New tricks at the Somali Mall

I had never been to the Somali Mall International, so I didn’t know what to expect. I walked in through a side entrance hoping to find Somali cuisine, and, at first, it was as if I was in a Middle Eastern peddlers mall. I was greeted by a blizzard of color, from clothing to rugs to wall décor. A friendly woman directed me through the labyrinth, past a barber shop and toward a small grocery store.

The place wasn’t large, and it was a bit cluttered, but I found shelf after shelf of products imported from the Middle East: sauces, canned goods, pastas, drinks — there was one drink called Lucosade, which was “powered by glucose,” according to the packaging — rice, garbanzo beans, spices, frozen foods and plenty more.

In one aisle, I found a product called cow ghee, a type of butter used in Indian cooking. And in a freezer, I discovered Ziploc bags of frozen meat, from ground beef to camel stew meat to goat livers and kidneys.

I ended up buying a can of Ziyad brand hummus that was produced in Jordan, and while you can tell in the flavor it is canned (a tad tinny), I loved the stuff. It was spicy and flavorful, and tastes good with anything from vegetables to simple crackers. For just $2, I wish I had bought more (but I will certainly return).

I also bought a chili sauce, a jar of pickled hot peppers (medium-hot and tasty) and some frozen plantains. As I checked out, two men nearby were cutting goat meat; I decided to skip the goat, as that’s not a challenge I felt up to at that moment.

But it was in the café next door that I found my actual challenge. The small menu board listed items such as Ethiopian enjera and goat meat entrées. There was also a chicken sandwich, and from the breakfast menu you can get oatmeal. But I was intrigued by the anjero stew, of which I ordered the beef variety.

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And that’s when things got challenging for me. When the friendly woman who took my order walked to the counter and placed my meal onto a tray, I stared at a folded piece of bread, an ample portion of cubed beef stew and a garnish of lettuce. Next to it on my tray, she placed a bowl of what looked like some sort of soup. And next to the plate, she added a banana.

I didn’t know what to do. Do I dip the anjero in the soup? Wrap the stew in it and eat it like a burrito? I looked back to her, cleared my throat, and said, “Ma’am. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I don’t know how to eat this.”

She chuckled, and then handed me a fork. Ah yes, a fork — that would help greatly. She then gave me another plate, on which she said I should spread out the anjero, which is sort of like a really big pancake, top it with the stew, and then pour the broth over it.

So, I did. And it was a new experience for me; one that I quite enjoyed. And I’m glad she gave me the fork, because no one needs to try and eat that thing like a burrito. The anjero not only has an odd, spongy texture, but also has a bit of tartness to its flavor. The beef was lightly seasoned with some red pepper, garlic and, maybe, some cumin. Along with beef, I found cabbage and onions. It was pretty simple, but it was a comforting, filling meal; I guess that’s what it was — Somali comfort food.

It was the broth that really brought it home, though — not that it was much more than beef broth, but it was greedily soaked up by the anjero, made the stew seem more tender (some of the beef cubes were tough-ish, but not off-puttingly so), and turned it into the warming experience it was. And it was only $8.

The good news is, you’ll feel welcome at the Somali Mall International, which is located at 737 S. Eighth St., and it’s OK if you speak only English — everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. You don’t even have to be embarrassed to ask how to eat the food, although perhaps I should have been.

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