The menu at Salima Specialties in Skyway calls itself Pan-Asian, seemingly featuring Malaysian roti canai, Vietnamese banh mi, and Indian lassi drinks. But the dishes really all come from a single culture, Cham, a mostly Muslim Indigenous people from Southeast Asia. When Nurhaliza Mohamath, who goes by Liza, opened the restaurant in March 2022 with her parents, Salima and Asari, she found herself pushing the family to think about what Cham cuisine is. After a lifetime of curiosity about her own identity, she now confidently describes the food at her restaurant as Cham. “It’s Cham because our people made it our own, we have our own twist to it,” she says.
Cham food fluidly crisscrosses borders, sometimes looking like that of Vietnam, where all three Mohamaths were born, or Malaysia, the country whose cuisine Salima learned to cook working at her oldest sister’s restaurant in the village she grew up in. Other times, it borrows from around the Muslim world, bringing in flavors from North Africa or the Middle East.
In 2005, the Mohamaths opened Salima Restaurant on MLK Jr. Boulevard, where Salima cooked a huge menu of Southeast Asian halal cuisine; her peanut sauce from that restaurant earned a reputation that perseveres to this day. The spot also became a gathering point for Seattle’s Cham community and Muslims from all over who relished the rare chance to eat halal versions of pork-heavy local favorites, like Vietnamese food.
Unfortunately, in 2009, the combination of years of light rail construction closing down the street in front of the restaurant and the 2008 financial recession put the restaurant out of business. “It was a huge loss for my family, for the community,” says Liza.
Soon after, the couple began working at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, where they still work — Asari managing maintenance and Salima as the chef (all three Mohamaths still work their full-time jobs in addition to running the restaurant). But in the more than a decade since closing their restaurant, Salima and Asari never stopped dreaming of opening another one.
Last year, Liza graduated from college and joined her parents in dreaming of a restaurant, looking at more casual ideas that could appeal to younger generations. When Salima recently found out the former Catfish Corner space was available, she knew it was time to act. Within three days of contacting the landlord and explaining the plan, the Mohamaths signed a lease on the space.
They carefully chose affordable menu items for people on tighter budgets but also included pricier options that showcase Salima’s skills, like the tender oxtail soup. Salima’s famous peanut sauce and chicken satay skewers returned, along with mild dishes for small children, brightly colored drinks and snack food for teenagers, and traditional Cham flavors for the elders. “There’s intention behind everything,” Liza says.
For drinks, Salima Specialties serves traditional Malaysian teh tarik (pulled tea) and bandung (a rose syrup drink) but also Liza’s own matcha cookie beverage invention, inspired by Oreo drinks and Hello Panda cookies. The banh mi and pho might seem familiar to Seattleites versed in Vietnamese food, but here, everything is halal, so there’s no pork, a requirement that led to the Mohamaths making all the meats — chicken ham, vegan ham, and beef meatballs — in-house. They call their large stuffed steamed buns that fill the deli case in the front “Cham bao,” a play on humbow (the name that most of Seattle came to use for Chinese-style filled, stuffed buns), but made without pork. Instead, the fluffy dough wraps around shrimp, jicama, wood ear mushrooms, carrots, and a quail egg, cooked in the one ingredient Liza names as quintessentially Cham: toasted coconut milk. Sweet and smoky, it brings the flavors in the bao together in a way unique to Cham culture.
In the previous restaurant, Liza recounts, Salima felt like she was operating in the dark as a recent immigrant, that she and her husband were alone, just them with everything on their shoulders. At Salima Specialties, the opposite is true. “Now, she has community on her side,” Liza says.
Liza estimates about half their business is Cham people. South Seattle and King County have a large Cham population, and Liza describes the mobile home parks behind Skyway’s gas stations as “literally Cham villages.” Yet access to Cham cuisine has faded in the pandemic, says Liza. “A lot of our elders who have historically cooked and sold food out of their kitchens — that’s what we were raised on — those people have retired or passed on.” Salima Specialties, the reincarnation of her parents’ dream, hopes to bring it back. “Cham people can come here and feel proud,” Liza says. “You can recommend this restaurant; you can taste Cham food here.”
Liza was in elementary school when they had the first restaurant and fondly remembers her dad hand-delivering her lunches of chicken with rice and fish sauce. But if she said she was from Vietnam, classmates would ask why her family didn’t eat pork, why they wore headscarves, why she was different from everyone. It fed into Liza’s own struggle to understand her identity and where they came from. But Salima’s cooking combatted those questions for Liza: the food her family ate, what they served in their restaurant and to their own community, represented her cultural wealth, as it had for generations. “Our family really values knowing the cuisine.”
It’s easy for people to say that their food isn’t Cham because it’s Malaysian, or Vietnamese, Liza observes, but she shuts that criticism down. “I’m really passionate about reclaiming what our culture means,” says Liza. “It’s Cham because we made it.”