Story by Jill Moorhead // Photos by Jodi Miller
There are anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Somali immigrants living in Columbus.
While this number is difficult to tie down (there's no box for Somali, or even African native, on the U.S. Census), one number is much easier to ascertain: Fifteen. This is the number of Somali restaurants nestled along Cleveland Avenue, Morse Road and on the West Side, says Hassan Omar of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
For those counting, that's three times the number of Olive Gardens in Central Ohio. Fifteen, Omar emphasizes, does not include what he calls coffee shops. That number is elusive.
This world of Somali cuisine is not a fleeting trend. The first restaurant in Columbus to serve Somali food, African Paradise, opened its doors 15 years ago. It's likely, though, that most Columbus natives have never dined at a Somali restaurant.
As a whole, Somali cuisine is easy on a Western palate and an ideal first step for those who want to branch out into ethnic eateries. Think juicy and aromatic Sunday stews adorned with familiar ingredients such as green peppers, tomatoes and garlic. Think grilled salmon on a bed of fragrant Basmati rice.
Think, even, grilled chicken with fettuccine and tomato sauce joined by a side salad with Italian dressing. A five-decade Italian occupation of the south of Somaliland left a permanent mark on the country's palate, meaning that not only is Olive Garden grossly outnumbered here in Columbus, but they've also got competition.
While the fare may be familiar (with the exception of a few not-likely-to-be-found-in-your-fridge ingredients, such as goat meat or cardamom), it's the culture of Somali eateries that takes a little easing into. Here's another steadfast number, provided by Nadira Abdirahman of Solay Bistro: 100 percent of the Somali population in Columbus is Muslim. For anyone not educated in the practices and rules associated within Islam and Columbus' young Somali community: no worries. A learning curve is generously applied.
"Somalis are a very friendly people," Abdirahman said. "We will welcome you and try our best to give you a good experience."
This sense of hospitality is rampant throughout the Somali community; the staff and owners of nearly every Somali restaurant I've been to are eager to educate and explain. Here are a few tips to understand both the etiquette and menus of the best-kept food secret in Columbus.
ETIQUETTE // What to expect
You may walk into a restaurant to find only men. In many Somali restaurants in Columbus, men and women do not interact in public; women and children may eat in a separate room. Westerners are not expected to abide by this cultural norm.
While some restaurants, such as Solay Bistro and African Paradise, provide detailed menus or pictures for ordering purposes, others may not have a menu at all. Instead the server will explain what the restaurant has that day.
Be willing to accept changes in the menu, especially in the evening. A restaurant may be out of rice and offer pasta instead.
Again, restaurants like Solay Bistro do provide checks, but don't expect a written bill at other Somali establishments. Instead your server will tell you that the meal is, say, $10 per person. Tips are not expected, but are appreciated in the restaurants that cater to more Westerners.
Somali food typically comes with two condiments: hot sauce and a banana. The hot sauce is different in each restaurant, but common ingredients include jalapeno, avocado, garlic and lime. Refreshing with a bit of a kick, the green sauce is used to add flavor to mild dishes. In some places, you may be encouraged to cut up the banana into bite-size pieces and use it to flavor your food. If you don't want the banana, leave it at the table, or take for a later snack.
In Islam, alcoholic beverages are forbidden. Be respectful; don't BYOB.
Ladies, consider covering your legs and your chest. This act of respect will make everyone--including yourself--more comfortable.
Based on the cycle of the moon, prayer is a daily ritual that happens in the middle of the day for five to 10 minutes. Most Somali restaurants will close their doors during prayer on Fridays. On other days, don't be surprised if you see staff and customers praying together.
Lunch on the go
In Somali culture, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and happens between 1 and 4 p.m. If you have time constraints such as an inflexible lunch hour, it's recommended to place your order in advance.
ON THE MENU // Popular dishes
Hilib Ari: Chopped-up goat meat served with rice or spaghetti. Each restaurant has its own special recipe, and many are served with sauteed onion and green pepper. Properly cooked goat can be very tender and rich, but don't be surprised to find bones in the dish.
Suqaar: Cubed meat (chicken, beef, goat) stewed in a sauce. Marinated with onions, garlic and herbs, and served with pasta or rice, this mild, simple dish is the ultimate comfort food.
Fata Muus: A traditional dish from Northern Somalia (and only available at Solay Bistro), this soft mixture of flatbread, bananas, honey and butter is served with a protein (or vegetables) and a hot sauce made with turmeric, fenugreek, lemon, garlic and jalapenos. Sweet, savory and tang do jumping jacks on the palate in this meal like no other.
K.K.: Made in the U.S.A., this dish is new to Somali cuisine. The East African version of Frito Pie, K.K. is a combination of cubed beef (or chicken, or goat), vegetables (such as green beans, tomatoes, carrots, onions and green peppers) and chopped-up sabayat (flatbread) or anjerro (the smaller and thinner Somali cousin to Ethiopia's pancake-like injera bread).
Sambusa: This appetizer is a triangle-shaped flaky pastry filled with ground beef or lamb seasoned with onions and peppers.
WHERE TO GO
5786 Emporium Square, North Side
Equipped with descriptive menus in English (complete with many vegetarian options) Solay Bistro is an ideal stop for those interested in trying Somali cuisine for the first time. The restaurant specializes in using organic and fresh ingredients and is among the first Somali restaurants in Columbus to establish a web presence. (Nearby Darbo was the first.)
2263 Morse Rd., North Side
The first Somali restaurant to open in Columbus, African Paradise has large photos of their specialty dishes available at the front entrance and a staff eager to present Somali cuisine to a Western palate. The dining area is partitioned off into several rooms, leaving a maze-like feel. Vegetarian options are available.
2285 Morse Rd, North Side
Situated in a former Rally's that shares a parking lot with African Paradise, Ginevra doubles as a restaurant and a cafe. Brightly lit with a lively atmosphere, the informal restaurant has a simple menu with daily specials.