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.
Bristol’s Somali Kitchen: Empowering women through cooking
Suad Yusuf set up the Somali Kitchen in Bristol to bring women together to share recipes, promote healthy eating and to support and empower one another.
Where to eat African cuisine in Metro Detroit
THE DETROIT NEWS — Being a huge continent, the food found in Africa varies among the countries within it. Some staples are seasoned meats, rice, couscous and fried plantains.
Metro Detroit is lucky to have a few authentic restaurants that serve the dishes of Ethiopia, Morocco, Senegal, Burundi and elsewhere. Here’s a look:
Maty’s African Restaurant: A small, colorful dining area that can seat about two dozen people is filled with aroma of grilled fish, lamb skewers and beef shawarma. I’ll return for the fataya, a Senegalese version of a fried empanada comes stuffed with chicken or fish and is served with a side of mustard-y onion slaw. 21611 Grand River, Detroit. (313) 472-5885 or eatatmatys.com. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Taste of Ethiopia: This cozy spot offers a buffet lunch on weekdays ($10.95) with jerk chicken, collard greens, fried plantains, split peas and a fantastic red lentil dish called yemisir we’t. Many of those dishes are on their vast dinner menu, which also includes vegetarian and meat combos, and beer, wine and cocktails. 28639 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield. (248) 905-5560 or tasteofethiopia.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and noon-10 p.m. Sat.
The Blue Nile: Also Ethiopian, the Blue Nile offers all-you-can-eat feasts for vegetarians and carnivores, as well as several vegan dishes. Both Blue Nile and Taste of Ethiopia serve injera, a very soft, sourdough flatbread that is unlike any other bread I’ve tasted. It’s porous, spongy texture is perfect for soaking up stews and sauces. Blue Nile has two locations and both have a full bar. 545 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale. (248) 547-6699. 221 E. Washington, Ann Arbor. (734) 998-4746. bluenilemi.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 3-9 p.m. Sun. Ann Arbor location is also open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues.-Sat. for lunch.
Nwanneka’s Place: Specialties here include a large variety of soup, goat meat and yams. Nwanneka’s, which also serves American and soul food dishes, serves fufu, a dish found in Ghana and Nigeria. It’s white lump made by pounding yam flour and grounded cassava, and is often eaten with soup. 27532 Schoolcraft, Livonia. (734) 744-7777 or nwannekasplace.squarespace.com. Open noon-7 p.m. Mon. and Wed., noon-9 p.m. Tues. and Thurs.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun.
Kola Restaurant & Ultra Lounge: Not just a restaurant, Kola is a nightlife destination with weekly events like Soul Thursdays, Tropical Fridays and Afrobeat Night on Saturdays. The menu offers beef and chicken suya, which is thinly sliced meat seasoned with onions, tomato and yaji spice. There’s also a full bar, a variety of soft drinks, and Nigerian beverages like palm juice and Maltina. 32523 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington Hills. (248) 932-5652 or kolalounge.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat. and 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.
Casablanca: Named after the largest city in Morocco, this Ypsi restaurant specializes in Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes. Choose from bistilla, a chicken pie, or chicken Mhammar roasted with butter, onions, saffron, herbs and fresh ginger, or get both with the Moroccan combo plate for two. 2333 Washtenaw, Ypsilanti. (734) 961-7825 or casablancaypsilanti.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 1-8 p.m. Sun.
Windsor: Our neighbors across the border have two Somalian restaurants: Jubba(2000 W. Wyandotte, Windsor) and Somali Restaurant (2127 University, Windsor). Somali cuisine is influenced by a variety of regions and includes beef, chicken, rice and even pasta and samosas.
Pop-ups: There are several chefs in Metro Detroit that operate as a pop-up while they work toward opening brick-and-mortar restaurants. Kitchen Ramarj blends Liberian and Mediterranean flavors and pop ups at places like Corktown’s Brooklyn Street Local. YumVillage pop-up and food truck serves West African and Caribbean food like jollof rice and jerk chicken. Until it’s food truck season again, find chef Godwin Ihentuge cooking monthly dinners at Colors Restaurant the last Thursday of each month. Burundi restaurant Baobab Fare is readying to open in West Village after winning a $10,000 grant from Comerica Hatch Detroit. While they ready to open, the husband-and-wife team have been hosting pop-ups around town. Jerk & Jollof is a nightlife pop-up that blends African and Caribbean music, food and culture that most recently took over Saint Andrew’s Hall for a New Year’s Eve event.
Did I leave out a restaurant that you think should be mentioned in this list? Please, let me know.
A delicately spiced love triangle
I first tasted samosas when I was about eight years old. They’re very child friendly. A warm handheld pastry snack is always welcome but when it has potatoes and a mild curry flavour, it’s just perfect on a cold day. I haven’t made them in years but my little girl spotted Fizzy, from Emye Ethiopian food, making vegan sambusas at our local market in Midleton and she loved them. So I’ve started to make them at home now but have been baking them in the oven. So far I’ve been able to cram all sorts of vegetables in.
This minced beef version is delicious though, with plenty of ginger and a fresh burst of coriander. Complete with filling protein-packed lentils, these samosas are a complete meal in themselves. My recipe is a little mild and family friendly so do add extra spices or chili if you prefer. I usually serve mine with sriracha sauce. You can use finely shredded leftover roast chicken to make chicken pies too or use regular potatoes in place of the sweet potatoes.
You can make the filling mixture the day before if you want and assemble them at the last minute. Folding them can be a bit of a skill but once you start it’s easy. Just keep folding the triangle in towards itself so that each side is sealed and no filling can escape.
Many cultures have their own version of this. From Indian Samosas to Ethiopian or Somali Sambusa. There are also Turkish and many more Middle Eastern versions with cheese and vegetables. It’s a delicious way to serve tasty savoury fillings and perfect for packed lunches or picnics.
Ginger, beef and lentil samosas
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 red onion
1 thumb sized piece of ginger (2 tbsp once grated)
400g minced beef
1 heaped tsp garam masala or similar curry spices
150g sweet potato
400g tin bijoux verts lentils, 240g once drained
20g fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
1 pack filo pastry sheets, defrosted
1 tbsp nigella seeds
Melt the coconut oil in a wide pan and add the finely diced onion. Cook on a medium heat for five minutes, add the ginger and stir, moving around the pan for a minute. Add the minced beef and garam masala. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add 150ml water, the finely diced sweet potato and the lentils. Mix well. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 10-12 minutes until the sweet potato is cooked and the mixture has reduced a little and is drier. Remove from the heat. Fold in the chopped coriander, season well with salt then leave to cool. Spread it on a large baking tray to cool it quickly if you’re short on time.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut each long sheet of filo pastry into a long rectangle. Lay one on the countertop and spoon 1/8 of the cooled filling into the top corner. Brush the pastry with water and fold it diagonally to create a triangle shape, continue to fold, retaining the triangle shape and seal the dampened edges. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry till you have made eight. Lay the samosas on two baking trays lined with greaseproof paper. Bake for 10 minutes then turn each one over. Brush each one with a little water and sprinkle with nigella seeds and return to the oven for a final 10 minutes till golden and crispy. Leave to cool for five minutes before serving with salad and hummus or yogurt.