A plate of spaghetti and a hand of bananas was delivered to my table for lunch last week.
But this wasn’t an Italian entree with a fruit pairing. This is a popular order at Hormud Meat & Grocery Market, a Somali restaurant in the 3360 Division St. strip mall.
“Southern Somalia was once colonized by the Italians,” explained Ahmed Abdi, a Somali native and Times staff reporter who served as my guide. “They brought pasta to Somalia. It’s very popular back home.”
My experience at Hormud — pronounced “or-mood ” and translated as “the leading place” — is one I recommend other Minnesotans try. The North Star State is home to the country’s highest population of Somali immigrants at more than 40,000.
Not only was the food tasty, but it was an opportunity to connect with my often misunderstood neighbors.
There are few things as universal as food. After all, everybody eats.
Abdi, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2000 to flee civil war in his East African country, said there’s a growing generation of local Somalis who were born and raised in Central Minnesota. Yet the immigrant community has unique characteristics.
The most interesting aspect of local Somali culture I learned is how they help others within their community. With transportation a significant hurdle for refugees and other immigrants, Abdi said Somalis drive each other around — often giving rides to strangers.
“You don’t even expect a thank you,” Abdi said. “It’s just something you do.”
Countries trade food ideas the way some people trade rides. In addition to the Italian presence in Somalia, there were the culinary influences of British colonization in northern Somalia.
And the Somali food, while heavier on spices, translates easily to the American palate. Somali spaghetti, for example, comes with the added twist of paprika seasoning.
But not everything is the same here in Central Minnesota for Somalis. Take bananas, traditionally eaten at most Somali meals, and other fresh produce.
“The big difference is the freshness,” Abdi said. “In Somalia we buy everything fresh. And it was usually grown there.”
For appetizers at Hormud, we tried a fried triangle pastry stuffed with seasoned ground beef, carrots and onions called sambusa, a similarly shaped breakfast sweetbread known as mahamri, and a soup broth made from goat meat. Abdi said Somalia is known for its supersized sambusas, also known as samosas, that are especially popular as a high-calorie snack during the annual month of daytime fasting called Ramadan.
The main entrees were roasted goat, sauteed pepper chicken and a fried chicken dish. They were served with a large side of seasoned basmati rice, which is featured at most Somali meals.
“In Somalia it would be hard to find a vegetarian,” Abdi said. “Meat is a big part (of the Somali diet).”
Main seasonings used in Somali cooking include cinnamon, cumin, curry powder, cardamom and bay leaves. They were all present at Hormud, which also sells groceries.
“This is where people who can’t cook come,” jokes Abdi. “Traditionally, Somali men don’t cook — I don’t think I ever saw my father in the kitchen. Our generation is now in a new culture, so that’s changing a bit.
“I still think my mom is the best cook.”
An opinion shared in many cultures.
While Hormud didn’t have much for interior decoration, the staff — including server Ibrahim Qabobe — and other customers were friendly and polite. Most spoke English, and many smiled and nodded at my unusual presence.
And on our way out of the restaurant, Abdi was asked by a Somali stranger for a lift. He was happy to oblige