"In Europe, Sudanese food was quite unknown. I serve Sudanese food, but a bit different from what people in Sudan eat." Walid El Sayed
"People just think of Africa in terms of hunger and war and that we are lazy. I want to prove the opposite.” Walid El Sayed
In Berlin you can find on almost every corner of a street a typical Turkish Döner Kebap shop. But once you have a better look between the piles of Döner, you are likely to find a different type of fast food: Sudanese. Walid El Sayed has recently opened his fourth shop, selling food from his home country Sudan. “It’s from Sudan, but mixed to my own taste.”
Walid came to Europe when he was 24 years old. He studied in Rumania first, and left for Frankfurt am Main to continue. But it was always Berlin he wanted to go to. “I have been here many years now, and every day Berlin gets more interesting and nicer. In other cities this normally goes the other way around,” he grins while having a bite from a typical Sudanese cookie.
During his second studies in Berlin, Walid made a living selling his food on street festivals. “Apart from that, I also cooked every Tuesday in my student home. Every week more people came to eat my dinner.” Walid decided to professionalize his passion for food and started Berlin’s first Sudanese fast food restaurant ‘Nil Imbiss’ in 2000 in Friedrichshain.
But every beginning is difficult, agrees Walid. “I first looked around this neighbourhood for about a month. Back then there were quite some Neonazi’s here, which can be dangerous with my skin colour. Your neighbours are important of course, they represent most of your customers. Luckily, our corner was Nazi-free so I could start my first restaurant.”
Another difficulty was the fact that not many people knew about Sudanese food. “In Europe it was quite unknown. What I offer in the restaurants is Sudanese but a bit different from what people in Sudan eat. I developed my own recipes. The dish ‘Mish’ for example. Here we serve it just with onions and garlic, in Sudan it would stew for hours mixed with a lot of red peppers.”
It’s not only the food that has to convince the European people, Walid also feels that as an African you have to prove yourself in this society. “Money is not the most important thing in your job. With work you can also reach many other goals. I have a lot of people from African countries working for me now for example. I give people jobs. We also want to show Europeans that we Africans don’t only have wars. People just think of Africa in terms of hunger and war and that we are lazy. I want to prove the opposite.”
Walid can live a good life from the money he earns with his restaurants. While he is expanding his Sudanese empire in Berlin, he notices that former employees of his are trying to steal a bit of his success. “People stole my ideas and my recipes and opened a restaurant themselves. It’s bad, I mean, I developed these recipes myself, it’s part of Sudan and part of me. I can tell my customers about the history of the dishes, how I came to these ideas – but these people just try to sell it under the name ‘Sudanese food’.” Not many restaurants survive however; Walid has seen many shops having to close down.
All of Walid’s shops carry the name ‘Nil Imbiss’ – or ‘Nile restaurant’, named after the famous African river that runs from Uganda through Sudan to Egypt. “The Nile means life to me. The Nile is the water we need to live. And the Nile reminds me a lot about my childhood. I lived ten minutes away from the Nile. I went there everyday, I played there, I smoked hajjis there, I saw the full moon there. It has an enormous meaning to me,” he smiles.
Walid looks around his fourth shop proudly. It’s early in the morning and some people are working hard in the kitchen to prepare the dishes on the menu. Sudanese music blasts from the speakers. “My roots are in Sudan, but Berlin has become my home town.”