Im in the middle of what is basically a bodega, eating a plump fresh date I’ve just been given by the store’s proprietor, when I realize that I’m having one of the best shopping experiences of my life.
How is it possible that this high point is happening in a bodega—New York City’s version of the corner store? Probably because I’m standing next to Hawa Hassan, whose smile and laughter is practically contagious, and I’m on the hunt for halal beef, something I’ve never shopped for, that’s how.
This shop, on a block in Murray Hill, a neighborhood just south of Midtown in New York, is the third one that Hassan has taken me to in order to find ingredients for the Somali lunch she’s cooking for us.
The Somali community in New York is small, she tells me. “Like many immigrant communities, they stayed close to each other—and in our case, that meant places like Minnesota, where many early immigrants happened to reach,” she says. And because there’s not a Somali-specific store in town, we start the day out in the city’s well-stocked Middle Eastern and specialty foods store, Kalustyan’s, to pick up a variety of spices—whole cardamom, cinnamon sticks, cumin seeds—as well as the vegetables and rice that Hassan will turn into the Somali beef stew, Bariis Maraq, that she’ll cook later on.
But Kalustyan’s doesn’t sell meat, so we wander next door, into a small shop that sells everything from Middle Eastern and African spices and honeyed pastries to candles and incense that reminds Hassan of her mother. “My mom always burns this,” Hassan said as we wander through the store. “It’s called unsi,” she explains when I ask about it later. “It’s incense that’s burnt after meals are made or when we’re expecting a guest.”
There’s no fresh meat, but the friendly attendant suggests another store, just down the block. Walking into the third shop, Hassan greets the owner with a few kind words in Arabic, and in turn he offers us the dates, and then pieces of sweet Middle Eastern treats, a coconut candy that we save for the train ride back to Brooklyn.
I’m in heaven, and I never want to go shopping without Hassan again. “Despite what you might read in many circles, most immigrant communities help each other out, they know they have a lot in common,” she says as we walk away from the store. “It’s there in Muslim communities from different parts of the world: unspoken kindness, tender gestures, referring to each other as ‘my child’ and ‘my sister’ like we’re all family, which we are.”
As we walk out, I beam in her glow and the excitement of the shopping experience, and as we nibble on the coconut candy and chat about food, cooking, and Somalia on our train ride home, I wonder if it’s possible to have developed a love for Somali food without having ever really tasted it.
Like many people who meet Hassan, my first taste of Somali cuisine came when I met her at a food event where she was sampling her Basbass Somali chile sauces, a creamy cilantro and tangy tamarind mix she served with tortillas like salsa. “I want to help bring Somali cuisine to a global audience,” she says. “Basbaas are traditional Somali sauces with a sweet and tangy twist, the perfect complement to every dish.”
Hassan only spent a few years living in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia—her mother and siblings fled the country when she was four when civil war broke out in 1991—but she still feels a deep connection to the country. “I remember Somalia very well,” she says. “I remember papaya trees and eating a lot of dates. I remember going to the beach on the weekends. I remember going to my grandfather’s country house. I just remember Somalia buzzing with good energy and kids playing in the street, parents drinking tea in the afternoon.”
After leaving Somalia, Hassan’s family first landed in a refugee camp in Kenya, where they spent several years. Her mother operated a small shop, selling basic goods like toilet paper and rice to the other refugees, and Hassan, the eldest daughter, helped out in the shop, perhaps foreshadowing her own business skills to come. But when Hassan was seven, an opportunity opened for her to move to the United States. “I was sent to Seattle to live with a group of Somali people because my mom found sponsorship for me,” she says. ”
[My mom] was waiting on her sponsorship and she originally thought they were going to be following me.”
Although Hassan’s mother hoped to resettle the entire family in America, this was never possible; her mother and nine siblings eventually moved to Oslo, Norway. It was 15 years before she saw her family again. “I remember feeling like this is so strange, but as time went on I made really good friends,” Hassan says. “I had my best friend and her family. I had school teachers that really cared about me.”
In high school, the lean and striking Hassan was approached by a modeling scout, which eventually brought her to New York City. She worked for several years as a fashion model, but eventually burned out. Wanting to refocus and spend time with her family, Hassan headed to Oslo. “I spent four months with them and just watched everything my mom and sisters did in the kitchen,” she said.
During this time—the first time she had spent more than a week with her mother and sisters since being separated from them as a child—she was inspired to start Basbaas. “Reconnecting with my family and sharing meals together made me yearn for flavors I grew up loving,” she says. “At first, I wanted to share those sensations with everyone I knew. Seeing their reactions inspired me to launch my own line of Somali sauces.”
Back in Brooklyn, Hassan begins cooking our lunch by teaching me how to make xawaash spice mix, the base of the beef stew and rice dish she’ll be preparing.
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A classic staple in Somali cuisine, this combination of cinnamon stick, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, whole cloves, and ground turmeric is used to cook both the rice and the beef stew for our lunch, and in Somalia it is used in everything from tomato sauce to stews to chili sauces like Hassan’s tamarind date Basbaas sauce. “I use it in the red sauce, you can taste it,” she says. “It’s basically our allspice, but because I don’t live around any Somali stores I just have to make it myself.”
Once the spice mix is made, Hassan puts together the fragrant rice, cooked with tomatoes and red onions—which Hassan says is a must for Somali cuisine. And then the beef stew. It’s a recipe Hassan says her mother would make often for the family, easy to quickly pull together for a big crowd. It’s not unlike a traditional American beef stew, with its combination of beef, carrot, onion, and potato, but the real Somali flavor comes from that xawaash spice mix, which gives it a warm, rich, peppery flavor.
The best thing about this recipe: no special ingredients required! Although a taste of the xawaash spice mix can make you feel as though you’ve take a trip to Somalia, you’ve likely got all the spices necessary to make it in your pantry already. Which means a taste of Hassan’s home country is only a pot of stew away.
“The cubed beef is the Somali meat of choice, or goat or lamb,” she says. “You can also make it with chicken. And I added the bell peppers for more color, but they aren’t necessary.” Not necessary, but they are pretty, and the stew is delicious. I walk away, a belly full of Somali beef stew, just as happy as I was when I arrived.
A few days later, I’m back in the Epi Test Kitchen, where we’ve cooked a big pot of the stew to test the recipe out, when I get a text from Hassan that she’s nearby. She stops by the office to help us taste, and as I’m dishing out the bowls, I start to worry if my colleagues will be as enamored with Somali food as I am. “You’ve got to try it with the fresh banana,” Hassan encourages my coworkers. “It’s classic Somali, we love savory and sweet together.” They look skeptical.
But just like Hassan says, this dish really brings a crowd together. “This sauce is delicious!” Anna says. “I love the banana,” says Kat B. They are both so right; this simple dish really is so delicious, especially with the toppings. The Basbaas sauces make the perfect garnish for this stew: the creamy cilantro sauce adds a tangy brightness, the tamarind sauce gives as additional kick of heat. (You can order Hassan’s online, or look for Indian-style cilantro and tamarind sauces as a substitute.)
And the sliced banana really is a must! It might sound strange, but it’s so delicious, and does give a great balance of sweetness to the spicy stew. With a squeeze of lime juice and some sprigs of cilantro, it’s refreshing and filling dish and great any night of the week. Which is exactly when Hassan and her family like to eat it.
Hoyo’s Kitchen Wants To Be Columbus’ Gateway To Somali Culture
At Hoyo’s Kitchen, Angie Sharkey says she likes a little of everything.
Sharkey, who came with two colleagues from the Columbus Metropolitan Library, says they’re regulars here. When owner Abdilahi Hassan comes around to take her order, she tells him, “Surprise me.”
Tucked into a nondescript Cleveland Avenue strip mall, between an Irish pub and “Waterbeds and Stuff,” Hoyo’s Kitchen has the curious honor of being the city’s only “fast casual” Somali restaurant.
In fact, it’s one of the few Somali restaurants here at all – surprising for the city with the second-largest population of Somali refugees in the country.
In the three years since it opened, though, Hoyo’s already earned a devoted following in Columbus – and expanded a lot of appetites. The food website Eater recently called Hoyo’s one of the “Midwest’s 38 Essential Restaurants.” It was the only Columbus establishment to even make the list.
Over the past decade and a half, tens of thousands of Somali refugees settled in Columbus, mostly on the city’s North Side. Hassan, 29, is one of them, after moving with his family to Columbus from the D.C. area 14 years ago.
But food’s always been on his mind.
“I love my mother’s cooking,” Hassan says. “I grew up basically hyping my mom up. Every time she would make something different, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, if only you’d open up a restaurant, people would be flocking.'”
After graduating from Ohio State in 2014, Hassan convinced his mother to open a restaurant with him. Quickly, it became a family endeavor.
“Everyone from my nieces and nephews to my grandparents jumped into the kitchen when we really need them,” Hassan says. “From the very beginning, this was an homage to my mother’s kitchen.”
“Hoyo,” Hassan explains, means “mother” in Somali.
Not So Scary
Just after the lunch rush, Hassan’s mother Hayat Dalmar, 56, is back in the kitchen. She pulls from the oven a large pot of rice, bright orange from the spices.
“I brought my kitchen from my house to this restaurant,” Dalmar says, laughing.
Of all her dishes – goat, chicken, chai – she says rice is by far her favorite to cook.
“I like rice because my mother, she used to be a great cooker and I think I took it from her, and I have the passion,” Dalmar says. “I like to make rice.”
Hassan says certain aspects of Somali food still seem “exotic” to Americans. Goat, especially.
“There’s a lot of people that are scared of Somali food,” he says. “Or just scared of trying something different.”
But a lot of Somali food might be more familiar than people think. Hassan explains Somali food is an “organic fusion,” combining flavors from Indian, Middle Eastern and East African cuisines. Dishes like chabatti, a flat bread, or ugali, a sort of corn porridge, have versions all over the world.
Hoyo’s Kitchen serves a Somali chai tea, flavored with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, spicier than the kind served in most coffee shops. And they’re well-known for their sambusas, the Somali version of an Indian samosa: fried and triangular-shaped pastries.
“Everybody loves sambusa,” Hassan says. “That’s like our gateway drug. That’s our gateway into Somali food.”
The main difference between sambusas and samosas, Hassan says, is beef.
“Somalis are meat eaters, so ours has meat in it,” he says. “We don’t mess with veggies.”
Around Columbus, Hassan has graduated from hyping his mother’s food to hyping Somali food in general. He wants Hoyo’s Kitchen to be a sort of ambassador, which is also why he embraced the label of “fast casual.”
Columbus boasts a glut of “fast casual” restaurants, which split the difference between fast food and casual dining. Chipotle is the most famous, but Columbus has plenty of local “fast casual” chains like Fusian, 6-1-Pho and Bibibop.
“I’m a student of the game,” Hassan says. “You know, I studied the industry.”
By breaking down Somali dishes into parts, Hassan hopes to make it more approachable – for white people, for African-Americans, and just for everyone who hasn’t encountered this particular cuisine. They’ve made headway on that part, something Hassan credits to Columbus Food Adventures, which brings a tour by every Friday night.
Hassan, though, has big ideas for what Hoyo’s Kitchen could be.
“We want to be the bridge between our Somali community and the larger American population,” Hassan says.
Stewed Goat: Finding the Horn of Africa in a Phoenix Strip Mall
Phoenix New Times — The slow-cooked goat at Waamo in the Somali mall in east Phoenix has been roughly chopped, with some pieces sticking to knobs or lengths of bone. A mound of goat hunks rises beside a plate of yellow rice. The meat is rich and tender. Slivers of onion, peppers, and a simple side salad break up bites of the deeply mineral, faintly gamey goat.
“If you’re going to invite somebody in your home in Somalia, you cook goat,” says Basheir Elmi, owner and host of Waamo.
Elmi, like many people from Somalia, loves goat. Goat is Somalia’s most popular meat (along with sheep). When I sat down at Waamo, Elmi walked over to my booth, lifted his eyeglasses onto his bald head, and explained his menu’s abundance of Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Mediterranean specialties. I asked him his favorite. His reply: “Goat.”
Reader, we now arrive to a critical juncture. What do I mean by this?
I don’t know anything about Somali food.
There’s a strange tendency among people who write about food to assume an omniscient Godlike persona, to pretend they know everything about everything. They know how native Andeans brew pulque, how fishermen cook cod in Saskatchewan, and at what temperature Mongolian nomads sip koumiss. Right.
The number of world cuisines is indefinable and uncountable. All are in a constant state of flux; many are rapidly evolving with the proliferation of the internet; and most overlap with other cuisines in ways that makes drawing boundaries futile. The world is vast and complicated. Nobody could possibly know everything.
Luckily, people love to talk about what they cook.
Luckily, we live in an era of near-infinite academic resources.
How do I write a story about the food of Somalia, a country that I unfairly associate predominantly with Black Hawk Down and pirates? I live near a library that lets me check out 30 books at once. One of my graduate schools forgot to turn off my database access. There are many ways to learn.
Somalia is a V-shaped country on the actual horn of Africa. It has a long coastline, but fish isn’t really consumed inland, as refrigeration is limited. Meat is very popular. It’s served with rice, injera (flat, fermented Ethiopian “bread”), and even spaghetti (Somalia has a history of European colonization).
Tea is the main beverage, with black varietals from Sri Lanka and India preferred. The brewing typically happens in a large pot, into which heady spices go, the goal being a dusky and disarmingly sweet tea. Elmi’s is both. He dials up flavor with ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, and lemon. He serves the sugary brew cold.
Like most meat in Somalia, a nation of predominantly Sunni Muslims, Elmi’s goat is halal. For his signature goat dish, he cooks “everything except the neck and head.”
Some 15 to 20 pounds of goat braise away in a pot. Salt, pepper, and green pepper are the dominant additions to the braising liquid (water). Elmi adds green pepper by coring out the cone-shaped seedy mass, and floating this white, pithy interior part of the nightshade in the cooking water.
Elmi recalls oven-roasted goat from restaurants in Somalia, waxing about meat that was “falling apart” when it reached his table. He came to the U.S. in the 1980s. Some pieces of his goat have that melting texture, some don’t. With various parts of the animal in the mix, each bite is different.
Look for the marrow inside split bones. Slurping it brings a rush of intense flavor.
The goat is great for that flavor, a window into a far part of the world. It also wicks flavor from the vibes of the restaurant. Elmi, who after expounding on the menu will lovingly explain how he makes coffee and tea, is a peerless host. You won’t likely find this kind of sincere hospitality in a high-end restaurant.
Anyway, if you’re over in Waamo’s neighborhood, stop on in. I’d love to hear from readers about some of Elmi’s other specialties. Ping me at email@example.com. And yes, I am enlisting you in my education on Somali food.
Safari, New York’s Somali Restaurant
In the nineteen-nineties, the late, great writer Denis Johnson once followed a group of Somalis across the border from Ethiopia and into the heart of their turbulent country. One of the images that endures from the piece he wrote afterward is of Somali food—“chunks of goat and spaghetti”—and of his narrator being taught “how to eat pasta the Somali way, without utensils, taking a shock of it in his right hand, turning it this way and that and gathering the long strands up into his palm, and then shoving it into his face.” At Safari, which claims to be New York’s only Somali restaurant, utensils are provided, and the goat and the pasta, which tastes like carbonara without the bacon, are so good that it’s hard to resist wolfing them down.
Any dinner here should begin with sambusas, fried pastry triangles filled with beef, chicken, or vegetables that tingle with spices and are served with a kryptonite-green sauce called bizbaz. Extra bizbaz—which is mildly spicy, tastes of lime, coriander, and chili, and is utterly delicious—is a must. A good, but filling, sharing option among the starters is sabaayad, a piece of flatbread piled high with freshly roasted vegetables tossed in cilantro aioli. To drink, order a fiimto, which balances sugary sweetness with acrid hibiscus.
Shakib Farah’s cooking really shines in the main courses: goat, which lies atop buttery basmati rice (you can sub in pasta), is soft and dissolves with every bite in hilib ari, described on the menu as the “most popular Somali dish.” Chicken Fantastic is a creamy chicken stew that tastes like the best school lunch imaginable. But the real standout is busketti, beef simmered in a rich spiced sauce and served with that silky smooth spaghetti and rice. Save space, too, for malab iyo malawax, sweet crepes soaked in honey and dusted with cinnamon, and a mug of steaming qaxwo, pungent black coffee spiked with ginger.
The owner, Maymuuna Birjeeb, has decorated the restaurant sparsely but tastefully. Wooden wall carvings recall Somalia’s discarded national alphabet, and Farah can be watched at work through a small window. The other night, a Somali-American from out of town said, “My family is from Somaliland originally”—the breakaway republic in the north—“but I hate when people call it that. We’re the same people!” As she spoke, she responded to a Snapchat of a gazelle her sister had sent from Hargeisa, the republic’s capital. Then she looked around approvingly, dipped a sambusa into a puddle of bizbaz, and observed, “We don’t have anything like this in D.C.” (Entrées $15-$18.)