Canopy Atlanta has partnered with 285 South, which will extend and deepen community-centered coverage of local immigrant and refugee communities. Journalist Sophia Qureshi, founder and publisher of 285 South and author of this story, is a Canopy Atlanta Writer-in-Residence.
Samina Sattar stood on a stage in the event hall of the Alif Institute one evening in April for an iftar fundraiser. Set out on a table in front of her was an unlikely mix of ingredients: shrimp, heirloom tomatoes. Juices from lemons, limes, and oranges. A deep-fried, hollowed-out ball known as fuchka, or pani puri. Tamarind chutney. And pani puri masala, a spice mix that includes dried mango, black salt, and chili.
After breaking their fast with a traditional South Asian meal of chicken korma and biryani, members of the audience watched Sattar demonstrate how to make something unlike anything they just ate: “ceviche fuchka.” The fuchka, which is traditionally served by filling it with a mixture of chickpeas and/or potatoes, was instead filled with a tangy ceviche.
“It was delicious,” said Yasmeen Fareedudin, who had driven down from Roswell to attend the iftar with her husband.
By day, Sattar is a speech therapist at a Buford Highway-based clinic that serves mostly immigrant children who face challenges in articulation, social skills, stuttering, and feeding and swallowing.
But after she clocks off work, she transforms into an inventive culinary artist in her Norcross kitchen, whipping up innovative dishes such as gulab jamun cheesecakes, samosa shepherd’s pie, and doodh patti glazed chai cookies.
These recipes are a far cry from the offerings of restaurants she frequents along Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross, like Karachi Broast and Grill, Kabab King, Mughals, Dil Bahar Cafe (“Those are my spots!,” she says), all of which serve classic Pakistani dishes. And there seems to be a growing customer base for her creativity: Sattar has been developing a loyal following through her Instagram page The Feeding Therapist, her food pop-ups, and her dessert catering since 2019.
What struck me most about Sattar, who grew up in the Bangladeshi community in Chamblee (a community which has grown to at least 6,000 in Metro Atlanta as of 2019), was how she saw a natural connection between her work as a speech therapist and her passion to spread joy through food. At the iftar that evening, she was moved to tears, describing her grandmother’s speech challenges, which made it difficult for her to chew food. Sattar was determined to create recipes that she could enjoy in the last days of her life.
I spoke to her about that connection, her Bangladeshi origins, and growing up in restaurants.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in New York, but I spent most of my life in Georgia. My parents came to the U.S. as Bangladeshi immigrants. My dad was the first to come to the U.S., and he worked hard to get my mom to join him. He waited tables at restaurants in New York and could barely afford anything. Our family eventually moved to Atlanta, where my dad got the opportunity to start his own restaurant. This was a game-changer for our family and made us all foodies.
What kinds of foods did you grow up eating at home?
Growing up, my family stayed true to our Bangladeshi roots, and Bangladeshi food was always on the table for lunch and dinner. A typical meal consisted of a spread with rice, a protein in curry form, and a vegetable dish. We ate with our hands, which I believe is the best way to enjoy a meal. One of my favorite things growing up was spending time at my family’s restaurant. I would feast on fresh tandoori chicken, pilau, and naan any way I wanted. Sometimes I would choose garlic, other times cheese, and sometimes sweet naan. When it was time to eat at school, I used to wish my mom’s delicious home-cooked food would stay at home. I was insecure that my classmates would find it weird, and some of them did.
As I got older, I regretted not owning up to my love for my mom’s food. I wish I had appreciated it more back then. Some of my favorite dishes cooked by my mom include spicy and sour curry with fish eggs, chicken korma, beef or goat tehari, aloo bhortha, begun bhaja, and fried hilsa fish.
Bangladeshi food plays a huge role in my journey as a chef because I think it is very underrepresented, and I make that assessment by noticing my dad and uncles’ decisions in running Indian restaurants with North Indian cuisines. While it’s popular, I think it’s also a missed opportunity to proudly share some of the unique flavors Bangladesh has to offer, and so I always try my best to highlight some of my favorite foods and flavors on my page.
What are some of those flavors?
One thing I actually find a lot in Bangladeshi cooking more than other South Asian or other cuisines is the use of mustard seeds and mustard oil. We use a lot of mustard oil for a certain dish that we have called bhorta. It’s a mash of roasted veggies that we are known for having it, like, multiple types of ways, and mustard oil is like the base of all of them.
There’s a spice blend called panch phoron, which is like a Bangladeshi five spice that we use a lot in our veggies or samosas or in potatoes for breakfast. I really like that blend.
What connection do you see between your work as a speech therapist and your passion for food?
So when it comes to feeding and swallowing, a lot of times when you age, your ability to swallow slows down or is impaired. Especially if you’ve had a stroke.
Right now I work with kids. But I have a goal of working with adults with feeding during end-of-life care, because one of the last things you have that you can really enjoy is the ability to enjoy good food. And if your swallowing is impaired, it’s really hard to enjoy foods.
I really tried with my grandmother to stick with liquids for her, or thick soup where it has this consistency of a custard or a pudding. It’s not pleasant at all. I would try my best to make it enjoyable. Sometimes I would cook, and sometimes my mom would cook, and we were both pretty much taking care of her together. I actually developed this cookie butter for her to have for breakfast. I worked on making cookie butter using Parle-G biscuits. It was a nice smooth consistency so that she could be able to swallow that and also just enjoy it. Like a little treat.
Another thing is, when I was in a high school, there were students with autism that I worked with, and we had a coffee shop in the building. A lot of what I do is helping them have better social skills and learning how to greet people properly. And then at the same time, being able to multitask and follow multi-step directions. And then being able to, like, make appropriate eye contact with other people. So food is a very social experience.
I really hope one day if I open up my own coffee shop, or a bakery, I’d love to hire adolescents or adults with disabilities. And we can work on some of those skills while they’re serving other people.
What are some of your favorite recipes?
I get really excited when flavors are really working together. I have a friend who’s from Spain and she had cooked some things before that I really love—traditional Spanish foods, like a Spanish omelet, and Pan con Tomate, which is really elevated tomato on bread. She emphasized the importance of using a really good tomato and she was like, “You can’t find good tomatoes in the U.S.” I was like, “Dang, maybe I need to start growing some tomatoes.” So I started growing tomatoes. Instead of pan con tomate, I made tomato bhorta, which Bengalis make. You roast the tomato on a pan, dry, with no oil. You get it nice and charred. And then you take off the skin and mash it up and add garlic, onions, chilis, and mustard oil. I tried that with some toast and I loved it. I think some Bengalis would say this is crazy because you’re supposed to eat it with rice. But it really worked. I felt like it was a Bangladeshi bruschetta.
And the other thing I had was a Spanish omelet. I decided to combine two traditional breakfast dish Bangladeshi dishes, which is what we call Dim Vaji, which just means “fried egg,” and then Aloo Bhaji, which is fried potatoes. The fried potatoes are usually prepared where you cut them up like hash browns, and then you add turmeric, and then the Bangladeshi five spice, panch phoron. I ended up cutting the potatoes like you would for a Spanish omelet. And then I followed the steps for a Spanish omelet using what we would put in the Bangladeshi omelet: cilantro, green chilies, onions. My family had it and they were like, “Wow, this is super good.”
What’s the future for Chef Samina?
Occasionally I’ll send out something on my Instagram story and say, “OK, for this weekend only, I’m taking dessert orders.” What generally happens is I’ll have to make almost 200 desserts within a day. It gets a little overwhelming for me. I think I’ve reached a point where if I want to continue this, I have to get a commercial kitchen and get a staff. But I also really love the idea of doing pop-ups, and I’m feeling like I’m leaning more towards pop-ups and doing classes or demos.
Do you have any advice for others who want to explore their passion for food?
I would have told my younger self, don’t ever be embarrassed about food if you like something. Don’t listen to people who think it’s weird, because their opinion doesn’t matter. You like what you like. And chances are, if you like it, there are going to be other people that like it too. I learned that the more that I shared about some of our cooking techniques, I realized that it’s not universal in South Asia. There are certain ingredients that are not universal. So it’s kind of a way of learning. It’s a nice way to get to know other people’s cultures and to not be afraid.
You can follow Chef Samina Sattar, aka The Feeding Therapist, on Instagram here.
And stay tuned for Canopy Atlanta’s upcoming Norcross Issue, where we’ll learn about the people, places, and issues in this incredibly diverse part of Metro Atlanta.
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