To most Americans, Somalia is a culinary blank space. Stories about the East African nation often focus on its nearly three decades of turmoil; stories about the Somali people focus on the hardships of the approximately two million refugees forced out of their homes, well over 150,000 of whom now live in America. As valuable as it is to understand the long-running conflicts and crises plaguing the Somali people, this singular narrative obscures a rich culture—including an incredibly diverse and complex culinary tradition that Somalis have brought to America.
Shakib Farah, the chef at Safari, a Somali restaurant in New York City, calls it “the jewel out of East Africa that nobody has yet explored.” If you’re at a loss to name one Somali dish or ingredient, you’re not alone—but hopefully this guide will be your remedy.
Operating with no knowledge save basic geography, Americans often assume when they first hear about Somali food that it’ll probably be similar to neighboring Ethiopian food, says Farah. There are some similarities, like the prevalence of anjero (also spelled caanjero) in Somalia, a smaller and thinner take on Ethiopia’s spongy injera bread. Somalis do not cultivate teff grains like their Ethiopian neighbors, so their anjero tends to be made from ground corn and sorghum flour, giving it a unique flavor. Or there’s the use of distinctly Ethiopian spice blends like mitmita and berbere in some Somali dishes—especially those more commonly made in the Ogaden, a Somali-majority territory in what is now southeastern Ethiopia.
Somali food also bears similarities to wider East African culinary traditions. One of the staples, a corn grits dish called sor, is a near-direct parallel to Kenyan ugali or Zambian shima, for example. One could even argue that the heart of Somali food, rooted in nomadic traditions that live on in interior regions like the Ogaden, is similar to other nomadic food traditions in East African and beyond. Many dishes, explains Farah, rely on a base of common grains and dairy and meat from a nomadic herd animal. One of the most famous Somali dishes is suqaar, chunks of tender fried meat, and most Somali restaurateurs in America usually recommend their roasted goat above all else.
But Somali cooks have long put their own spin on dishes that seem similar to neighboring cultures. Some of this comes down to Somalia’s unique agricultural and pastoral traditions. Somalia—especially northern Somalia—is home to about half of the global camel population, so its nomadic dishes rely heavily on camel meat, milk, and sometimes slices of spongy, oily hump meat. (Goat meat is fairly common as well.) And in southern Somalia, the fertility of the areas surrounding the Juba and Shebelle rivers gives Somali chefs easy access to tropical flavors, explains Abderazzaq Noor of the blog The Somali Kitchen. Those include coconut, guava, mango, and tamarind—often consumed as snacks or juices.
Bananas especially hold a place of pride in southern Somali cooking, served on the side of almost every meal not as an appetizer, dessert, or garnish, but as an integral condiment. You’re meant to slice the banana and either mash it into the grains on your plate, or spear a round on a fork then shovel other items on top of it, blending the melty sweetness of the fruit into the savoriness of the rest of the dish. Failing to properly utilize a banana can be a huge faux pas, as the Los Angeles Times writer Matt Pearce discovered in 2016 when he went to Minneapolis’s Maashaa’allah Restaurant and shared a post of his meal on Instagram, referring to the banana as a confusing appetizer. Somali communities worldwide dragged him on social media for days.
Somalia’s traditional role as a nexus for traders ferrying goods from South Asia to the Middle East and beyond for at least 2,500 years has also gifted its food an astounding degree of cosmopolitan influence. Somali coffee and tea, qaxwo and shaah respectively, are often richly spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and sometimes cardamom, ginger, black pepper, and more, reflecting influences from neighboring Yemen. Arabic influences also introduced sweets like xalwo, known elsewhere as halva, and even rice dishes made with adzuki, fava, and other beans—dishes like cambuulo iyo maraq or fuul. Central and South Asian influences gave rise to dishes like zurbiyan, a spiced rice dish Noor likens to biryani, and a number of flatbreads similar to chapatti or roti. Perhaps most importantly, these influences brought Somalia one of its most famous dishes, the sambusa, the local, meat-filled take on the Central and South Asian samosa. Most dishes are served with bisbaas, a yogurt-based cilantro and hot pepper sauce served as a condiment.
More recently, Italian colonial adventures in the Horn of Africa introduced spaghetti into the culinary lexicon of big Somali cities like Mogadishu, capital of the modern Somali state, as well as herbs like rosemary and oregano. These influences, however, taper out the more interior or rural one gets in Somalia, unlike the spices and staples that have slowly worked their way into Somali culture from the Middle East and Asia over millennial. Fish dishes also tend to be restricted to the coast. Somali people are traditionally pastoralists, Noor argues, so they “would look down on fish” historically and today.
Rather than faithfully imitating foreign influences, Somali cooks have always made other cultures’ ingredients their own. In restaurants, for instance, pasta often gets mixed with rice—and sometimes spiced with cumin. (“The Italians would have a fit,” says Noor.) The dough and spicing used for sambusas often varies from that of their Asian counterparts, although it is almost impossible to say exactly how given the wide variety of samosas across Central and South Asia, and of sambusas from one Somali family or region to another.
Often Somali variations highlight the region’s insatiable sweet tooth. While Somalis often eat their anjero with meat, they also serve it smothered in honey for breakfast, or mash it with ghee and sugar for children. Their shaah is loaded with sugar, or at times made with condensed milk; Beth Segal, a food reviewer writing for Cleveland.com, likened it to “drinking pumpkin pie.” Even Somali food’s most characteristic spice mix, xawaash, leans into the sweetness of cloves and nutmeg as much as it does the more savory flavors of cumin, coriander, and turmeric.
A few Somali dishes, Farah believes, are hard to duplicate outside of the context of the Horn of Africa. He spotlights muqmad, also known as odka, small-cubed and preserved meat that nomads carry for long journeys and still features in many traditional meals. (Farah claims the cubes are preserved via air-drying. Noor claims they’re fried and then mixed with ghee. It may vary by region.) The preserved meat is then mixed with incredibly fresh goat’s milk cheese and eaten immediately. Given Western regulations around cheesemaking and animal rearing and slaughter, this is almost impossible to (legally or easily) replicate in many contexts.
But most Somali dishes have made the jump successfully to America alongside the Somali diaspora. Flavors may vary due to the sourcing of ingredients, Farah acknowledges. But you can even get fresh camel in America these days, courtesy of Australia’s mad push to liquidate and profit from its massive feral and invasive camel herds. And Somali chefs have made surprisingly few concessions to American palates, save maybe putting cheese on pasta. Most innovations at Somali restaurants in America often come through remixes of distinctly Somali flavors, like Farah’s mango curry chicken or vegetable dishes—evocative but grounded.
Until relatively recently, most Americans had little exposure to Somali food unless they happened to live or visit a Somali neighborhood in a city like Columbus, Minneapolis, San Diego, or Seattle, home to some of the largest Somali diaspora concentrations in the nation. However since 2015 local papers and TV stations have started to spotlight their local Somali food scenes, broadening popular awareness. It is hard to tell why this has happened. But some of this spotlighting may have been inspired by rave reviews of Somali restaurants like Farah’s Safari in major outlets like the New York Times and New Yorker or Hoyo’s Kitchen in Columbus in Eater. Some of it may also have to do with the inclusion of Somalia in Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban. HuffPost explicitly covered Somalia’s relationship to bananas to improve popular understandings of Somali culture in light of the controversy.
Somali restaurants like Safari have also started popping up outside of Somali-majority areas, increasing the chance that Americans from all walks of life will encounter this culinary tradition. One company in Minneapolis has even been working to bring Somali-style sambusas to general market grocery stores in frozen, premade from, although their operation is still fairly small.
Farah has faith that as Americans learn of and happen across Somali food through this progressive expansion and exposure, they will fall in love with the tradition and help it to spread even further. It is, he points out, a singular and compelling fusion tradition, a mix of Africa, Central and South Asian, European, and Middle Eastern flavors. These swirling influences give diners an almost infinite amount of choice, from vegetarian bean- or fruit-based dishes to hearty meat-and-grain fare with minimal spicing to impossibly aromatic and jittery-sugary plates.
Somali food will be to African food in America “what Thai food has been to Asian food,” Farah argues. That may be a too-bold vision, given how limited the profile of African food in America is. But at the very least, Farah has reason to believe that someday Somali food may come out of the shadow of better-known Ethiopian food—that it might become recognizable and respected, no longer a blank space.