Nadja Larini | Mazomanie, WI
I love food and experimenting with new flavors and dishes, so this was a perfect fit for me. Base Camp mainly serves American breakfast food, like pancakes, bacon, hashbrown and grilled cheese. But I really wanted to bring some ethnic flare to the menu.
Since I often dine out at other restaurants, I can be a bit critical and competitive knowing that I might be able to replicate or even improve upon the dishes. The owner of Base Camp gave me the freedom to periodically try out special dishes. And typically, those dishes sell out. I have friends of many diverse backgrounds, and when they introduce me to their traditional foods, I learn more about their culture. I always like to try various foods and learn as much as possible about a group of people and their dishes before I attempt to make something similar.
Every two weeks or so, we have special dinners of various ethnic foods. Some focus on a special cuisine, like Nepalese (with dal bhat), or Moroccan (with lamb couscous.) Others cover broader regions, like Taste of South American (Columbian ajiaco, Perevian shrimp ceviche, and Pabellon criolla, a Venezuelan shredded beef dish.) Our best sellers are usually our soups, such as harira, which is a Moroccan soup with about thirty ingredients that people traditionally eat to break their fast during Ramadan (a holy month in Islam where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and engage in prayer and reflection.) I only make harira twice a year since it is so labor-intensive—it takes me four hours just to make one pot because you have to peel all the chickpeas.
I use some family recipes when making Moroccan dishes, though these recipes are not your standard recipes with exact measurements. It is more like a list of ingredients, most of which are fresh produce. Because the recipe allows so much variation, I never make exactly the same dish twice.
My upbringing and strong family roots with cooking influenced my passion to be a chef. My parents made food and cooking a central part of our family life. A lot of my family’s cooking had Spanish influence, which is hardly surprising since you could see Spain in the distance, across the Strait of Gibraltar, from our apartment. Food brought us together to congregate and catch up on our day.
I was born in Tangier, Morocco in 1988. I am half-German and half-Moroccan and have two names. In Morocco, my name is Islam Larini. Since the name is gender neutral, the hospital required my mom to choose a female name to match my gender identity. My mom is German, so she chose to add “Nadja” to the beginning of my name. In Germany, my name is Nadja Islam Larini. Everybody calls me ‘Izzy’.
My father ran a clothing shop in Tangier called Boutique Aziz. When I was young, he also had a shop selling clothing and handbags on a large ferry that traveled between Morocco and Spain, and I often helped out there. Each crossing took about two hours, and tourists from around the world would visit the shop and bring some of their own language and culture. So I had a very broad experience of the people of the world even though I had never traveled very far myself. Because we lived near countries of diverse populations, my siblings and I learned and spoke several different languages, including German, Spanish, French, Moroccan and Darija, a Moroccan-Arabic-Berber dialect. The city of Tangier is very aromatic. The mix of smells from the markets—spices, fruits, vegetables, butcher and seafood shops—and cooking from the restaurants can be overpowering but in a good way. These smells bring me back to my childhood when my dad took me after school to a place to have tapas, sometimes shrimp omelets or warm olives and tiny fried fish.
My husband and I met in 2011 and I immigrated to the United States to be with him in 2014. We currently live in his hometown of Mazomanie, a small town about thirty minutes west of Madison. Unfortunately, shortly after I moved to America, my father passed away.
One of my favorite things is when someone says they don’t like some kind of food…then I make it for them and they discover they actually love it! Some people may be unfamiliar with a certain type of food and are afraid to try it because it is different from what they are used to. I encourage people to broaden their taste palette and explore new cuisine because you never know what you are going to enjoy until you try. Food is a great way to have conversations with people of diverse backgrounds and learn about who they are, where they call home and what food means to them.
Nadja’s story was produced by Jesse Yang