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Feature: Refugee chef uses food to show people more alike than different

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(170622) -- ATHENS, June 22, 2017 (Xinhua) -- 25-year-old refugee chef Hassan from Somalia, prepares dishes for customers in "Vassilenas", a restaurant with a long history in Athens, Greece, on June 22, 2017. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)

ATHENS, June 23 (Xinhua) — For extrovert young chef Hassan to present his refugee journey from Somalia to Greece in a menu of 6 dishes was a bet to win during the Refugee Food Festival that run through this week in local restaurants in Athens.

We met 25-year-old Hassan inside the kitchen of “Vassilenas”, a restaurant with a long history in the Greek capital, preparing a fresh salad with black eyed peas, beetroot, lime, coriander and a traditional dish from his country, a roasted mackerel with hot sauce of paprika and chili.

“It is the first time I present my country’s cuisine, and I am proud that people come and taste it,” he told Xinhua.

While being used to cooking Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine for restaurants in Athens and Crete Island since 2012, it was the first-time Hassan, who was a guest chef for two nights at the restaurant, cooked Somali cuisine for so many people. The success was so huge that the owner decided to extend from two to three days the event.

Run under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Refugee Food Festival was inaugurated in Paris in 2016, and this year was expanded to 13 European cities to mark World Refugee Day.

A citizen’s initiative, the festival address to local restaurants to open their kitchens to refugee cooks with the goal to change people’s perception towards refugees, to trigger job opportunities and to make participants discover delicious meals.

“Food unites people,” Hassan said as he was looking people coming in the restaurant, expressing the value of the festival.

Not only people but cultures as well, as co-founder Louis Martin would say later. “We often talk about those countries through the prism of war. But these countries have much more to tell. They have culture, deep history and it is something you can find on our plates,” he explained to promote the positive approach of the refugee issue.

Hassan’s story reminds us the thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing from war-torn countries in the Middle East, risking their lives to cross the sea and dealing with traffickers within the last three years.

With his life being in danger in his country Somalia, Hassan fled to Greece when he was 16 years old all alone leaving behind his family. For a whole month, he traveled by ship up until Turkey and then with a small inflatable boat reached Greece in December 2008.

“I did not know a lot about Greece, in 2009 I tried to leave illegally but I did not make it,” Hassan recalled.

It was when he was excluded from the family reunification program, where he had asked to unite with his uncle in Finland, that he claimed asylum in Greece.

“I stayed in a hospitality center for unaccompanied minors at Exarcheia, in the center of Athens from 2009 until 2012.”

With the support of the Network of Children’s Right, he enrolled into a professional chef’s course on a scholarship and had worked in hotels and restaurants since.

“I finished my school in 2012 and went on training in a big hotel in Crete for two years. Then I returned to Athens and started working as a chef,” he said.

The most difficult part was his first six months in Greece where he lived in a small apartment with 20 other Somalis in Athens.

“A minor in a foreign country feels frightened, thinks about his future, where to sleep, who to meet,” Hassan told Xinhua.

“But, then I managed to integrate into the society, to learn the language and meet with people who love me and want to be next to me,” he noted.

Despite the difficulties, Hassan’s integration into the society has been rather smooth, as he explained. After being in Greece 9 years, what does he dream? “To continue my work, to be at a restaurant as a chef,” he confessed with a big smile on his face.

When we asked him if he would like to run a Somali restaurant in Athens, he hesitated to answer.

“In Greece, it is difficult to open my restaurant with Somali dishes. Maybe if I go to another country like Sweden or Britain where there are large communities of Somali,” he said.

Though being something completely new to the Athenians who visited the restaurant, the Somali dishes made them a great impression.

“I did not have the opportunity to taste Somali cuisine before. Though we are only in the second dish, I must say that the menu is very impressive,” Nikos Kourtzis told Xinhua.

Martin acknowledged the success of the event in Athens and other European cities. “We are impressed by the reaction of all the people participating in the festival. All the restaurants are full. The restaurants ask at the end when we can do it again,” he said.

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Columbus, Ohio

Hoyo’s Kitchen Wants To Be Columbus’ Gateway To Somali Culture

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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.

Mother’s Kitchen

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.

Hayat Dalmar, 56, is the mother of restaurant owner Abdilahi Hassan and the head cook of Hoyo’s Kitchen.
CREDIT GABE ROSENBERG / WOSU

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.

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Food

Stewed Goat: Finding the Horn of Africa in a Phoenix Strip Mall

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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 chris.malloy@newtimes.com. And yes, I am enlisting you in my education on Somali food.

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Diaspora

Safari, New York’s Somali Restaurant

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Nicolas Niarchos

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.)

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