A neighbor appeals to the owner of a local market, asking whether she’d teach a class about regional cuisine.
Kari Suva lives within walking distance of several of Portland’s halal markets, including the Somali market Jazeera. But until one was vandalized on Christmas Eve, the shops felt as distant as Africa itself.
Then she became one of the 1,200 people who pledged to shop in Muslim-owned businesses, including halal markets that sell meat slaughtered according to Islamic law, over a weekend in January organized by Progressive Portland.
“I walk by this little halal market every day, and I never thought about going in because I don’t know how to cook Somali food and don’t really know what they have inside,” Suva said. “So I stopped by to find out more about them, to introduce myself and say I’m a neighbor.”
That’s how she got to know Halima Abu, the owner of Jazeera Market at 625 Forest Ave., and an idea was born. She suggested to Abu that maybe more people like her would shop in Abu’s store if they knew what the ingredients were and how to use them in their own kitchens.
On her first visit to the store, Suva bought sesame candy because it was one of the few items she recognized. She wanted to learn more. “I like to eat goat,” she said, “but I don’t know how to cook it.”
So she asked Abu if she’d be willing to teach an informal class to introduce a handful of Suva’s friends to Somali food, a collection of regional cuisines that carries influences from many other countries.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we do it in my kitchen?’ ” Suva recalled. “You invite a few friends, and I’ll invite a few friends.”
Fast forward to a weekend in May, and eight people have gathered at Suva’s house either to learn about Somali cooking – or help explain it.
In addition to Suva, me and Halima Abu, the group includes Antoinette Kabongo and her daughter Daniella; Halima’s sisters, Samira and Marian; and Ben Keller, a friend of Samira’s.
“I’ve always loved Somali food,” said Antoinette Kabongo, a Congolese immigrant, “so I’m kind of curious to see how they make it.”
A sign in Suva’s yard welcomed the group. In English, Spanish and Arabic, it said: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
Suva is sensitive to cultural differences. Her daughter Phoebe was adopted from China. She has worked with refugees through Catholic Charities, and she now does international development work.
But sometimes misunderstandings happen, and even the best of intentions go awry: Halima Abu arrived at Suva’s house with large pans of food that she’d already cooked.
She brought braised goat meat with onion and green pepper; her “everyday rice” flavored with onion, garlic, cumin and cilantro; sambusas, triangular pastries stuffed with ground beef, onion, garlic and spices that Abu’s family eats every day during the month of Ramadan to break their daily fast (the religious observance starts this year on May 26); and jalebi, a bread-based dessert that’s left to rise and then is fried in pretzel-like shapes in a cast iron pan. Once it’s crunchy, it’s soaked in a simple sugar syrup.
So the cooking lesson was scrapped. What unfolded instead was an afternoon of conversation that touched on Somali cooking, surprising influences on Somali cuisine and the Abu family’s life in the United States.
FAMILY’S GOATS KEPT OFF MENU
Hamila Abu, who has a 3-year-old daughter, grew up with seven brothers and three sisters, and the entire family of 13 escaped Somalia’s civil war when she was too small to remember. She says she has no memories of Somalia at all, although later in the afternoon, when the group was eating her food around Suva’s dining room table, she suddenly remembered that her family had lots of goats but when it came time to cook one for a feast, her mother had to buy one because the children were too attached to the family goats.
Abu said her mother started teaching her to cook when she was 10. The family lived in a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya until 1997, when they were able to come to the United States; they landed directly in Maine. Halima was 17 years old at the time. They started a wholesale business, selling both food and clothes, then opened the first Jazeera Market on Congress Street in 2013.
Sauces made with lemon, jalapeno, mango, tumeric and lime juice accompany the dinner prepared by Hamila Abu. Staff photo by Jill Brady
The market is now located on Forest Avenue, and Hamila Abu travels frequently to places like China and Dubai to buy items for her store. (She sells food, but also clothes, curtains and other household goods, and offers money transfers for paying bills.)
Hamila Abu says her father impressed upon her and her siblings the importance of going to school. Hamila graduated from the Job Corps program in Bangor, a residential education and vocational training program. Two of her brothers have master’s degrees, three siblings work with computers, and two are social workers. Her sister Zahra Abu last year became the state’s first Somali police officer.
Because so many Somalis now live elsewhere in Maine, most of Abu’s customers are from other African nations, mostly Rwanda, Congo and Burundi. Their cuisines may be similar to Somali food, “but we have a different way of cooking it,” Kabongo said. “Let’s say you want to make chicken pot pie. You have your recipe, and I have my recipe. It’s the same style, but we’re cooking it differently.”
Suva finally got her lesson in preparing goat. The goat dish Hamila Abu brought to her house contained chunks of goat meat – about two pounds’ worth – some of it still on the bone. When Suva asked what cut of meat it was, the family explained that the market buys whole goats and has a machine for processing the meat, so it could contain leg, rib or thigh meat.
Preparation starts by putting the meat in a pan with a cup or two of water. Boil the meat – how long “depends on how tender you want the meat to be,” Samira Abu said – until the water dissipates. Then add a little bit of oil to the pot along with chopped onion, green bell pepper, cumin, garlic, cilantro and salt. “You can use curry powder,” Samira Abu said, “or whatever you have in your cabinet.”
Halima Abu likes garlic, so she throws a whole bulb of garlic into a blender along with an entire bunch of cilantro to make a paste that she keeps in a bowl in her refrigerator. She uses it by the tablespoonful, or two tablespoons for the goat.
On the dinner menu, clockwise from top, jalebi, sambusas, rice and goat meat. Staff photo by Jill Brady
Then she slides the meat into the oven for a few minutes, until she’s ready to serve it.
No matter what’s on the table, Somali families typically enjoy eating a whole banana with their meals. This tradition arose, according to Samira Abu, because nearby South Sudan is home to many banana farms. Our meal was served with a fruit salad that included sliced bananas.
As the group dug into the meal, the Abu family described a typical breakfast of Somali pancakes. “It’s like a crepe, but a little thicker,” Samira Abu said. “You make a bean sauce to go with it. You have tea with everything, especially at breakfast.”
Ben Keller, who has been dating Samira for a couple of years, has come to love Somali food. He eats dinner at her parents’ house several times a week.
“Her mom’s cooking all day long, and every night there’s 12 people having dinner there,” he said. “And she always has different foods, so I’ve pretty much had everything in their store.”
Keller thinks Jazeera should put all the ingredients for a single dish into a basket and tuck in a recipe for preparing the food. Sell the whole basket to people who are unfamiliar with Somali cuisine, he suggests, and they’ll learn to appreciate the food.
One of his favorite dishes is fresh pasta with red sauce. Somali pasta, which is a lot thicker than Italian pasta, came as a surprise to him.
Somali food has been influenced by many other parts of the world, including India, the Middle East and, yes, Italy. Somalis eat a paratha-like bread called sabaayad that came from Indian traders. The jalebi is similar to a popular Indian dessert, and the sambusas resemble Indian samosas.
Traders from the Middle East brought spices such as coriander, cumin, chili and cloves to Somalia. Italian colonists introduced pasta, and those banana farms in South Sudan still conduct a lot of trade with Italy.
Asked if they’d like to visit their native countries some day, Kabongo, who came to the states around the same time as Abu, replied with an emphatic yes. “My entire family is there,” she said. “My parents, my siblings.”
Halima Abu had the opposite reaction.
“This is home now,” she said.