Meet the trader: Amiira Ismail, who brings a taste of Somalia to East London

Amiira Ismail with her Somalian hot sauce Pic: Basbaas_sauce (Instagram)

Back in 2019, before Coronavirus hit the UK, Tower Hamlets and City of London councils joined together to regenerate the Petticoat Lane Market in Spitalfields. This led to the creation of Lady Lane Market, a row of market stalls made up of all women vendors.

The market rapidly filled with a variety of traders, with ladies hailing from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Africa, and the Caribbean. One of them is Amiira Ismail, the Somali-born 32-year-old who has brought the tastes of her home country to the UK with her Amira’s Basbaas Hot Sauce.

“Nowadays people eat hot sauce a lot,” said Ismail. “I wanted to have a percentage of that. I wanted people to know about my culture as well as taste a different sauce than what they’re used to.”

Ismail moved to East London from Somalia as a child. She’s lived across the area, from Bow to the Docklands, all her life, but recently moved to a flat in Poplar with her mother. These days, she spends a huge amount of time cooking her sauce.  

The idea for her product was born when Ismail lost her job at a distribution centre, where she worked the night shift, just over four years ago. If she had never been forced to leave that job, Ismail believes that Amira’s Basbaas Hot Sauce might not have ever been born.

“I realised, ‘Oh, so I can have the idea, bring it to life and show people [the chilli sauce].” Ismail said. “I had this chilli sauce behind my back and since I lost my job, I could think about it.”

At the end of 2017, she began testing out recipes for her sauce. She first tried it out on friends and family, adding her own twist to classic flavours of the Somali hot sauce, which she said is unlike any other hot sauce you can currently find in the UK.  

“We have a few ingredients that are different to other sauces, like we use dates and, instead of sugar, we use tamarind. It gives you not just a kick, but a flavour to eat.”

The sauce’s name, Basbaas, comes from the Somali word for chilli. Ismail cooks three different types: mild, medium and hot: “If people don’t like hot, they can try the mild. It’s different colours as well, green, yellow and red.”

It’s incredibly flexible, said Ismail. “You can use it as a dip, you can use it as a marinade, and I use it sometimes as a substitute for cooking paste. The flavour is amazing.”

Before she became a part of the all-women-led market at Petticoat Lane, Ismail had already started trading her sauce at Roman Road Market in August 2018, and it was from there that the business grew.

“I started from there and just step by step built it up. I started with bottles, and now, I’ve moved to pouches.”

As soon as she heard about Lady Lane Market, Ismail was quick to jump on the opportunity to be a part of it.

“They came to help women, especially in Tower Hamlets.” She said. “I was already doing my business, so I heard about them, and I contacted them … We got so much help from Lady Lane Market.”

More recently, Ismail has begun selling online and in Spitalfields. However, she has big plans for how to move her business forward. At one point, she was aiming to sell her product in the supermarkets, but now, her focus is on smaller local businesses. However, her dreams do not stop there.

“In five years’ time or down the road, I’m aiming to open a Somali restaurant. I’m looking for longevity. I don’t want to rush anything because I know I’m here to stay.”

The feedback Ismail has had from customers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People taste the sauce and they say ‘wow’ and just buy it straight away, or someone who has just passed by and tests it … they just come back and say ‘oh, the taste is still in my mouth!’ and they end up buying it!”

Amira’s Basbaas Hot Sauce is available online, or on Saturdays at Old Spitalfields Market, E1 6EW.

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