Where to Find Traditional Somali Food in Minneapolis
Get a taste of East African comfort food in the heart of Minneapolis
Article By Mecca Bos
“Most people are afraid of what they don’t know,” says Jamal Hashi, perhaps the best known Somali chef in the Twin Cities, credited for his “bridging” cuisine, which seeks to make traditional Somali cooking and restaurants more approachable to new communities. His restaurants and dishes are also popular with a younger generation of Somalis who have grown up in the states.
“Food brings the stress level down a bit. We come from a Nomadic culture,” says Hashi, one of about 75,000 Somali people who now call Minnesota home. “You are always someone’s guest, or they are our guest. Hospitality was a rule of law in Somalia, and it’s still in place. Survival depended on that.”
Minneapolis is home to over 25,000 Somali residents, about a quarter of all Somalis currently living in the United States. Many Somalis migrated to our state in the early 1990’s, fleeing the country’s civil war.
Our Cedar-Riverside area, also known as the West Bank (of the Mississippi river,) has been dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” the Somali capital of the United States. Dozens of Somali businesses dot the area, but examples of the surprisingly familiar, comforting cuisine can be found throughout the Twin Cities.
General markers of the cooking include tasty chapati and injera flat breads, fragrant spice cabinet seasonings, and a long colonization by Italy means noodles, red sauces, and even Alfredo. It’s a lively mashup of flavors that are easily accessible for the American palate, presented in dishes and techniques that can be eye-opening and altogether surprising and delightful.
Like any cuisine anywhere, Somali food differs from region to region, and like any cuisine anywhere, Somali restaurants differ in style and feel. Somalia is not generally a restaurant culture, with most meals being taken in the home. But around Minneapolis, you can find different kinds of eateries for different kinds of experiences.
Visit this four location chain (two in Minneapolis, two in St. Paul) for fast-casual pan-African favorites. Acolytes come for heaping, steaming portions of Chicken Fantastic, the restaurant’s signature stir-fry of chicken and veggies cloaked in a Parmesan cream sauce and served over Somali rice. Other favorites include the keke, African noodles (shredded strips of injera) tossed with peppers, onions, and herbs, and served with fragrant and spicy red sauce. Lovers of Italian food will especially enjoy a new approach on an old favorite.
Afro deli has a legion of followers who come for straightforward takes on Somali steak, chicken suqqar, paprika and turmeric spiced chicken stir-fried, and served sweet and spicy. Dozens of variations on flavorful classics can be had here, served in sandwich style, over rice or pasta and even in a quesadilla. Don’t forget sides of sambusas, sweet plantains, Somali rice, and of course tea. Afro Deli is a great place to try brewed Ethiopian Coffee—the origin of Arabica coffee, the first species of cultivated coffee.
If you’re in the mood for a more relaxed experience, check out Safari Restaurant, a true Somali dining experience with homestyle hospitality. Started by the aforementioned Jamal Hashi. When he arrived in Minnesota as a boy, there were only 37 Somali families living in the Twin Cities. That was enough for Hashi’s mother to relocate to the state, where they could begin to make a life among countrymen. As a chef, Hashi is credited with dishes approachable to Westerners, like Chicken Fantastic, or the Jambo Steak, which he says are like the “Chop Suey,” of Somali cooking. With both, you can expect marinated meat, served stir-fried or sauteed with vegetables; fresh herbs like cilantro, rice—a Somali meal is not complete without rice or pasta—and Malawah, a house made flatbread made with eggs and milk like a crepe. Fresh green hot sauce called “bas baas”, will be served in a wee container, and always a banana, to eat in bites combined with the rest of the meal, the idea is to balance out the heat. Also, watch for lots of seafood. Somalia is home to the second largest coastline in Africa.
Upon being seated at Safari, it’s likely you’ll receive a carafe of fresh mango juice or spiced tea, or maybe both, for the table to share. “Tea is big during the day,” with two varieties, either Adani or Shaha, the latter much like Chai, with cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg. Both can be enjoyed with or without milk, and both are sweet and stimulating, satisfying both at the beginning or end of a meal," says Hashi.
At Safari, I highly recommend the curry goat, as well as their exemplary sambusas, which arrive with their own special recipe of a creamy baasbas sauce, a traditional fiery hot sauce. Don’t be fooled by the pastel color—it offers formidable heat. Too hot? Take a bite of that banana to soothe you.
Located in the Midtown Global Market (itself a worthy spot for foodies to check out with cuisines on offer from all over the world,) Safari Express is the first fast-casual African restaurant in Minneapolis, where a look-and-point, build your own bowl experience can be had for less than about $10 and in fewer than ten minutes. Get heavily-spiced Safari (see above) favorites served in a bowl, wrap, or even with a side of fries. Keep your eyes peeled for their camel burger, seasonally available, but a bit of a Minnesota sensation.
For a once-in-a-lifetime glance at Somalia without traveling to the continent of Africa, check out the Karmel Mall, an indoor marketplace with hundreds of vendors, individually specializing in fashion, henna, beauty treatments, accessories for men and women, jewelry, an indoor mosque, and of course, food, food, food.
While you won’t go wrong with stopping wherever your eyes and nose direct you, check out two of Hashi’s favorites:
He says he’ll risk a parking ticket for tea at Hamdi, where the ultra-spiced concoction costs a fraction of what it does in any mainstream coffee shop, and is hand-brewed from scratch in large batches at regular intervals.
With your cup, order tea drinking snacks like the ubiquitous samosa, available in tea and coffee shops all over the Twin Cities, a hard-not-to-love meat pie wrapped in a phyllo-like dough and deep fried, served with the equally ubiquitous spicy bas baas.
Go one further and order a “nafaqo,” somewhat similar to a Scotch Egg—a hardboiled egg enveloped by potato and deep fried—but this time with spice. The word literally translates to “nutrition,” meaning it’s a perfect on-the-go protein packed snack, and way, way tastier than any energy bar.
“Baija” are like a black eyed pea falafel, deep fried and served, again, with hot sauce. For less adventurous palettes, choose a “bur mandazi,” a fried bread not unlike a beignet without all the messy sugar, and instead infused with the light fragrance of coconut milk.
For a true taste of Somali home cooking, Willo’s is a cannot-miss mom & pop with the genius chef “Mama Willo” at the helm.
Open seven days per week, plus a catering operation and culinary classes, Mama Willo’s threshold is a revolving door of committed followers hungry for a taste of home.
Serving a head-spinning array of treats, from Halwa, a sweet treat of reduced tea with sugar, ghee, and nuts; to caano, milk reduced to a caramel ball, sweets are only the beginning.
Here, sambusas get a life-changing variation, served warm with warm Malawah crepes riding sidecar, plus Mama Willo’s own tamarind-tinged hot sauce. The idea is that the sambusa gets wrapped in the warm malawah, then dipped in the sauce, for a savory-sweet-spicy bite you are not likely to ever forget.
Or, get a platter of spiced rice, a quarter chicken, and a side of plantains, and pinch up bites with flatbread the way you might in an Ethiopian meal.
“When you put a utensil between you and the food," says Hashi, “you can’t feel it.” Indeed, what begins as a five-sense affair can shrink to only four. Plus, convivial eating is what African food is all about.
Look around for a hand-washing station and wash up beforehand since you’re likely to be sharing, and try to only eat with your right hand, which is the traditional and respectful way.
Find Willo's on the 2nd floor of Karmel Mall.
About the Author
Mecca Bos has been writing about the Twin Cities food scene for more than 15 years and she’s been cooking in professional kitchens for almost as long. If there is something to be tasted in town, she’s tasted it. She loves few things more than bragging about her beloved hometown and food cities, Minneapolis/ St. Paul. Her work can be found both locally and nationally, and at meccabos.com.