Mauritania’s ‘nomadic spirit’ comes alive in Canadian restaurant

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Montreal, Canada – Simple. That’s how Mohamed Ould Atigh describes the food of his native Mauritania.

“You eat when you’re hungry [and] you eat what you can find,” Atigh says, a glass of Mauritanian green tea in hand.

Snow began to fall outside on a cold March afternoon, the colourful tapestries – a mix of deep blues and bright oranges and yellows – hanging overhead gave the dining room at La Khaima a warm feel.

More than a dozen low tables, benches and bright cushions fill the Mauritanian restaurant, which Atigh founded in the early 2000s in the city’s popular Mile End neighbourhood.

The eatery takes its name from the tents used by nomadic tribes in Mauritania, a vast and desertic country that touches both West and North Africa, and blends traditions from both regions.

La Khaima is the only Mauritanian restaurant outside the country.

Atigh grew up there, in a small village called Ividjaren, about 150km from the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

“At home, it’s a simple cuisine,” Atigh tells Al Jazeera as he pours another glass of tea.

“It’s based on one meal and everyone shares it,” he adds.

“I wanted to re-create that atmosphere of sharing, more than create a restaurant. Developing that side of things, for me, was more interesting.”

Rocky start

Atigh’s arrival in Canada now feels a world away from where he is today.

He landed in Montreal in September 1996 with only three dollars in his pocket.

Then in his early 20s, he came to Canada on a student visa with plans to get a degree in Information and Technology from the University of Quebec in Outaouais, near Ottawa.

But after a year, he transferred over to the Universite de Montreal.

Frustrated by his studies, Atigh refocused his energies on cooking meals for himself and his classmates out of his dorm room. It was there that he first realised that Mauritanian food had a universal appeal.

“That’s where the idea for a restaurant came from, that room,” Atigh said.

The owner of the Mauritanian restaurant La Khaima, Mohamed Ould Atigh [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera] 

Not long after that, he rented a small garage on Parc Ave, a central artery that cuts North-South through Montreal’s Mile End, and transformed it into a makeshift restaurant.

“Two tables, four chairs – and you can’t even serve at the table because there isn’t enough room to pass. You hand [the plates] over the kitchen counter and people pass them along,” he said.

Atigh cooked a single pot of food every night.

Sometimes it was meat with rice and vegetables; other times fish, or beans. The meals changed depending on what ingredients Atigh could find earlier that day.

“There was one pot and once it was done, it was done. You have to wait for tomorrow.

“It’s really like you’re in Mauritania, like the popular restaurant in Mauritania where you have a single dish,” Atigh said.

Whether you would eat on any given night, he added, really depended “on you and your luck”.

Nomadic traditions

After eight months working out of the garage, Atigh found the space he uses today: La Khaima is now in a bright space on Fairmount Street, in Montreal’s trendy Mile End.

But the neighbourhood has historically been a jumping-off point for the city’s new immigrants. Jewish, Portuguese and Greek immigrants came to the area in waves, working in low-income jobs or opening cafes, grocery stores and restaurants.

Mauritanian restaurant La Khaima in Montreal, Canada [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera] 

Today, La Khaima is just up the street from Montreal’s renowned Fairmount bagel shop, a long block from Italian coffee joint Cafe Olimpico, and a quick walk to craft brewery Dieu du Ciel.

“You’ll find a lot of people that think this place responds to their values,” Atigh says, about how people have responded to the restaurant. “It’s their spot.”

Most of the patrons share a large platter: couscous or rice and three choices of meat-based or vegetarian dishes.

It’s not only about introducing people to Mauritania, but to introduce them to the spirit of nomadic traditions.

Mohamed Ould Atigh

Atigh, who still cooks the food, says his greatest joy is seeing people sitting around a table for hours, talking and laughing and sharing the type of communal meal that is the norm in Mauritania.

“It’s not only about introducing people to Mauritania, but to introduce them to the spirit of nomadic traditions,” he said.

“It’s up to you to share, to push the food towards another, to be less greedy. All these values, we transmit them through the plate.”

Atigh also makes his own bissap, a burgundy juice made from pressed hibiscus flowers that is served across Mauritania and other parts of West Africa.

His version can be infused with ginger and is sold in groceries and other specialty food stores across Montreal.

“It’s not artificial here. It’s really real – it’s alive,” Atigh said.

“Mauritanian cuisine is based on these elements and on the simplicity of preparation and the fact that if you have onions, you cook with onions; if you have bread, you cook with bread; and so on.”

‘There’s no spice for that’

That’s an ethos that is perhaps best demonstrated in an old Mauritanian parable.

An elderly Mauritanian woman was living in the desert amid a famine in the 1920s, so the story goes, when an unexpected guest came to her door.

According to nomadic tradition, the woman knew she had to feed her guest, a hefty man with a penchant for gossip.

But she had nothing but plain rice in her cupboard and she feared what the man might tell her neighbours about her hospitality if she didn’t give him a proper meal.

Desperate to find a solution, the woman did the only thing she could think of: she scooped up the man’s leather shoes and began to cook a pot of rice.

“When he left, he realised that the woman, because she was so embarrassed that she had nothing to eat, she made him a meal with his own shoes,” Atigh said with a laugh, as he recounted the tale.

“It became an expression to say when you prepare food for someone, the issue isn’t finding the best flavour … it’s the energy that you put into it – the baraka [spirit of God] that you put into it,” he said.

“There’s no spice for that.”

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