Cathy Manna launched Taste of Aden a few years before the pandemic. While she feared COVID-19 would bankrupt her, it became an opportunity for her.
“Communities of Hope” features Detroiters from communities of color who have sought ways to persevere during the pandemic.
Cathy Manna is the owner of Taste of Aden, a restaurant business serving Yemeni dishes like sambosa, pastries stuffed with ground beef and chopped vegetables, and khubz tawa, a multi-layered square flatbread made with brown butter.
She displays these foods on a picnic table at Ford Field Park in West Dearborn, a place she likes to visit to unwind.
“I love making new recipes and I love making traditional dishes,” she says.
The mother of five was born and raised in a diverse neighborhood in southwestern Detroit. She says her parents encouraged her to keep her culture and traditions.
“The Yemeni community, our parents wanted us to stay true to our tradition and culture no matter what. It doesn’t matter where we go or how we live, as long as we don’t forget our language, our culture and our traditions,” she says.
Arabian Peninsula Yemen
Yemen is a mountainous country located in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. It is nestled between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. It is known for its historic old buildings and scholars, and is often referred to as the birthplace of commercial coffee. More recently, it’s the site of a civil war that led to one of the world’s largest famines, displacing millions of people.
Manna says she grew up in Michigan at a time when there weren’t many Middle Eastern restaurants or Yemeni Americans in southwest Detroit.
“There were only a few of us living in that area at the time. Many people did not even know the country called Yemen. When they asked me at school, they would be surprised. What is Yemen? Where is it located? ” she says.
Preserving culture and traditions
Manna says mothers taught their daughters to cook in order to preserve culture and keep traditions alive.
“As a child, I used to help my mother with basic cooking, like cutting onions and cleaning. I watched her prepare different types of food and her homemade brown butter, which we call semn. Homemade brown butter reminds me of so many memories back then with my mom,” she says.
About six years ago, Manna decided to bring that experience to a catering company called Taste of Aden, paying homage to a town in Yemen. She mainly welcomed her family and friends.
Then in December 2019, she decided to launch her business on Instagram to educate people about Yemeni cuisine and culture.
“I was a little nervous about Instagram, especially with all the stereotypes going around. However, I did my research and noticed that so many people learn about other people’s backgrounds and cultures through Instagram,” she recalled.
As soon as the pandemic hit, she feared business would slow.
“It actually went better during the pandemic. And also struggling with my previous work which was entirely online. It wasn’t just me, but millions of other people were struggling too.
Manna says customers wanted to buy homemade food as they tried to enroll their children in virtual classes while working from home.
“They didn’t have time to cook, especially if they used to buy…go to restaurants, buy meals cooked elsewhere.”
Then Ramadan came when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for a month and eat special foods. Manna says they were afraid to buy food from stores during the early days of the pandemic.
“So many people were just afraid to buy ready meals or dough from stores,” she says.
Manna says people would look for homemade specialty items on Instagram. People bought sambosas, grape leaves and its special shuttle, tomato salsa with peppers from the vegetable garden.
“A lot of my dough is made from scratch, especially the sambosa. Sambosa dough is a back killer. And I wouldn’t give up on that.
Manna says she enjoys blending her own spices, creating fusion foods and giving a Yemeni twist to other types of foods from the comfort of her home.
“I love meeting new people and having them try my food and making sure everything is homemade and fresh,” she says.
“Yemeni cuisine at your fingertips”
Najat Nahshal has been a customer of Taste of Aden for about a year. She says she can’t get enough of Manna’s homemade Yemeni dishes like zurbian, a signature dish of lamb and potato rice.
“I’ve had zurbian at several Yemeni cafes, cafes/restaurants, in Dearborn, Hamtramck and I truly believe his lamb zurbian was by far the best I’ve had. It just has that homey touch and that authenticity.
Nahshal says it’s amazing to have access to Yemeni food.
“Having authentic Yemeni cuisine available here in the US in Dearborn, conveniently, it almost feels like all Yemeni cuisine is at your fingertips.”
Nahshal says it means a lot to see Yemeni women thriving in small businesses.
Cathy Manna says she hopes her efforts will inspire people.
“There weren’t too many role models for Middle Eastern women having their own business because of stereotypes. I’m proud of myself for being my own role model. And I’m also happy with all these other women who are struggling and thriving,” she says.
Manna launched Taste of Aden a few years before the pandemic. As she feared COVID-19 would bankrupt her, it became an opportunity for her to cook home-cooked meals for families, educate people about her Yemeni culture, and become a role model for Yemeni and minority women in pursuit of their passions.