures. However, Nasan always felt that her friends never got to taste her own culture in return. The Palestinian spices that made it to U.S. shops lacked the aromatic freshness of the ones back home. The locally bought olive oil, too, was a pale imposter to the fragrant, deep-green one made from the olives she watched her grandparents pick in Palestine.

Re7het Falasteen’s marameyh, or sage, grows on a mountain where it is handpicked.

“When you're used to something, you know how it's really supposed to taste,” Nasan explains. Last year, back in the U.S. from visiting family, she opened a delivery box and the scent of fresh Palestinian za’atar filled her and her husband’s home—bringing comfort, as well as an idea: to sell the same foods that their overseas relatives had shipped to them, and bring the same joy of those fresh ingredients to a wider audience. In September 2020, Re7het Falasteen, which translates as “the fragrance of Palestine,” opened, featuring products including za’atar, sumac, and maqluba spices.

Eight months later, violence broke out and Israel began airstrikes in Palestinian areas. “On a personal level, it was sad, it was heartbreaking,” says Nasan. “It’s just scary. We have people we love back home.”

All they could do was watch the news and send family and friends reminders to be careful. “I was not worried about my business,” she says. “I didn’t think about it. People were dying, people were being injured, people were being attacked.” That month, they imported nothing.

Workers on a tea farm in Myanmar supply Homiah with tea leaves for laphet.

While Nasan’s supply did restart after the attacks faded, Michelle Tew and May Thu Hnin of the Southeast Asian meal kit start-up Homiah felt they were receding further and further from their goal of importing laphet, Burmese fermented tea leaves. When the customs broker Tew and Hnin hired to help import the leaves said they no longer worked with Myanmar after the country's military deposed its democratically elected leaders, only one thing kept Hnin from totally breaking down: "I grew up under a government that was not recognized by the rest of the world," she says. "I'm used to it. Because I'm a Myanmar citizen, there will be hurdles."

For Rashida Ronaque, who imports coffee from Yemen for her company Honest Mocha, keeping a steady supply chain from the country as it perseveres through more than seven years of civil war involves many utterances of “Insha Allah”—God-willing.

Among all four of these women, the drive to bring the flavors of home and heritage to a new place fuels their small businesses to move coffee beans down mountains, tea leaves through closed ports, and goat cheese over guarded borders.

“We grew up having the olive oil, the jameed, the freekeh, for breakfast, for dinner,” all of it fresh, remembers Nasan, describing the dried yogurt balls and green wheat she loved as a child—the former of which caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times. As a little girl visiting Palestine, she admired that people got to eat breakfast on mountainsides, looking out over the land on which the food grew. “That was what made me love our tradition,” she says. “I really would love to spread [my culture] and to let everyone learn about everyone else’s culture.” And while she does hope her business is profitable, she says her primary motivation comes out of affection for Palestine and its foodways.

“It’s not something you do to get rich,” says Tew. She and Hnin met while going to school at Columbia University in New York, bonding over their shared Southeast Asian heritage and the laksa-shaped holes in their hearts. “You don’t appreciate things that are super-unique about your culture,"  she says. "What it means to see love in someone cooking for you, or in a bowl of noodles—when you have it easily accessible.”

While cooking in the U.S. is often considered a task, it was an identity in her hometown of Penang, Malaysia—and something her grandmother was known for. When other students took internships over summer breaks at consulting firms or banks, Tew headed home to Malaysia. “I had a bit of a life crisis and interned with a local laksa hawker.” The job didn’t help her career in branding and marketing much at first, but when she and Hnin started planning Homiah, it finally came of use: Homiah’s successful Kickstarter campaign featured their core products: Malaysian-style curry laksa and rendang, and Burmese tea leaf salad.

Coordinating overseas vendors in Asia during a pandemic was certainly difficult for Homiah, which is based in New York and plans to launch officially in February of 2022. But the fermented tea leaves presented an exceptional challenge of another kind. “It's just such a different concept,” says Hnin. “Trying to explain to an American to go chew on some tea leaves, it's a harrowing feat.”

When Americans do give laphet a try, they tend to love it, and tea leaf salad is one of the most popular menu items at the few Burmese restaurants in the U.S. Homiah’s tea leaves come in a kit to prepare the salad, which is the primary dish the leaves are used to make, but Hnin likens them to a pesto—a versatile condiment that can be used for dressing salad or adding to noodles.

Making laphet is a relatively straightforward process, requiring only a dark and damp space, a few months of waiting, and periodic check-ins. Picking the leaves from just the very tip of the tea plant, then immediately pressing them, kicks off a fermentation process without any added ingredients. Once deemed ready, the leaves are washed, oiled, and seasoned to preserve them for transport.

Bringing laphet to the U.S. can rack up quite an expense—and not just because shipping rates have more than tripled (up to as much as $15,000 per standard shipping container) since pre-Covid. “The U.S. system is not really set up to be very small-business friendly,” Tew says, noting the costs and often confusing process. Because Homiah worked with small suppliers who had never exported before, the two had to teach them how to abide by sourcing standards and help them navigate the American foreign supplier verification programs. “Initially we were so optimistic,” says Tew. “It was a progressive discovery of how hard it would be.”

Even in the best of circumstances, the leaves are difficult to access: growing on mountaintops, mainly in the Shan state, and requiring a complicated supply chain just to get them to the port and load them onto a U.S.-bound boat. But in February 2021, Myanmar’s military deposed the country’s democratically elected leaders and violently cracked down on the ensuing large protests, suppressing the voices of both the opposition and the media. Among the first to join the protests were medical workers, and mass arrests led to crowded jails, accelerating the spread of Covid and leading to a collapse of the healthcare system. “It’s been a double whammy,” says Hnin.

Tew and Hnin’s broker could no longer make the arrangements to move the leaves through customs amid the unrest. And nobody else was clearing goods on the Myanmar end, either. They started to look for a friend to help them bring the laphet to the port in Yangon, but as the pandemic spread, fueled and worsened by the political crisis, that became more difficult. One of Homiah’s suppliers also contracted Covid-19, putting him out of work for weeks. Because Myanmar is so far away from the U.S., the ships must stop at other docks along the way—but many are refusing to receive ships from Myanmar because of the political situation there.

Yemen has one of the longest histories of coffee tradition in the world.

Like laphet, coffee grows best in high mountains; unlike laphet, coffee can be found easily all over the U.S. Ronaque, however, wanted to connect people to a better version. “Yemen is the birthplace of coffee,” she says, explaining that the country has a well-earned reputation for quality. “But there's a lot of misinformation about Yemen coffee and why it is so expensive.”

Though they are from India, Ronaque’s family has roots in Yemen. About a decade ago, Ronaque began working with her religious community—the Dawoodi Bohra, a branch of Shia Islam—as they helped replace the narcotic, soil-destroying qat plant with native coffee plants to support families in Yemen. That led to the creation of a coffee cooperative called Haraaz that returns most of the money from coffee sales to the farmers. “The idea was to empower the women. [They] are the ones who work in the fields, for the most part,” says Ronaque. “When you empower a woman, you empower a house, and in turn you empower a town or city.”

Two years ago, Ronaque decided to go a step further in her work with Yemeni coffee. She opened her own coffee business, and recently rebranded it as Honest Mocha. But she struggles to break into local roasters and cafes, which hesitate when they see that prices are significantly higher than those of Colombian and Ethiopian beans. “Yemen coffee cannot match that,” she says. “No matter what I do.”

Yemen’s excellent coffee—and its steep prices—come in part from the high altitude at which it grows, requiring donkey transport down to the main roads. From there, the beans travel to Sanaa, the capital, then to Mocha, the port city from which Ronaque’s company derives its name. Honest Mocha's Haraaz Fairvalue roasted coffee beans cost $40 for 500 grams (just over a pound)—similar to other Yemeni coffee, though significantly more expensive than nearly any other coffee on the global market. However, Haraaz Cooperative's coffee returns a whopping 88 percent of the cost directly to the farmer.

Customers often attribute the prices to the war, says Ronaque, and other companies capitalize on that. “Our prices fluctuate, but not as much as some people say they do.” While some of the co-op’s producers have seen their costs and supplies affected, the fighting has not directly impacted them. “Our farmers are in the mountains, so they are removed from it,” she explains. 

But the safety of distance comes at a price, in terms of both money and time. “Once it reaches the port, it’s in the hands of the authorities,” she says. Though Honest Mocha has mostly avoided any major issues, shipments are sometimes delayed.

Delays plague Nasan’s Palestinian goods, too, as Palestine’s lack of a usable port complicates their route. “We have to travel our stuff from Palestine to Israel,” she says, but Israel often fails to move the products in a timely manner. “They leave it for a week or two weeks—depending on their mood, I guess,” Nasan says, adding that she often ends up having to fill out extra paperwork. Other times, sending packages of samneh or marameyh through Israel is not possible at all. “Sometimes Israel shuts down half of Ramallah,” she explains, so the items must go through Jordan instead, a route that brings its own similar set of issues.

Nasan knew before launching her business that importing from Palestine ran this risk, and that she should keep extra product stocked to ensure her business could continue selling during periods of unrest. "You never know when anything is going to stop," says Nasan. "It just goes on and on sometimes." For a new small business, keeping back-up inventory can come at a price. "This is just adding more, making it a bit harder," she says.

“In Arabic, we say sabr. We say patience,” Ronaque says. “It will be done when it will be done. It’s not Amazon.”

Hnin and Tew are adapting to this attitude at Homiah. Hnin had originally planned to travel to Burma to send around 5,000 jars of laphet by freight to New York, then store the inventory in a warehouse while selling it. “Bit by bit, we were just eliminating stuff,” says Tew. Hnin's trip was canceled, then they abandoned the idea of bulk shipping. Finally, the tea leaves themselves faded from being one of Homiah’s marquee products to limited-run. “We started to understand why it's not available,” says Tew. Eventually, they airmailed just enough leaves to fulfill their promise to 400-some Kickstarter backers, then turned their focus to Malaysian food.But Homiah continues on, just as Honest Mocha and Re7het Falasteen do. “It took moving away from home, finding [it harder to obtain certain foods], to realize that it was a very important part of my life and that I was going to make sacrifices to have that," says Tew. Nasan echoes this, adding, “In the end of the day, you have to work hard for everything no matter where it's from.” She admits she doesn’t necessarily know what she would do differently next time, only that she’ll keep going and that she’s excited for the future. “I just feel so connected. I feel like I'm doing something that I love.”

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