How Boise’s Warm Welcome to Immigrants Elevated Its Food Scene

A dot of blue in an extremely red state, Boise, Idaho accepts a huge number of refugees.
Mantoo, meat-filled Afghani dumplings with a yogurt sauce on top.
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The more remote a city is, the less diversity you might expect in its restaurants. But Dave Bieter, the mayor of Boise, posits the opposite—that being so far from any other major population centers has helped Boise nurture its burgeoning culinary scene. “You can’t travel an hour and be in a bigger city,” he points out. “That’s a dynamic that’s been helpful in arts, business, and food: People have to be more self-reliant and creative.”

A spin around the city’s main farmers’ markets on a Saturday morning gives a hint of the flavors—there are tamales and pozole from a Mexican stand, Tibetan momos, and a stand selling goat stew with rice and stuffed egg sambusa pastries. The city of 220,000 welcomes hundreds of refugees each year, and immigrants constitute more than 6% of the Ada County population. Prior to the 2016 election, when refugee resettlement slowed, Boise was settling more Syrians than New York City or Los Angeles.

A spinach and tripe stew from the Taste of Nigeria African Cuisine food truck.
Naomi Tomky/Fortune

Sakar Moody isn’t Syrian, but he spent nine years in that country after leaving his hometown of Baghdad. From there, he spent five years in Turkey, and then moved to Boise two years ago.

At his first restaurant, Palm Arabic, most of the customers were from Iraq or other Middle Eastern countries. But about a year ago, he and his brother bought The Goodness Land—which Bieter cites as his favorite immigrant-owned restaurant in town—and found a space that draws an even more diverse mix of patrons.

Zainab Abimbola, owner of the Taste of Nigeria African Cuisine food truck.
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But while Moody came directly to Boise, many of the city’s immigrants arrived elsewhere and learned just how rare a warm welcome for immigrants is in this country.

Zainab Abimbola, who owns the food truck Taste of Nigeria African Cuisine, spent time in other parts of the U.S., including California. But it was when Abimbola started selling meat pies outside Boise sporting events that she discovered, as she puts it, “Boise people are friendly, kind—there’s no bullying.”

One of Zainab Abimbola’s famous meat pies.
Naomi Tomky/Fortune

When Abimbola first arrived in town, she didn’t have a Social Security number yet, so she couldn’t get a standard job. Instead, Abimbola just started cooking for other people in the community until word spread of her food. Now that she’s settled, Abimbola managed to secure a loan earmarked for refugees and used that to open a food truck just about a year ago. Now, people come by the truck and tell her they remember her from when she used to sell pies at events.

Mashal Kamalpory also made a stop before Boise—he and his family are from Afghanistan and spent less than a month in Chicago, which, he says, they found unfriendly. When they arrived in Boise a few years ago, Kamalpory began waiting tables at Kabob House, where the previous owners—despite also being from Afghanistan—didn’t really know how to cook traditional foods. Kamalpory’s father had been a doctor in Afghanistan and also owned a restaurant. So the family took the money they had saved to buy a house and instead bought Kabob House.

The qabuli palow: an Afghan dish of browned rice baked with tender chunks of lamb falling off a shank bone and woven with carrots and raisins.
Naomi Tomky/Fortune

Now meals start with saffron-infused tea to “clean the heart,” and finish with mountains of qabuli palow—browned rice baked with tender chunks of lamb falling off a shank bone and woven with sweetness from carrots and raisins. With low tables served by a silver tea trolley, a wall hung with an Afghan flag, and Kamalpory and his family’s hospitality, it’s hard to imagine a place that wouldn’t welcome them.

But Bieter says it’s something that takes a concerted effort: The city tries to engage the police and parks department to ensure Boise is welcoming in as many ways as possible, and to help shed Idaho’s reputation for hostility to outsiders. In return, Bieter says, the newcomers have improved the city: “It’s made us better, more cosmopolitan, a more interesting city, a better city. A city with more flavor.”

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