I realize this column has taken a turn from its usual jovial tone. I’m sorry for that. I guess I’m just not feeling it these days. And with that warning, I am continuing my series on the food from the countries whose people Trump has tried to ban from entering the United States. Though the ban has been blocked by federal courts, it will likely end up in the Supreme Court. Regardless of the outcome, I believe acceptance of these refugee groups, and of other cultures in general, is important. Plus, it’s fun to try new foods!
This month I bring you a nation that was once considered among the mightiest ports of call in the world. No, it’s not Egypt, or Greece, or Phoenicia. Situated on the Horn of Africa (that’s the pointy part on the eastern coast), Somalia was once a maritime marvel, and the hub of trade in exotica from prehistory through the Middle Ages, until imperialist powers’ Scramble for Africa and colonization.
Strategically located on the Gulf of Aden, between the Red and Arabian seas, this country boasts the longest coastline and the most beaches on the continent. Of course, this made it prime real estate for traders. Artisans, spiritual leaders and royalty from around the ancient world came to what the Egyptians referred to as “the land of Punt” (which means “spice”). They traded not just for spice, but for gold, ivory, ostrich feathers and incense. Somali incense was renowned — there are images of it in Egyptian tombs — and the country still supplies it to the Roman Catholic Church. Eccentric royalty stocked their menageries with Somali zebras, giraffes and hippopotami. But that strategic location was really what the world wanted, and everyone tried to get it.
By the 8th century, Islam had taken hold. Muslim Arabs and Persians set up trading posts along the Somali coastline, and the cities thrived. All this prosperity did not go unnoticed, and soon the Portuguese and the rest of Europe wanted a piece of this money-making pie. In the 1880s, during a mad dash to colonize the continent, Somalia was divided into pieces by the French, British and Italians.
Contact with so many cultures resulted in a cuisine that draws from many places. Arab and Persian traders who settled along the coast brought rice, garlic and spices. Indian-style samosas and paratha were incorporated into the Somali diet. Even the Europeans left their mark with Italian pasta, English steamed puddings and French-style pastries. And as the Somali people emigrated across the globe, these dishes morphed even more, picking up local ingredients and preparations with a unique, truly multicultural flair.
Much like its Yemeni and Ethiopian neighbors, this majority Muslim country relies heavily on halal meats, especially goat and lamb (though Ethiopia, which is mainly Eastern Orthodox Christian, incorporates more vegetarian dishes in response to church-prescribed fasting). Bread is a staple, as it is in neighboring regions, and there are several variations, including anjero, a spongy yeasted bread that resembles the larger, tangier Ethiopian injera. Bread-making is daily women’s work in Somalia, and though today it is often made with granulated yeast and baking powder, it was traditionally leavened with a natural starter made from flour and water. Other breads include fried kac kac (a square little doughnut), rice cakes, spiced pancakes and flatbreads made from everything from corn to chickpeas.
Spaghetti and rice dishes are familiar, but with a twist. Most include xawaash, a spice mix that varies regionally but incorporates many ingredients found throughout the Middle East –- cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, turmeric and black pepper. Sauces made from chili, or from yogurt, fried coffee and tamarind grace the tables. And when you order rice, expect to be served a banana on the side. Don’t make the mistake of eating it as an appetizer or dessert, unless you want to be laughed at. The banana is cut and eaten with the meal, like a condiment.
The banana and rice side dish is an homage of sorts to the once-booming Somali banana trade. Plantations started by Italian colonists in the 1920s once provided the majority of bananas eaten in the Middle East and Europe. But civil war, drought and flooding ended this industry in the 1990s.
That civil war continues, and it is messy. Warring clans, government forces, outside interests and extremists have been competing for influence and power for more than 20 years. Nearly a million refugees are registered around the world, with another million internally displaced, 60 percent of them children. (As in Yemen, most are too poor to escape.) On top of that, the Somali people are facing famine. The second drought in less than a decade has wreaked havoc on an already displaced population. Lack of water not only limits the availability of food, but sets killer disease in motion. Unsurprisingly, extremists make access by relief workers next to impossible. (They are warned to avoid the outer parts of Mogadishu, as it is likely they will either be shot by militia, or eaten by lions, cheetahs or hyenas.) The region is in desperate need of relief. Billions of dollars in relief.
Here in the U.S. we have the largest Somali community outside of Somalia. They first came as mariners in the 1920s, but the biggest wave came as refugees from the civil war. The largest communities are in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, and it is there you will find hundreds of Somali-owned businesses and a restaurant scene that is gaining mainstream acceptance. In California there is a sizable Somali population in San Diego, where you’ll find a dozen Somali restaurants to try. Closer to home, you can experience this cuisine at Banadir in Inglewood. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript exterior and the minimal décor. The food is fantastic and definitely worth a visit. In the meantime, try making some Somali flatbread.
This flatbread (sometimes known as lahooh or laxoox) is a common breakfast for Somalis. Drizzle it with ghee and a sprinkle of sugar, serve it with tea spiced with cardamom and
cinnamon, and think good thoughts for Somalis around the world.
5 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon granulated yeast
1 cup white corn flour
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1. Combine water, yeast and corn flour, mix together into a thin batter, and set aside to proof for 1 hour. This is the starter.
2. Add all-purpose flour, baking powder, sugar and salt, and beat until smooth. Set aside to ferment again for 1 to 2 hours. (Purists ferment overnight for a sourer flavor.)
3. Warm a nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Ladle the batter into the pan, swirling it to spread into a thin pancake. Cook until the batter looks dry and spongy, then remove and repeat with remaining batter. Serve these for breakfast, or use them to accompany spicy Somali curries and stews.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.