On my last trip to Minnesota, I was taken aback by one cuisine, Somalian, that seemed curiously popular (and deservedly so) but only because I had not expected a population of Somalians in Minnesota of sufficient size to support it. My sister, who lives there, mentioned that Minnesotans living around the Twin Cities were gaining interest in Somalian food as several locals had been cast in the movie Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks. That’s all I needed to know, and my husband and sister gamely accompanied me on a quest to sample this food for ourselves. Did we get a treat!
Last year, we found a similar cuisine that was not what I expected, in Hmong. Both Hmong and Somalians have large populations in Minnesota. Minnesota can even claim to having the largest Somalian population out side of Africa.
Onto the food – Our first Impressions
The restaurant we chose, Qoraxlow, had limited options. I was not to be deterred so I ordered the goat and a sampling of the sambuusas displayed behind the counter along with some mango juice for the three of us. We had no idea what to expect, but had high hopes as the savory smells emanating from the kitchen caused our tummies to rumble. When I ordered for our table, I mentioned that this was our first time trying this cuisine and we were very excited to do so. The servers were game to assist, but it was obvious that they were not accustomed to dealing with newbies. They tried to answer our questions, but when something is just imbedded in their culture how does one explain it? It just is. The cashier said they had goat and spaghetti – not knowing that the spaghetti actually a fairly common Somalian dish, we made the faulty assumption it was there to appease not native eaters, so we skipped it. Next time…
They were super sweet and also brought us some soup to sample and it was my favorite. It was a lentil soup with some heat, and proved the perfect antidote to the cold weather outside. I am not sure what it is called, but I now have a quest to find the recipe.
A Bit of What We Learned
Overview of Somali Cuisine
Situated in eastern Africa, Somalia forms the Cap of the Horn of Africa. Somalia has a nomadic culture with a clan social structure, and with Muslim as the predominant religion. Somalia was colonized by England (northern Somalia), France (Djibouti) and Italy (souther Somalia), and as might be expected their influenced is found in Somalian cuisine – with that plate of unordered spaghetti and a fondness for tea as evidence. Traditional Somali foods are meat based, but like other Muslims, no pork is consumed. Somalis have scrumptious meat and chicken dishes called bariis, often served with basmati rice seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. In Somalia, eating local is a way of live and a person’s occupation influences diet. Somali cuisine reflects clever use of scarce resources.
Milk from sheep, goat or camel is a staple for many rural Somalis. Somalis make butter by shaking the milk which they then turn into ghee, which keeps for months when stored in a leather container called a tabut or kuchey. Fermented camel milk becomes jinow, a solid, yoghurt-like substance.
People on farms in the south eat a more varied diet that includes corn, millet, sorghum, beans, and some fruit and vegetables. Millet is converted into a porridge or mixed with milk to form cakes. Beans are usually served with ghee or mixed with corn, while sorghum is ground into flour to make bread. Rice is common, but must be imported.
Despite Somalia’s long coastline, fish consumption has been limited to coastal towns. Traditional Somalian society holds fishermen and the eating of fish in low regard. Nomads, in particular, disdain fish consumption, as the thinking goes that eating fish is is a sign of a poor herdsman. Farmers have more diverse diets with their greater access to cereals, grains, legumes, and vegetables, while the coastal towns’ cuisine were influenced by the Arabian Peninsula and incorporate a great variety of dishes.
Ethiopia contributed some food ideas to northern Somalia; its neighbor to the east. Due to these influences, the people of the northern regions of Somalia eat doro wat (chicken stew with hard-boiled eggs) or Iab (cottage cheese and yogurt). Berbere, a spice mix becoming popular here in the states, combines powdered chile pepper and other spices is an important seasoning used in many dishes. Also essential is niter kebbeh, a clarified butter infused with ginger, garlic, and various spices.
Firfir made from shredded injera mixed with spices is a common breakfast in northern Somalia. Dulet is also popular for breakfast, a spicy mix of beef and injera. Fatira consists of a large fried pancake made with flour often with an egg, and consumed with honey. Chechebsa is made with pieces of pancake, spices and honey.
Legumes such as lentils or chick peas are integral to the vegetarian meal in northern Somalia. The cooked legumes are eaten in salads, or seasoned with chillies and ginger. Dried legumes can be ground into flour and used in vegetarian fritters.
Three Square Meals
Breakfast (quraac) is an important meal for Somalis, who often start the day with tea (shah), and a dish typically consisting of a pancake-like bread (canjeero).
Canjeero is eaten in different ways. It may be broken into small pieces with ghee (subag) and sugar. For children, it is mashed with tea and sesame oil (macsaaro) until mushy. A side of beef or goat, or diced beef cooked in a bed of soup (suqaar), or jerky (oodkac), which is small dried pieces of beef, goat or even camel meat, boiled in ghee.
Lahoh is a pancake-like bread often eaten with honey and ghee. During lunch, lahoh is sometimes consumed with curry, soup or stew.
Sabayad is another flatbread similar to injera/lahoh and Indian paratha.
Polenta (mishaari) with butter and sugar is eaten around Mogadishu.
The evening meal is light and might include beans, muffo (patties made of oats or corn) or a salad with more canjero.
Lunch (qado) is often an elaborated main dish of pasta (baasto) or rice (bariis) spiced with cumin (kamuun), cardamom (heyl), cloves (qaranfuul) and sage.
In the south, Iskudhexkaris, a hot pot of rice, vegetables and occasionally meat, is a staple. Beyond the many stews (maraq), rice is served with meat and a banana on the side. In Mogadishu, steak (busteeki) and fish (kaluun) are widely eaten.
Somalis also consume a soft cornmeal (soor), mashed with fresh milk, butter and sugar, or presented with a hole in the soor filled with maraq.
A Somalian variation of the Indian chapati is the sabaayad, which is served with maraq and meat on the side.
Spaghetti can also be served with rice, and is usually served with equal parts rice and noodles, divided on either side of a large oval plate. It is then layered with assorted stewed meats and vegetables, salad and a banana. This is a restaurant dish because as you might imagine the average Somali household will not cook both rice and pasta for the same meal. Note, everything seems to be served with a banana. You’ll hear no complaint from me, but we were confused if it was suppose to be consumed with the dish or at the end.
Somalians are partial to fruit drinks, and popular flavors include balbeelmo (grapefruit), raqey (tamarind) and isbarmuunto (lemonade). In Mogadishu, cambe (mango), zaytuun (guava) and laas (Lassi) are common too. In Hargeisa in the northwest, the preferred drinks are fiimto (Vimto) and tufaax (apple).
Dinner (casho) may include cambuulo made of well-cooked azuki beans mixed with butter and sugar. The beans, which on their own are referred to as digir, can take up to five hours to finish cooking when left simmering on the stove. Qamadi (wheat) is cooked and served just like the azuki beans.
Rooti iyo xalwo, slices of bread and jam, might be another dinner option. Muufo, a variation of cornbread is baked in a foorno (clay oven) and eaten by cutting it into small pieces, topped with macsaro (sesame oil) and sugar, and mashed together with black tea.
Sambuusa, a Somali version of the samosa, is a triangular snack that is commonly eaten during the afur. The Somali version is spiced with hot green pepper, and the main ingredient is often ground meat or fish. Bajiye, a variation of the Indian pakora, is a snack eaten in southern Somalia. The Somali version is a mixture of corn, other vegetables, meat, and spices and deep fried. It is eaten after a dunking in bisbaas (hot sauce). Kabaab is a snack eaten by southern Somalis. The Somali version is a deep fried pocket of goodness consisting of ground meat, potatoes, onion, and vegetables with flour, with a tasty green dipping sauce that adds a nice heat.
I am looking forward to my next Somalian culinary adventure. How about you, what Somalian food have you tried?
Conversation on Chow: Somali or Hmong Food?