Mahalia’s Kitchen brings a Guyanese taste to Somerset, England

Mahalia Arjoon stands in front of her café a few weeks after its opening three years ago

Mahalia Arjoon Purchase loves cooking and as such, when she realised that she may be the only, or one of a very few Guyanese living in Somerset, England, she realised that she could introduce a food business which serves up flavourful dishes to the area.

And in 2019, she did just that, opening the doors to Mahalia’s Kitchen, a cafe and takeaway service where the foods are infused with Caribbean and Guyanese flavours.

Mahalia was born in Kumaka at Mabaruma, in the North West District of Guyana. She spent a few years at Yarakita near the Guyana-Venezuela border during her childhood and as time went by, she moved to the city where she attended the St Joseph High School and the University of Guyana.

The idea

“So that is the reason why I opened my café so that I can bring a bit of the Caribbean to this area, the flavour and spices, and that is why people like coming here to my café because it is different, different foods, atmosphere,” she explained.“I first worked at Fogarty’s as a sales assistant,” she said, noting that she worked in the manufacturing sector when she entered the field of accounting in the banking sector and later at Stabroek News in the advertising department.

Mahalia Arjoon Purchase prepares some of her tasty pholourie at her café

Two decades ago, she moved to the United Kingdom; she lived in London for 3 years after which she moved to Somerset where she has been living for the past 17 years. Mahalia managed to qualify herself as a certified holistic health coach after moving to the UK and according to the mother of two, her liking for healthy foods is one of the many reasons she decided to open the eatery.

As regards moving to England, she noted that it was a “very big challenge”, adding that she managed to adapt since London’s multi-cultural life includes meeting persons who are from various nationalities including those from the Caribbean and Guyana. She said moving to Somerset was a huge challenge since she was the only Guyanese in her area, and according to her, she may be the only non-white person there. “I discovered after a month of moving in here, I realised I could not get the type of foods I am accustomed to eating so it was a difficult transition,” she said.

Mahalia said she loves cooking and according to her, after recognising the vacuum of foods she is accustomed to eating, she decided that she should share her culture and skills with the community. She said she started by cooking for her friends via small “pop-up” kitchens. She said she would visit the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) hall in her area and open her “pop-up” kitchen once each month. That was in the month prior to 2019. She said as she started to cook more foods and recognised the response was favourable, she decided to test the waters a bit and opened the café at High Street, Somerset.

She explained that initially, she was cooking mainly foods found in the United Kingdom since she was not sure how persons would respond. But as time went by, she would add the Caribbean dishes to the menu. “And people would come to the café and ask for the foods from the Caribbean,” she added.

She said that the customers included persons who may have travelled to the region including Guyana. “So that is how the idea came about,” she added, noting that she simply brought the flavours to the people. She said her curries and jerk chicken, including wings, turned out to be in demand.

The garden atmosphere at the café at Mahalia’s Kitchen

Dealing with the pandemic

Mahalia noted that the café was attracting many customers since she opened its doors in August 2019 but months into its first year of opening, the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world’s healthcare systems.

But it turned out to be a testing period for Mahalia’s Kitchen. The proprietor noted that the takeaway style of buying food was introduced in England to cope with the pandemic and since there were only Italian, British and other types of food serving at restaurants, she decided she should join the market and introduce her Caribbean, Guyanese takeaways.” So I would say I introduced the Caribbean flavours to this area and it has been thriving so far,” she said.

She said persons have been asking for private bookings and according to her as time goes by, she will introduce a new blend of foods or style of beverages to the menu.

The menu

The foods possess Caribbean infused flavours, Mahalia explained, noting that even the English dishes would have a sample of the taste of the West Indies. She said her ingredients are sourced “very local” adding that although her flavours are from this side of the world, she supports the local farming markets in Somerset. She added that her spices are usually sourced from overseas including Guyana through a supplier in England. “So people do like that about my business, because I ensure all my supplies are very much local,” she said.

The dishes include salads, curries, pepper-pot, Guyanese-style fried rice, finger foods such as pholourie and cheese straws and a line of smoothies as well as tasty barbequed chicken.

She also gave names to some of the beverages, and with a giggle, she recalled growing up on a peanut farm outside Mabaruma at Wauna. She recalled her father making peanut punch many times. As such she gave the name “Dad’s nut punch” to her peanut punch.

She also gave the name of her mother to her hot bowl dishes including rice/peas combinations.

Mahalia also utilises social media to market her business; she created a Facebook account – Mahalia’s Kitchen – and she can also be found on TikTok.

In terms of challenges, Mahalia said sourcing spices and a few other ingredients can be a spot of bother but she noted that she recently discovered a supplier who imports Guyanese food items into the United Kingdom. She added that there are day to day challenges such as increase in prices for items her business utilises either directly or indirectly. She said she is still searching for other suppliers as she strives to introduce new foods to the menu at Mahalia’s Kitchen.