The ubiquitous lunch bowl is typically not the most exciting meal of anyone’s day, but Nubian Markets — a combination cafe, butchery, and grocer that celebrated its grand opening this week in Roxbury’s Nubian Square, at 2565 Washington Street — is not playing to expectations. Founded by chef Ismail Samad and Yusuf Yassin, the market is using the humble lunch bowl (and a few sandwiches) to tell a lesser-seen story about the intersection of the African and Muslim diaspora, in a zero-waste kitchen, in concert with a halal butchery and grocery store that puts local Black and brown purveyors front and center on its shelves.
Samad, who is African American and Mulism, and Yassin, who is East African and Muslim, have built the market to be a model of what neighborhood growth could look like when it doesn’t box out longtime residents and instead prioritizes that community. Roxbury — with a population that is over 80 percent Black and Latinx, according to 2010 census statistics, and is also home to New England’s largest mosque — is a fast-gentrifying neighborhood in Boston. Between its halal butchery, regional African foods cafe, and grocery store stocked with products from Black and brown vendors, Nubian Markets is aiming to be a business that reflects and supports longtime neighborhood residents, according to Samad.
“We know there’s pressures for gentrification and for the community to be not affordable for us,” Samad says. “So what can we do? Let’s work together as a community and claim necessary spaces, to own our own narrative and share it in ways that other people from around the city and the country can come in and continue to celebrate the African American and the Nubian experience that exists here in Boston.”
The regularly rotating menu at Nubian Markets’ cafe currently includes North African lamb couscous with tomatoes stewed in harissa, East African injera and lentils with a burnt orange salsa, and a curried chicken rendition of the South African street food bunny chow. The latter is characterized by its bread bowl holder that is rooted in apartheid and was sold to Black people who were denied access to restaurants during decades of institutionalized racial segregation in the country. “There’s so much within the unrivaled history of the continent that we really want to take in,” Samad says.
The cafe’s burger is made with ground beef from the halal butchery and tucked into a housemade pita with turmeric, ginger, and toasted caraway seeds. There are also baked goods, including bean pies, candied plantain buns, and a hand pie with fillings that will change regularly based on cafe ingredients.
“When you think about halal, in general, people are thinking, you know, Middle Eastern, right? That’s just not the reality,” Samad says. “There’s, like, over 80 different nationalities of Muslims who eat halal. Who dominates that market is the Middle Eastern community, and so to be able to center the African realities on the halal market is definitely a different take.”
The cafe also works hand in hand with the grocery store. Samad and his team showcase ingredients in the cafe from local vendors like Kamaal Jarrett, who sells hot sauces and marinades at Hillside Harvest, and Hapi African Gourmet’s Paulette Ngachoko, whose peanut stew is used in the chickpea peanut stew bowl on the cafe menu.
“It’s nice to work with folks to invest in an anchor [where you] can actually put the Sweet Baby Ray’s on the bottom shelf and put Hillside Harvest right in the middle,” Samad says. “It just becomes a more powerful transaction when you can own the shelf space.”
Nubian Markets is part of a larger, sweeping economic development of Roxbury’s Nubian Square, which has been at the center of many high-profile new real estate projects in recent years. But Samad is hopeful for the community involvement in this wave of development, which he saw in actions like the renaming of Nubian Square in 2019, and, now, the opening of Nubian Markets is another step in that process.
“When we talk about extractive economies and exclusionary realities that effect Black and brown communities, what are the anchors that need to be put in place and invested in to actually create wealth in our ecosystem?” Samad says. “It is super important to make sure that we are working to establish trade routes that are centered around equity and creating that circular economy that can bring wealth back into the hands of Black and brown farmers, producers, and other business owners.”
Nubian Markets is located at 2565 Washington Street, in Roxbury. It is currently open from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays.