Sunday, February 12, 2012

Week Six: A Journey to Somalia

I began my journey to Somalia with absolutely no expectations or predispositions.  I knew nothing of this cuisine.  Finding information was not an easy task.  I read the general Wikipedia page and learned that its flavors are the results of influences from its native Somali people, Ethiopia, Yemen, Persia, Turkey, India, and Italy.  In general, most of the recipes I found or cuisines I read about were simply stews served with rice, bread, or pasta.  I kept looking for that special twist that would help me better understand the flavor profiles and the spirit of the cuisine.  It took a little longer than usual, but eventually, I found that glimmer of excitement upon the discovery of a web article about a Somali-born chef of a Minnesota restaurant. 

As I read Lori Writer’s article, An Evening in a Somali Kitchen, I began to understand the heart of Somali cuisine through Chef Jamal Hashi’s recollections of food from his childhood.  He describes the cuisine as a fusion of Somali’s three parts:  France in the North, United Kingdom in the center, and Italy in the south.  He describes a playfulness with which dishes are created as a result of these merging influences, such as curry and pasta in the same dish.  Not surprisingly, he notes that recipes are not written down, rather passed down from generation to generation.  (I knew that to be true in the small amount of time I had spent researching recipes for Somali cuisine.)  He reminisces about his neighbors’ mango tree that hung over into his yard and then shares his recipe for Mango (Ambe) Curry Chicken noting that one should play with the combination of spices and ingredients as is customary in Somalia.

With my interest piqued, I searched for more Somalian inspiration until I found the Xawaash blog by Abdullahi Kassim and Leila Adde.  What an incredible blog!  Pictures of better quality than most professional ones and superb writing elevate this site dedicated to a love of Somali cuisine.  Go there.  Read it.  Find your inspiration.  I did.  I immediately honed in on the Xawaash spice mix recipe and its inclusion in Somali spaghetti.  I’d read several accounts about the commonplace of “spaghetti with meat sauce” in Somali households, but every recipe online sounded like the same way my mom would make it.  I was looking for the key to making is Somali.  This spice mix is the answer!  Inspired by Chef Jamal Hashi, Abdullahi Kassim, and Leila Adde, I began to plan my menus for the week. 

Monday Night Dinner:  Somali Spaghetti
Over the weekend, I made the Xawaash Spice Mix recipe from the Xawaash blog.  The blend includes cumin, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon, green cardamom, cloves, and turmeric.  The aroma of the toasted spices filled my kitchen, and I wanted to start cooking with it immediately.  I knew that this would be a keeper!

I also turned to the Xawaash blog for a Somali Pasta Sauce (Suugo).  The description of the recipe is just as interesting as the dish itself.  Instead of using ground beef as the base for the sauce, the recipe includes Beef Round cut into tiny cubes.  The author explains that this is partly for economic reasons, but also because ground meat is not commonly found.  With the cubed meat, the sauce has a different texture than a traditional Bolognese.  The sauce includes the same base as normal spaghetti:  onion, green pepper, garlic, and tomatoes; however, the addition of the Xawaash spice mix and fresh cilantro lends it the Somali trademark.  Thankfully, I made way too much meat sauce, so after I sauced our pasta, we grabbed some bread and finished off the leftovers from the pan.  This is home-cooking at its best!

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Mango (Ambe) Curry Chicken with Somali Rice
I had been looking forward to making this dish since I first read about it.  All in all, I loved it.  In the article, Hashi speaks of using creativity to adapt a dish for personal taste, and I will definitely play with the seasonings the next time I make the dish.
§  The Mango Sauce is sweet and flavorful.  I used hot Madras Curry powder, and I still think the sauce needed more flavor.  Next time, I will double the curry powder.
§  For the Stir-Fry, I used snap peas, green bell pepper, and carrots.  It would have been prettier with red bell peppers, but I had green bell peppers on hand.  I particularly loved the crunch of the snap peas.  The recipe calls for 1 tsp of red pepper flakes, which is very important, because you need that heat to balance the sweetness of the Mango Sauce.
§  The Somali Rice recipe is perfect.  I made half of the recipe, and I did use vegetable broth.  Many of the same spices from the Xawaash were included as flavor enhancers for the rice, too, and they added a warm, nutty quality.

Sunday Lunch
I planned Sunday’s lunch menu around the flatbread called Sabaayad.  I read several different recipes for it, but at last, I decided to try the new one that appeared on Xawaash this very week.  The bread is generally served with a stew, and I had been thinking about making Baamiye Suqaar, a stew of beef and okra.  I had read a promising recipe for this dish on a blog called My Somali Food.  The reason for my curiosity about the stew was the use of okra.  Being from the south, I am familiar with fried okra, boiled okra, and okra used in gumbos and stews as a thickener; however, this recipe incorporated okra into the dish as just another vegetable.  “Cook until tender” was not a familiar step for okra in recipes that I had cooked previously, and I was interested to see its texture and flavor profile with the beef, onion, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes in the dish.

The Sabaayad challenged me more than I expected.  The dough is extremely sticky, and it took a few tries to figure out just how much flour I needed to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and the countertop as I rolled it out.  I wasn’t 100% sure about the use of oil in the recipe, because it was included in the ingredients but not included in the directions or pictures in a specific way.  I decided not to include it in the dough.  I think that was the right decision.  The end result was a tender, flaky flatbread.  

The Baamiye Suqaar was delicious.  The flavors of the beef and vegetables melded together into a warm, homey meal.  I loved the texture and flavor of the okra, too.  The only thing I will change for next time is adding more tomato.  The dish needed more acidity, and the recipe’s ingredients were not precise in the sense that the amount of chopped tomato produced by “1 tomato” can vary greatly depending on a tomato’s size.  Next time, I’ll use more small ones or buy larger ones.

All in all, this week surprised me.  I enjoyed the dishes, and I certainly have an understanding and appreciation for Somalia’s cuisine after this undertaking.  My only regret is that I did not make any dishes with goat.  Chef Jamal Hashi states that if any dish could be considered a “national dish” of Somalia, it would be goat.  I had every intention of adding a goat dish to this week’s meals, but I ran out of time.  I’ll have to tackle that one on another journey!


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