How Sitalbanat Muktari brought her Nigerian traditions into her vegan kitchen
By Anna Mindess | Photos by Scott Peterson
Sitalbanat Muktari’s life made a turn on a vegan donut.
Born in Utah, Muktari (now 32) lived for many years with her family in Northern Nigeria, steeped in the local Hausa culture. Sital—as she is known to many of her friends—returned to the United States after graduating high school, and on setting down roots in Richmond, California, she worked at various jobs and studied at local colleges throughout the next decade.
By 2019, she was feeling ready for an adventure, so she applied to teach English for a 15-month stint in Harbin, China, a northern city known for its bitterly cold winters. In January 2020, just as she was settling into her new apartment, she heard that an illness was spreading throughout the country. Flights out were extremely limited, but acting on instinct, she made a quick decision and secured a ticket for a February 4 flight to California. It was the very last flight out of China as COVID-19 began its spread around the globe.
Muktari assumed this interruption to her teaching job would last only a few weeks, but as the situation became clear, she realized she had left everything in China and had no work. With California in lockdown (and as she was looking for a way to get out of the house), she stepped up to help out at a business deemed “essential.” She chose to volunteer at Grandeur, a now-closed burger bistro in Oakland offering vegan and halal options. Noticing that the café had stopped serving her favorite dessert, she filled the gap by inventing a vegan donut with icings featuring Northern Nigerian flavors like hibiscus and baobab lemonade that she had enjoyed in her youth. The donuts were an instant hit, and she began selling them at pop-ups around the East Bay.
Muktari’s switch to a vegan diet came after a 2016 “Meeting of the Minds” gathering in San Francisco, where attendees had described experiences of healing their bodies through changes in their diets.
“Some people shared how they were eating more ‘high-vibrational foods,’ diets free of bad karma, [or] foods that made them feel alive, so I was curious to experience that,” says Muktari, who at the time was struggling with pain from endometriosis. “I thought, maybe I’ll just stop eating meat completely and see what that does for me. Eventually I learned that a vegan diet eliminated a lot of things that were causing inflammation in my body.”
As she stepped into veganism through the next few years, Muktari also incorporated superfoods like chia seeds, moringa, and baobab into her diet. “I remembered that those were the things I used to eat every day back home,” she says. “Baobab trees are everywhere, so we can have the fruit. One of the main soups in my culture is a baobab leaf soup. Moringa is also easily accessible. When I moved here, I stopped eating them, so I put them back in my diet.”
Through this period of experimentation, Muktari was supporting herself with a retail job in San Francisco. Having climbed to a management position, she was noting her desire to become self-employed. She began making assorted vegan foods and selling them to fellow students at CSU East Bay, but she had yet to make a culinary connection to her own culture.
Oakland Bloom first came up for Muktari as she was investigating ways to expand her vegan pop-up business. The nonprofit describes its mission as advancing economic justice by supporting individual and collective ownership and neighborhood resilience by empowering working class/immigrant/diaspora/BIPOC chefs. Oakland Bloom programs include a food business incubator and training program as well as a worker-owned and -led restaurant, Understory Oakland, located at 528 Eighth Street. It sounded to Muktari like a match.
She sent Oakland Bloom a message, but when she didn’t hear back, she came up with a creative idea: Planning her own birthday celebration at Understory, she invited a bunch of friends, and also baked her own birthday cake—a vanilla passion fruit cake with chocolate icing—incorporating several of her signature donut flavors. When she served her cake, she handed slices to the Understory staff. They reacted enthusiastically, telling her she must apply to their program.
In 2022, Muktari entered Oakland Bloom’s training program, but she struggled with envisioning how to integrate her donuts with her Nigerian cuisine. Sage advice received at that time turned into a game changer: “Why don’t you take your donut hat off and just do what speaks to you as a Hausa woman.”
The cuisine of the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria is often centered around meat, which prompted Muktari’s mother to exclaim when she found out that her daughter had gone vegan:
“What kind of a Hausa doesn’t eat meat?”
The question hovered and would eventually inspire this young chef’s brand name: That Hausa Vegan. But equally important was how Muktari’s mother came to support the decision. On her daughter’s visit to Nigeria in 2017, she cooked various stews featuring grains and vegetables grown in the region.
“My mom made me a vegan stew and froze it. I brought it home in my suitcase in zip-top bags. But I also brought back a lot of ingredients, so I could make it here.”
She began to wonder if she could create vegan versions of Hausa classics like the popular street food kebabs called suya, which by definition are made with meat, often beef, chicken, liver, or kidney.
“Suya was one of the things from my culture that I really thought I’d miss as a vegan,” says Muktari, who describes suya as a Northern Nigerian nighttime street food, often cooked by home security guards out in front of the homes they are guarding. “They create barbecue grills out of things they can find, like large metal drums,” she says. “The seasoning is what makes it,” she adds, and indeed, Muktari’s own seasoning blends have become key elements of her vegan-ized Hausa recipes. She fiercely guards the formulas for these “secret spices,” but she will divulge that they include an aromatic blend of finely ground peppers.
In looking for plant foods that she could use for vegan suya, Muktari explored mushrooms and discovered that trumpet, oyster, maitake, and lion’s mane mushrooms have the right texture. “I realized they can taste just like meat,” she says. “As I looked back at my culture, I realized that many of our foods are naturally vegan. When people in rural areas cannot afford meat, their diet is mainly vegan.”
Since November 2021, Muktari has been cooking at Understory, creating dishes that speak to her as a Hausa woman: garbanzo tacos with mango salsa, pumpkin peanut stew, pounded yam fritters, jollof rice, and desserts like mango coconut pudding and a deep-fried plantain split. Recent menus have featured a typical Hausa breakfast of spicy Nigerian pepper soup, cassava fries, plantains with mango habanero or mung bean egg sauce, and a dinner of maitake mushroom suya with cabbage slaw and sinasir (fermented rice pancake).
She continues to focus on pop-ups, catering, food festivals, and selling her packaged spices, but she says, “I’m not sure if cooking is the ultimate career path I want for myself … but I’m enjoying it in the moment.”
With a growing desire to explore journalism, she has her sights set on attending UC Berkeley’s acclaimed School of Journalism, and she has a specific goal in mind: “to preserve culture and elevate diverse, marginalized voices.”
Her applications have been turned down twice, but meanwhile, a mutual friend (esteemed theater director and writer Ellen Sebastian Chang) introduced Muktari to Davia Nelson, known together with her partner, Nikki Silva, as the Kitchen Sisters. According to their website, the Kitchen Sisters create radio stories “about the lives, histories, art, and rituals of people who have shaped our diverse cultural world.” Under their mentorship, Muktari helped produce the hour-long PRX special “House/Full of Black Women,” an experience that further invigorated her desire to tell people’s stories.
Ever curious and intrepid, Muktari has applied to UCB for a third time. Now awaiting a response, she continues to enjoy sharing her Hausa culture through food as she caters and cooks at Understory Oakland.
Visit That Hausa Vegan on Instagram.
Anna Mindess is an award-winning journalist who writes on food, culture, and travel for publications including the Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, and Berkeleyside. She also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at clippings.me/annamindess.
Photographer Scott Peterson is a man with many hats including video producer, banjoist, fiddler, and motorcycle adventurer. When he has a free moment, he enjoys searching out good local food. scottpetersonproductions.com
Sinasir (fermented rice pancakes)
By Sitalbanat Muktari
This Northern Nigerian staple is eaten at traditional festivities such as weddings and Eid. It takes time to soak and ferment the rice, but it’s so simple that you can’t mess it up. People often eat sinasir simply sprinkled with sugar or honey, but it’s a nice accompaniment to suya (recipe below).
- 3 cups uncooked rice (any kind)
- 3 tablespoons cooked rice (any kind)
- 1¾ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2–3 tablespoons sugar, divided
- Pinch of sea salt
- Canola or sunflower oil for frying
Place the uncooked rice in a bowl with enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and set aside to let the rice soak for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
You will need a small amount of cooked rice available when you resume, so cook some as the raw rice soaks and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to use it (or save some rice from another meal).
After the uncooked rice has soaked for 6 to 8 hours, strain, rinse, and place in a large high-speed blender (or a smaller blender in batches). Add 2¾ cups water and 3 tablespoons of the cooked rice to the blender and process to a lumpy paste. Empty the mixture into a large bowl. (If you want to, you can swirl some extra water around in the blender to capture the clinging rice and add that to the large bowl as well.)
In a small bowl, combine ⅓ cup warm water with the yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar. When yeast has bloomed, stir the mixture into the large bowl of soaked and blended rice along with the remaining 1–2 tablespoons of sugar and a pinch of salt. Cover and allow batter to rise for 6 to 8 hours in a warm spot in your kitchen.
To make the pancakes: Warm a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add enough cooking oil to completely coat the surface. When the oil is hot, stir the fermented rice batter and ladle about ½ cup onto the skillet, spreading the batter toward the edges of the skillet. Cook pancakes for 5 to 7 minutes or until golden-brown and crisp on the edges. Adjust heat as needed. You do not need to flip the pancakes, but they should look dry on top (like injera) when finished.
Hausa Vegan Suya (spiced grilled mushrooms)
Suya (aka tsire) are traditional Hausa grilled meat kebabs with a distinctive spice rub composed of peanut powder, ginger, hot pepper, and other spices. Sitalbanat Muktari has reimagined suya using mushrooms in place of the meat for a deliciously satisfying vegan dish.
Serves 6 to 8
- 2 pounds oyster or maitake mushrooms
For the spice paste:
- 1/2 cup kuli kuli spice mixture (see editor’s note)
- ¼ cup yaji spice mixture (see editor’s notes)
- 3 tablespoons bouillon powder (or crushed bouillon cubes)
- ¼ cup garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons ginger powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- Pinch black pepper
- Pinch salt
- ½ cup vegetable oil
For the cabbage slaw garnish:
- 1 small head green cabbage, shredded
- ½ small head red cabbage, shredded
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- ½ pound tomatoes, sliced
Rinse mushrooms and gently press to remove any absorbed water or simply pat them dry.
Combine the kuli kuli, yaji, and additional dry seasonings in a medium bowl. Add the vegetable oil and stir to make a thick paste. Pour the mixture over the mushrooms and toss to coat. (See alternate method in editor’s notes at right.) Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour as you prepare the cabbage slaw garnish ingredients.
Heat up a grill or a cast-iron skillet drizzled with oil. If grilling, thread the mushrooms onto skewers. Place mushrooms on the hot grill or skillet, listening for the sizzle to indicate that the grill or skillet is hot enough. Keep turning the mushrooms until they are golden brown and nicely charred, and if you like, you can baste with the excess spice paste as you cook.
Serve hot along with the cabbage slaw and sinasir.
Sitalbanat Muktari sells her kuli kuli, yaji, and other Hausa spice mixes at Understory in Oakland (and soon at other local shops), but if you can’t make the trip to get them, look around online for recipes that describe how to mix your own kuli kuli and yaji from scratch.
During our recipe testing, we tried leaving the spice mixture dry (without adding the oil to make a paste) so we could more easily adjust the spice level. We placed the mushrooms in a large bowl, drizzled them with the vegetable oil, tossed with our hands until the mushrooms were coated, and then sprinkled the spice mix over the mushrooms a few tablespoons at a time as we continued tossing. We had about half of the spice mix left over and happily enjoyed the remainder on other grilled items throughout the following week.