When chef Robson Lemos serves customers acarajé at Nibble Kitchen in Somerville, he is serving more than the delicious black-eyed pea fritters with shrimp and vatapa sauce, made from coconut milk, peanuts, and palm oil. He is serving a taste of his home state of Bahia, on the east coast of Brazil, where seafood takes precedence over the meaty fare we often see in local Brazilian restaurants. He is serving a taste of his culture. “When I give my food to somebody, they have not only the food itself but my love, my passion, my creativity — part of myself,” says Lemos, an actor who came to the United States in 2004. “I connect my food with my identity.”
Bahia’s cuisine is a distillation of its history, combining influences from indigenous populations, Portuguese colonizers, and enslaved people from Africa. Acarajé, a famed street food, is sold by women in the white dress and turbans that belong to Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. The dish is a traditional offering to Iansã, an orixá, or deity, associated with the wind. “She is sensual. She dances beautifully,” Lemos tells me. “I always say for clients: When you eat acarajé, you get this kind of power. They call it ‘fire cake.’ It’s very aphrodisiac.”
This conversation is a quintessential Nibble Kitchen experience. The restaurant, located inside Bow Market in Union Square, is perhaps the only one in the country run by a local arts council. The Somerville Arts Council opened it last winter, a platform for the city's diverse immigrant communities to share their cultures and explore culinary entrepreneurship without taking on a lot of risk. Since then, Nibble Kitchen has featured Mexican dishes from Estela Calzada, Meqdes Mesfin's Ethiopian stews and injera, Venezuelan arepas from Carolina Garcia and Carolina Salinas, Sandra Suarez's Bolivian specialties, and more.
“There’s two parts of it,” says kitchen manager Aly Lopez, whose mother, Calzada, is also a participant. “One of them is bringing in authentic culture to the community. I’ve always been passionate about home cooking because it’s so authentic. You can be yourself. That’s what Nibble is. We let the entrepreneurs be themselves and offer their cooking. To be able to see and try that, we are lucky to experience it. It’s so precious.
"The other part is offering these entrepreneurs the opportunity to explore something they are really interested in pursuing, to make it into a business."
After closing for several months because of the pandemic, Nibble Kitchen reopened last month. Throughout August, Lemos's menu — which in addition to acarajé includes the fish stew moqueca; yuca fries with Brazilian salsa, beef, and cheese; and quinoa horchata from Suarez — is available Thursdays from 6-9 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, from 2-9 p.m., Afruza Akther prepares Bengali dishes.
Akther is from Narayanganj, Bangladesh. She married young, and neither she nor her husband knew how to cook a thing, she says. So she taught herself. “I didn’t know which spices go in fish, but I’d put it in there and try to make it. I’d make very easy recipes. Aloo bharta, or mashed potatoes. Boiled lentils and stuff like that. Eggs. I learn very quick. It takes practice and courage. But I knew if I don’t, I will always be hungry.”
In 2004, they arrived in Somerville, where Akther’s husband has family. She would often cook for friends and bring dishes to meetings. Everyone praised her food. Eventually, she started to hear about Nibble, which offered culinary tours, classes, training, and more before opening its brick-and-mortar restaurant. “Friends were saying, ‘You should try Nibble. They give ideas about small business.’ I’d been hearing it over and over. I cook because I like to feed people. I never thought about business or anything, but they encouraged me.”
Now here she is, preparing curries for paying customers. "I make Bengali food, my cultural food. I want to introduce that to my community, which I love: Somerville," she says. "I feel like there's not many Bengali restaurants. There is one in Cambridge, but that's mixed. They also have Indian food."
Bow Market, adorned with signs that say things like "Spread Love Not Germs" and "Shop Safe Shop Small," steers visitors one way for takeout, the other for a seat at a table on the patio. At the far end is Nibble Kitchen, the motto "Global Eats by Local Peeps" written on its window. Customers can peek inside, but orders are placed at the entrance, the menu written on a chalkboard.
Akther has prepared shingara, the Bengali equivalent of samosa. The fried triangular dumplings have crisp, chewy skins and piping hot interiors of spiced potatoes and peas. They come with tangy tamarind sauce for dipping.
There are two curries on offer. The first features halal beef stewed with potatoes and red peppers. The second is a vegetarian version made with bottle gourd, reminiscent of summer squash. Both are served over basmati rice, along with salad and a wedge of lime. Paratha, the flaky, layered, hand-rolled flatbread, is available as a side. To drink: mango lassi and aloe shorbot, aloe juice with isabgol (psyllium husk), basil seeds, sugar, lemon, and mint. It's lightly bitter, the basil seeds pleasantly slippery, the lemon and mint refreshing. "We drink a lot in the Bengali summer. You sweat a lot over there every day," Akther says with a laugh.
What strikes me is how different the food is from anything I've had in a Bengali or Indian restaurant. That's because it's not restaurant food. As Lopez says, it's home cooking, served at a restaurant.
It is the fortunate traveler who gets invited to dinner at the home of a gracious local host. These are the meals that linger in the memory upon returning home, because they are personal, direct lines to a culture, a place and the people who live there. Travel is currently off the table, but Nibble Kitchen re-creates some of that experience at home.
1 Bow Market Way, Union Square, Somerville, 617-599-4462, www.nibblesomerville.com
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.