The Somali Kitchen is a food blog I’ve admired for quite some time. I was excited recently to get the chance to interview its creators. A labor of food love created and run by Abderazzaq Noor, Shukri Abdikarim, Mariam Issa and Abshiro Farah, it never fails to present recipes that simultaneously make me want to try my hand at them and causes me to lament the fact that more restaurants don’t exist in my area that serve the kind of food that these four talented cooks, Somali nomads residing in Australia, prepare. They were kind enough to talk with me about their earliest cooking influences, their 2014 goals for The Somali Kitchen, a recent speaking engagement’s most memorable moments, and a great deal more. Read on.
Flavorful World: What is your earliest memory of a meal that you prepared by yourself from start to finish, and how did that experience influence your current cooking methods?
Shukri: My earliest cooking memory was preparing anjero, a sourdough Somali pancake that we eat at all times during the day. I got up at the crack of dawn to light the fire using charcoal and this took me forever because the previous night I forgot to store the charcoal inside the house and the charcoal was a bit wet. Needless to say everyone waited a very longtime for breakfast! This made learn to plan my cooking and organise myself.
Abderazzaq: I was about nine years old when I decided to make myself some lunch. I had the ambitious idea of making a rather complex rice dish that I loved. Despite never having made this dish before I thought it was quite easy! Just fry the onions and spices, chuck in the rice, cover it and voila it is ready to eat. Well, it didn’t quite go to plan. I completely burnt the onions and filled the kitchen with smoke. A neighbour rushed in when she saw the smoke. She kindly and patiently showed me how to make the rice. The neighbour taught me that there is a method to cooking – every step produces a different layer of flavour. Incidentally, I ended up marrying the neighbour’s niece (Shukri from The Somali Kitchen) years later!
FW: Tell us about your most recent experience dining out that inspired you to create a new recipe utilizing one or more ingredients of the meal you enjoyed. What was the restaurant meal, and what recipe did you create that shared some of its ingredients?
Abderazzaq: We recently went to a West African restaurant in Melbourne. We were served cassava, a popular African root vegetable that we hadn’t eaten in many years. This inspired me to think about using some of the forgotten raw ingredients from my childhood in Africa. A few days later I stumbled on a packet of hulled millet in a Middle Eastern grocery store. I was very excited as the last time I ate millet was about 20 years ago. Typically, we used to grind millet and make it into a porridge for breakfast or eat it boiled with a drizzle of clarified butter and honey. So keeping the breakfast theme in mind, I boiled the millet and served it up with Greek yoghurt, a drizzle of honey and a handful of raspberries and blue berries. Delicious! The recipe will be up soon on our blog.
FW: At the 2013 Melbourne Festival earlier this month, the four of you presented a talk on Somali culture and provided tastings of traditional Somali dishes. What Somali foods did you showcase, and to which offerings did the audience respond most enthusiastically? What was the most memorable question or comment that you received that day?
Abderazzaq: We ended up preparing too many dishes! Somalis tend to overdo things – one quickly becomes four and six often ends up being eleven! We made shah (Somali tea or chai); bhajia (chickpea and potato fritters) and black eyed beans fritters served with a date, tamarind and chilli sauce called shidni; vegetable and meat samosas (and Indian favourite that Somalis have appropriated!); kashata (a coconut based sweet spiced with cardamom and pistachio) and halwa, a Somali sweet that resembles Turkish delight.
We were surprised by how much people liked the halwa. It is intensely sweet and something that we thought would be mostly eaten by Somalis in the audience. It practically flew off the plate with most Somalis complaining that they didn’t get to taste the halwa!
One lady paid us a lovely compliment when she told us that she enjoyed the food so much that she wanted to bring a large group of people to our restaurant. We had to tell her that we didn’t run a restaurant and referred her to several Somali restaurants in Melbourne.
FW: If your cooking style were a genre of music, what genre would it be, and what aspects of your methods account for your musical choice?
Abderazzaq: Definitely world music and very eclectic. A bit of this and a bit of that – drums, the oud, flutes, perhaps a trumpet – these sounds represent the many influences that have shaped Somali cuisine. None of us cook in exactly the same way and this is typical of Somali cooks everywhere. Each cook adds a little twist here and there and the result is that no one Somali dish tastes the same. We do always recognise the dish though as the core ingredients usually remain the same. It is the method and the spices that create the difference.
FW: French chef Urbain Dubois is credited with the quote, “The ambition of every good cook must be to make something very good with the fewest possible ingredients.” Each of you please tell us your favorite dish that can be prepared with the fewest ingredients. What are those ingredients, and why you choose that food?
Abderazzaq: Give me a few chillies, a couple of tomatoes, garlic and tamarind and I will make it into a shidni – a Somali hot sauce that you can use to spice up any meal or use as a dip for French fries or wedges.
Shukri: corn flour, wheat flour, salt and oil to make my favourite flatbread – anjero. I love this bread because I can eat it for breakfast with a bit of honey and butter or eat it with any kind of curry.
Abshiro: I have a sweet tooth and one of my favourite sweets is made with sesame seeds, nuts and sugar. We call this sisin lows. You will find this sweet sold in the streets of my hometown, Kismayo in southern Somalia.
Mariam: I have become a health nut and smoothies that combine vegetables and fruit are my favourite. I made a smoothie for Somali Kitchen that combined celery, mint, mango, orange and tamarind – an unusual combination that just worked beautifully together.
FW: What are your 2014 goals for The Somali Kitchen?
Abderazzaq: To keep blogging and to tap into our culture and create new dishes. Taking something old and borrowing from the influences where we live is an age old tradition in Somali cuisine. An example is a new dish Abderazzaq created – Sabaayad Pudding – using Somali flatbread but inspired by an ancient Egyptian dessert called Umm Ali.
There is so much inspiration around us and we look forward to learning more about the amazing influences around us in Australia – the Greek, the Afghani, Lebanese, Aboriginal and so on. We know this will help us to keep the creative juices flowing.
FW: If your collection of original recipes had been created with the intention of challenging one notion about Somali cooking and eating, what would that notion be?
Abderazzaq: That Somali food is surprisingly familiar, but tantalisingly exotic. For example, we inherited pasta from the Italians and it has become the de facto national dish of Somalia, but we’ve done things with pasta that would shock the poor Italians. Somali pasta sauces sometimes have spices and herbs like cumin and coriander.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name each of you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits.
Mariam: A Resilient Cuisine!
Abshiro: The Tropical Table
Shukri: Tastes From the Scented Coast
Abderazzaq: Tales From a Nomad’s Kitchen
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do each of you most enjoy spending your time?
Abderazzaq: I enjoy reading. History is one of my favourite topics. I am currently reading about the Mughal Empire of India. It is great that we can still see the impact of their rule in the beautiful buildings such as the Taj Mahal and of course, the wonderful Mughlai cuisine of northern India.
Mariam: I recently started a non-governmental organisation called RAW (Resilient, Aspiring Women) and turned my backyard into a community garden where I host events for women from all walks of life – to talk, share stories and support and inspire each other.
Abshiro: Catching up with dear friends is something I look forward to and there is always my young family that always wants a piece of me!
Shukri: I get stuck into making jewelry using Somali fabrics and African beads at odd times – usually 9pm when the house is quiet and sometimes I keep going until 2am!
*Note to Readers: You too can experience the longing inspiration to cook and eat like these four talented individuals by visiting The Somali Kitchen often and also by making their Facebook page a regular haunt in your search for things delicious.