Somali Food in Minneapolis: Eating Comfort Food Outside My Comfort Zone

Better be ready to wait and to yell

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By David Hammond

Last week, staying at the Radisson Blu in Minneapolis, I asked Kristen Holt, General Manager at the hotel, if she knew of any good Somali restaurants to visit. She hadn't been to one, but she asked one of her co-workers, an Ethiopian by the name of Million, if he knew of any. As related by Holt, the conversation went like this:

HOLT: One of our guests is looking for a Somali restaurant to visit.

MILLION: Is he white?

HOLT: Yes.

MILLION: Then tell him he better be ready to wait and to yell.

This was an interesting response because of what it says about this African man's perception of white diners that they're impatient and perhaps soft-spoken. It'd be difficult to argue with that generalization.

Undaunted (I'm patient and have a big voice), I eventually met with Million and he told me one of his favorite places was called Hamdi, so that's where I went for dinner.

Like many other Somali places I visited during my stay, Hamdi is a large and relatively simple room, with television monitors up by the ceiling. The dimly lit space was filled with men, only men, speaking with animation: it felt like a kind of indoor town square. There was also a room off to the side. Talking later with Osman Ali of the Somali Museum of Minneapolis, I found out that such side rooms are for families. The men had a room to themselves, and it would have been highly inappropriate, awkward and transgressive of me to have brought, for instance, my wife into that main room. The men stay by themselves; the women, their children and perhaps their husbands stay in the side room. Though no doubt building on general Islamic principles, this is likely a cultural food way rather than a strict Koranic directive. [Note to self: read Koran soon]

I am fortunate to eat at many very good restaurants. The night before eating at Hamdi I'd been at Spoon and Stable, a superb place, with food prepared by Chef Gavin Kaysen who recently brought home the  Bocuse d'Or, one of the restaurant industry's most prestigious awards. The food at Spoon & Stable was adventurous – serving dishes like smoked sturgeon on chocolaty bread – but Hamdi was a different kind of adventure.

I sometimes like to push myself to eat at places that are a little outside the comfort zone, though I should point out that no one at Hamdi was less than welcoming: I was clearly an outsider, but I wasn't treated like I didn't belong.

I feel I grow as an eater and as a human when encountering a different culture over the dinner table and trying foods I've never had before. When I see something on the menu I don't recognize, I order it. When I spotted K & K on the Hamdi menu, I didn't know what it was so that's what I wanted. It turned out to be pasta in a light tomato sauce: pasta is one of my personal comfort foods, and it was ironic that I was eating it at a place that was a step outside my comfort zone.

There's a lot of Italian food in Somalia. Italy had control over the southern parts of the country for years (the French and British were in the more northerly parts), and noodles remain very popular in this country on the Horn of Africa. 

Fortunately, my K&K came with a knife and fork, which I had to use. The following day, I was comfortable enough with the Somali restaurant scene to eat with my hands (clumsily and less efficiently than the average Somali three-year-old), but on my virgin voyage into Somali cuisine, I needed the training wheels of silverware.

Along with my pasta came a banana. As Ali told me, ""If a Somali does not have a banana with dinner, he does not feel full." All around me, guys regularly got up from their tables – before, during and after dinner – and went to the back of the restaurant to fetch more bananas. Watching other diners, it was interesting to me that they were using the banana as an eating implement, scooping up sauce with little chunks of the fruit, much as those in other parts of Africa and the Carbbean use foufou (mashed cassava) as an edible scooping and dipping implement. 

This was a most memorable dinner, not really because of the food but more because of the environment, which was a slice of a kind of life I've never lived, and although it did take quite a while to prepare my simple bowl of pasta, and the place was filled with animated conversations in what I believe was probably Somali, no yelling was required…though just in case, before entering Hamdi, I did clear my voice.

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