My cup of tea: Meditations on Somali cuisine in the Twin Cities

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Sambusa with Somali tea and spices // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The tea is sweet, milky, and full of cardamom. There’s also clove and cinnamon, maybe nutmeg.

I’m sitting at a bare table in a café, the name of which I can’t figure out, which I found at the end of a vivid labyrinth of narrow hallways and stalls overflowing with bright swaths of fabric. I couldn’t tell you exactly how to find it. I’d suggest walking the halls of Suuqa Karmel, a two-building market complex one block removed from Lake Street in South Minneapolis, and looking for a deli case full of deep-fried triangles.

Lots of people are attending services at the mosque on the market’s third floor. Some stands are closed. A few women chat in the hallways, many with cell phones held fast to their cheek by a fold of their hijab. A few stragglers, like myself, sit in one of the market’s many snack shops, drinking tea and eating sambusa, watching CNN coverage of Donald Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from entering the country.

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Somali tea spices // Photo by Aaron Davidson

When I think about the future of food in the Twin Cities, I think of the near past when waves of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Hmong immigrants made new homes in the Metro. As a result, pho has become practically as Minnesotan as hotdish. More recently, thousands of Somali immigrants have followed suit and settled here. The state population is reportedly 30,000 (though it’s probably higher), which means one third of Somali-Americans live in Minnesota.

Since their arrival, dozens of Somali-owned restaurants have opened. The state offers food safety training classes in the Somali language. But the cuisine has yet to make much of an impact on our local dining consciousness. Which begs an important preliminary question: What exactly is Somali cuisine?

Occupying the coastline on the Horn of Africa, Somalia has been a crossroads of global trade for thousands of years. In turn, its cuisine draws heavily from neighboring countries and trading partners; Ethiopian, Egyptian, Turkish, Israeli, and Arabic dishes feature regularly in Somali restaurants. More recently, European colonization left its mark—from the Indian curries imported by the British to the pastas made ubiquitous by Italians.

It’s difficult to separate true Somali cuisine from its influences, especially once it’s been brought stateside. There are distinct differences between, say, Ethopian injera and Somalian anjeero (both fried breads from a slightly fermented batter), but on local menus, the differences quietly elide. Here, Somali cuisine is often lumped under the nonsense banner of “African cuisine;” those same menus serve everything from falafel to quesadillas.

If Somali cuisine is difficult to comprehend, what’s easy to understand is the tea. Sweet, spicy, and hot. A perfect daybreaker. I’m at a strip mall off Burnsville Parkway, home to a small café called Tawakal. The walls are bright orange and the TV is tuned to CNN. There’s a halal market next door that’s running a special on camel meat. A rush of cardamom fills the air the moment my tea begins dripping out of the kettle.

In addition to tea, a good Somali breakfast also means mulawah (it might also be spelled malawax, more on spelling in a moment). Mulawah is essentially a crepe—paper thin and just a little sweet. I’ve opted for chicken curry as my side (beef curry and goat liver are also on the breakfast menu), which I pinch between sections of mulawah. I’m not accustomed to a hearty stew at 9:30 in the morning. Yet aside from the wedges of lemon and lime that I don’t know how to use (squeeze them on the curry? In my tea?), this meal somehow feels perfectly at home.

That’s more or less what I found at every sit-down restaurant I visited to experience Somali cuisine: menus heavy with curries and stews (maraq), roasted meats with rice or pasta, and various flatbreads to mop them up. Suqar—spiced meat (usually lamb) diced and sautéed into a hash with peppers and onions—emerged as a standout appetizer. I found my favorite version at Daalo Grill on Nicollet Avenue, a space wood-paneled from floor to ceiling with a TV tuned to CNN.

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Sambusa // Photo by Aaron Davidson

But nothing I ate in a sit-down setting came close to the joy of the sambusa. Like the Indian samosa, sambusa consists of spiced meat, usually beef, chicken or tuna, wrapped in a triangle of dough. It’s crumbly but not messy, warm and portable, and there’s familiarity in its deep-fried sheen. They’re everywhere at Suuqa Karmel, always $1.50 and zapped in the microwave before being handed over in a paper bag. The best sambusa, however, are found at Afro Deli (if you like them soft) or Safari Express (if you like them crunchy). Both versions are served with a small cup of green sauce. (Rule No. 1 for exploring an unfamiliar cuisine: always get the green sauce.) Cloves dominate the Somali tea at Afro Deli; at Safari Express, it’s that cardamom again.

Suuqa Karmel also offers a chance to get acquainted with the numerous cakes, dough balls, and little fried things of Somali cuisine that go great with tea. They’re hardly ever labeled, and when they are, the spellings are inconsistent. This likely stems from the fact that the Somali language was largely an unwritten one until the mid-1970s. While a lack of labeling matters little to the majority of customers, who instinctively know what they’re eating, it might present something of a hurdle to outsiders.

Which brings me back to the question of why more people in the Twin Cities aren’t eating Somali food. Part of me thinks it’s an issue of timing. Somali cuisine draws from other traditions, many of which have already established culinary roots here. As much as I want to love Chicken Fantastic, for example, I found the cream-sauced chicken and vegetables over rice lacking, especially when compared to my favorite Indian masala, or similar dishes like Thai coconut curry or Kashmiri rogan josh.

But when I eat any of those dishes in Minneapolis, I can’t claim any of them are truly “authentic.” (And doesn’t that word mean next to nothing when it comes to food, anyway?) They’ve all been Americanized, and local Somali cuisine is on its way there, too. Afro Deli is a fusion café. Safari Express is basically the African Leeann Chin.

We seem to demand a strange combination of “authentic” and assimilated from foreign cuisine in the Metro. And it’s a fickle balance, weighed down by preconceptions and upset by the willingness to leave our comfort zones. Does a new food automatically become commonplace after a certain period of time, or is the adoption process more active than that? And if it’s more active, what breaks through our reluctance? Perhaps these issues never really go away, as evidenced by how everyone loves Quang and Jasmine 26, but the Hmong Marketplace remains criminally under trafficked.

Somali cuisine will no doubt adapt and find it’s clearest context in the cuisine of our Metro. For now, I’ll think of it fondly during snack time—the tea that sparks a conversation and the sambusa that sustains it until dinnertime. In my experience, the point of this food is that the food isn’t the point. It has a remarkable straightforwardness about it. It’s not vain. It doesn’t beg to be Instagrammed. It’s warm and spicy, rich and filling. It tastes necessary.

Back in my apartment, I wake up early and steep cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg with a scoop of black tea. I whip together a simple batter of flour, water, and egg. A spoonful of batter sizzles into a thin crepe. A couple minutes and it’s golden brown. I sprinkle it with sugar and fold it into quarters. I eat my mulawah and sip my Somali tea and look out at the rain that should be snow, waiting for winter to resemble something more familiar.

John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.

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