Refugee's catering venture brings Sudan to Memphis tables

After spending seven years preparing food at Binghampton’s Caritas Village, Ibtisam Salih is ready to take her famous Sudanese soups and other recipes to the city through a new catering business, Ibti’s Soup and Catering
Ibtisam Salih’s dream is to own her own business. She certainly has the credentials.

She spent seven years at Caritas Village where she prepared food from a variety of cultures ranging from Italian and Mexican to authentic fare from her home of Sudan.

In fact, it’s those traditional Sudanese soups that makes Salih famous in the Binghampton neighborhood. Specialties like her creamy chicken soup get special recognition at Ibti’s Soup and Catering.
Now a figure in the immigrant-rich neighborhood of Binghampton, Salih was a stranger not too long ago.
“We had a big country. Before we became a country our borders had ten cultures so we have a lot of different cultures,” Salih said. “By ourselves we have more than 500 tribes. When I say different, it’s different. But if I see someone from Sudan, I can know which tribe they are.”
Originally from North Sudan, Salih left that country for Egypt where she and her family lived for a few years before coming to Memphis in 1999.
“I see the reaction when people try our food. I’m so proud. I have found we have really good food. The food always takes you to a second step to tell people about our culture.”

She never wanted to leave Sudan, but a new government threatened Salih’s journalist husband. Several of his friends were caught and killed, but Salih’s family made it to Egypt where they started a center for Sudanese culture.
Through that cultural center, the Salih family helped people who escaped Sudan to Egypt. They thought Egypt would become a new home.
They were there for five years when the governments of Egypt and Sudan revisited an agreement for water in the Nile River. In short, Sudan gave Egypt more water, and in exchange, Egypt agreed to send back everyone who had fled Sudan.
The United Nations stepped in, and Salih’s family found their way to Memphis in February 1999. Salih has degrees in philosophy and psychology, and her husband’s degree is in theater.
But the couple found themselves starting over in Memphis. Salih worked warehouse jobs while her husband went back to school to pursue a master’s degree.
In 2006, Salih was laid off from her warehouse job. Luckily, Onie Johns, founder of Caritas Village, called and offered Salih a job.
While Salih had never worked in the food industry, she was drawn to the family atmosphere at Caritas, a restaurant and community center that caters to Binghampton’s immigrant population.
Salih prepared food at Caritas and served as kitchen manager for five years. She learned to cook everything, but her soups quickly became a hit. In Sudan, it is customary to eat soup three times a day, Salih said.
Salih worked at Caritas Village from 2007 to May 2014 when she took a long break for a visit to Sudan. She returned after three months with her mind set on opening a catering business.

She took a job at Nike where she works weekends to help save money for her future business. A friend at Memphis Servant Leadership connected Salih to The Commons on Merton, a converted church that houses nonprofits and refugee-related programming. That connection brought her to the Binghampton Development Corp. and its commercial kitchen, which provided Salih the opportunity to prepare food for friends.
“We’ve known Ibti for a number of years,” said Noah Gray, executive director at the BDC. “Her soups are amazing. She was someone we kept in mind when we renovated our commercial kitchen. It was included to support some kind of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.”

Salih and five other food entrepreneurs from the Binghampton neighborhood sell their homemade fare at the Broad Avenue Art Walk. Salih hopes to learn some of the technical aspects of running a business through her relationship with the FreshLo project with Little Bird Innovation and the BDC. As she gets the business up and running, she plans to launch a menu and grow her clientele through word of mouth.
“When I start doing catering I’m thinking about all the food I can do,” she said. “The experience at Caritas – I cooked all of that by myself – that gave me really big experience. When someone orders lasagna for 100 people I can do that. I make Mexican, Italian, Middle East,” Salih said.
While Caritas Village was her first professional experience cooking for others, it was second nature back home in North Sudan. She was one of five sisters all taught to cook by their mother.
When extended family would visit on the weekend – a regular occurrence – each girl took turns preparing food for the visits.
“You have to cook for 25 to 50 people,” Salih said. “You have to know how to feed this big of a family for three days plus tea.” Here in Memphis, Salih passed on the same traditions in teaching her daughters to cook.
Salih has been in Memphis for nearly 18 years, which is long enough to learn new cultures. With her new catering business she wants to mix her Sudanese culture with some American highlights.
Beyond catering for events of any size, Salih’s long-term dream is to open a restaurant. She is proud of her time at Caritas Village, and believes that experience helped prepare her for a life of food entrepreneurship.
“My dream is I need to open a restaurant and then I can do anything I need to do,” she said. “I see the reaction when people try our food. I’m so proud. I have found we have really good food. The food always takes you to a second step to tell people about our culture.”
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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.