Coffee at the Crossroads: Somali-American-owned Nori Cafe in St. Cloud is part coffee shop, part cultural bridge

Coffee at Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Coffee at Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Few words are more loaded with subtext than “coffee.” The word refers to a caffeinated beverage, sure. But it also means “comfort.” It means “conversation.” And it means “connection.” Person-to-person, sure. But it can be far more than that: business-to-business, culture-to-culture, nation-to-world.

At the Somali-owned Nori Cafe in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the word “coffee” comes fully loaded and spiced with ginger.

Located in a new strip mall just west of downtown, the nearly two-year-old cafe is a milestone on a journey that began with the multigenerational Iman family fleeing the violence of Mogadishu, Somalia, in the 1990s, continuing through nine years of time spent in a refugee camp in Uganda, and as of 2003 established in St. Cloud.

“We definitely want our customers to feel welcome,” says Farhiya Iman. Along with her sisters and mother, Farhiya manages Nori Cafe in St. Cloud, and she is very much the shop’s public face. For Farhiya, the name of the game is open-hearted hospitality. “The first thing when they come in, we greet them and say: ‘How are you doing? How is your day? What can I help you with?’”

The shop is spacious and comfortable, with ottomans and padded couches lining the room. But none of that would mean much if Farhiya and her sisters weren’t so consistently welcoming to customers from all walks of life.

“Sometimes there are teenagers who come in, and you can tell they don’t have money, they’re like trying to figure out what to order because they have limited funds, and…sometimes I just give it to them,” Farhiya says. “I just make them the tea and give it to them. At the end of the day, in our religion and culture, you’re supposed to be generous and be mindful of different people. There are people who can’t afford things, and I don’t want them to come in and not be able to experience what we have because of what they can’t afford.”

Farhiya Iman (left) and her sister Bisharo (right) at Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Farhiya Iman (left) and her sister Bisharo (right) at Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Her sister Bisharo, present for our interview with Farhiya, laughs and chimes in: “Not a smart business move, but…”

But, they hazard, it may pay longer-term dividends in a community (and state, and country) still coming to grips with the growing presence of East African immigrants and refugees.

“We also want it to be a place where the community comes in and feels welcome, and asks questions about our culture,” says Farhiya. To that end, Nori Cafe is hosting a four-part event series on Somali language, food, and culture. The 30-person ticketed (but free) sessions, hosted by Farhiya and underwritten by the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, sold out in a matter of hours.

‘It’s Crazier Now Than It Was Before’

The precipice that Nori Cafe is attempting to straddle is a gap between the white and nonwhite citizens of St. Cloud, a city of roughly 70,000 residents. According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, the proportion of nonwhite residents in St. Cloud is approaching 20 percent. Many are refugees resettled from East Africa, and they’re highly visible—everything from their skin color to their religion to their language potentially separates them from the largely Christian, native English-speaking locals.

A late 2019 series in the St. Cloud Times and USA Today entitled “Hope & Fear in Minnesota’s Heartland” captured the tension in the community, which has manifested in everything from unkind words to outright hostility to vandalism and events sometimes presided over by extremist anti-immigrant speakers.

Farhiya Iman of Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Farhiya Iman of Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

“It’s always like a rollercoaster,” says Farhiya. “When I have good experiences, I’m like, I want to stay here. When there are times that are not so nice, I’m like: ‘Why are you here still?’”

Bisharo says that she feels similarly, and that having children has put a new spin on the challenge of facing a sometimes hostile white community. “I can talk back, but the thing that I have to constantly think about is our kids,” says Bisharo. “They’re little, they’re in their growing age, so I don’t want them to ever be in a situation … and I’m sure they will be … where they’re talked to negatively and they’re attacked for their religion and their race.”

Here Farhiya and Bisharo’s sister, Yasmin, interjects, recalling the family’s arrival in St. Cloud in 2003. “People used to say, ‘Oh, St. Cloud is racist,’ but I feel like it was way better then, than now,” says Yasmin. “Is it the same St. Cloud where I used to live 15–20 years ago? What am I seeing now? It’s crazier now than it was before.”

Part of it, the sisters say, is a growing Somali population. But part of it, Bisharo adds, is a tone set from the very top of the American government: “I think it has to do with the president who is out there saying things openly. They’re like: ‘Oh, I can also say openly these things.’ But before there was not that there, even if people were racist they wouldn’t show you, and do things to you.”

The flip side, she adds, can often be discovered right in the Imans’ own cafe. “I feel like there are a lot of people who make it a point to let you know they are NOT part of the other ones [racists],” she says. “So they’ll ask questions and they’re a lot more friendly, especially when they come to the coffee shop here—to let us know they value us in the community, and having a place like this is really important, you know?”

Tea, Sambusas, Coffee, Vimto, Milk, Mashmash

The food and drink at Nori Cafe are more complex than they look. For example: The Iman sisters sprinkle ginger into the cafe’s coffee, as is traditional in Somali culture. It adds a gentle kick without overwhelming the natural flavor of the roasted beans. “When I first explain it [to customers], they’re like: ‘It’s interesting!’” says Farhiya. “But once they try it they love it, they’re like, ‘We’ve never thought of adding ginger to our coffee, and we love it.’ We always add it, it’s a given.”

The sambusas that the cafe sells (made by a third-party Somali bakery) are tasty and inexpensive, but they’re sometimes flanked by a less expected baked good. When we first visited Nori Cafe, we tried a pastry known as a mashmash ($1.75) and found our horizons broadening with every bite. It’s a gently sweet and springy in texture, somewhere between a doughnut and a kouign amann. They pair well with coffee or tea, and they’re not quite like any pastry we’ve tried before or since.

Coffee and pastries from Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

Drinks and pastries from Nori Cafe in St. Cloud // Photo by Becca Dilley

The cafe’s other drinks (all nonalcoholic) include a lassi-like mango drink (“basically mango powder, milk, sugar, and ice,” says Farhiya) and a lovely sweet-tart beverage called Vimto that pairs up black currant and raspberry to make a punchy beverage that can be had with or without carbonation.

Running a cafe that caters to both Somali and white American customers poses its own challenges. Some customers wonder why its beverages are so affordable; others, used to the $1 coffees available at some Somali markets, ask why they’re so expensive.

“One customer is used to Starbucks,” says Bisharo, “And the other is like, ‘What is so special about your tea and why am I paying more?’ Well, hello, you have a place to sit!”

Cultural expectations cut both ways, of course. Nori Cafe is spacious, comfortable, and well-lit, in contrast to many first-generation markets that prioritize efficient use of space over room to maneuver. “I think it’s going to take a while for people to transform from how shops and restaurants were run, for example, in the refugee camps,” says Farhiya. “You go to a refugee camp and there’s no infrastructure and you have to work with what you have. I think that’s where the idea that cram-ness comes from. Then they come here, and there’s limited space, so you use the same idea. I think with us growing up here we were able to expand our horizons and incorporate what we have here as opposed to what our parents did in Africa.”

“I think it has to do with the cost,” says Yasmin. “It’s like, if you want to have this big space, it’s going to cost you more. Since you’re starting a business, you’ll be struggling a little bit. I don’t think people think [about the] need to bring in other customers. They just think about catering to Somali people.”

The fight to integrate, to remain connected to Somali culture, to stay safe without being paranoid, is a lot for the Iman family to bear. “It’s a long process—it’s taxing, for sure,” says Farhiya. “There’s a lot of catching up we have to do. It’s a learning thing.” But, she adds: “Every single day you learn something new. And that’s pretty cool, actually.”

Onion Crepes and Chicken Mugalgal Recipe

Onion Crepes and Chicken Mugalgal // Photo by Tj Turner

Onion Crepes and Chicken Mugalgal // Photo by Tj Turner

Adapted from the YouTube channel Xawaash FoodBlog

The Iman sisters of Nori Cafe spoke enthusiastically about the clean, professionally produced Somali food blog known as Xawaash (or “Spice Mix”). In search of a recipe to pair with their story, we adapted a method for making onion crepes (Malawax Basal) and a savory, delicious diced chicken in a creamy garlic-tomato sauce (Digaag Mugalgal).

Onion Crepes

(makes 4–6 crepes)

Ingredients

2 cups milk
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
5 scallions, chopped (reserve 2 chopped scallions)
½ cup cilantro, chopped
Vegetable oil, for cooking

Directions

Puree milk, eggs, flour, salt, pepper and 3 of the chopped scallions until smooth. Add the reserved 2 scallions and cilantro and pulse briefly, so that small pieces remain.

Oil and then heat a saute pan on medium-low heat. Pour a few tablespoons of batter in the pan and rotate until it covers the base. Wait until it’s heated through and lightly browned on the bottom, add a few teaspoons of oil atop the crepe, and flip it. Once it’s spotted brown on both sides, remove it and begin your next crepe.

Chicken Mugalgal

Ingredients

¼ cup olive oil
1 cup onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1¼ cups tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 pound of boneless chicken breast, diced
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup red bell pepper, chopped
½ cup green bell pepper, chopped
½ cup carrots, grated
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

Heat a saute pan on medium heat, add olive oil, and then your chopped onion. Saute and stir for 3–5 minutes, add your garlic for 30 seconds, then your tomatoes. Bring heat to high, cook for 3 minutes and then add your diced chicken breast. After a few minutes, add the salt. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, then add both bell peppers, grated carrots, and mayonnaise. Stir to incorporate and turn off the heat. Add the parsley and black pepper.

Serve with the crepes, rolling them to fill them with a few tablespoons of the chicken mugalgal.