DAY ONE: LUNCH
Abdul signals me to take off my shoes.
It feels oddly personal, entering a strange new space in only your socks.
We troop into this large room. Abdul and I stand in the last of maybe a dozen rows of men. Some are dressed in diras, robes, a few with head wraps, others in Western garb.
"Allah-o-Akhbar!" calls the voice from the front room.
It's lunchtime on Friday, Islam's equivalent of Sunday. We're at the Masjid Nur up near 50th and University, where many Somalis come to pray. It's just a converted house, but the name means "Mosque of the Moonlight." Pretty romantic.
The mullah's voice, through speakers, chants prayers in classical Arabic. Somalis have their own language, but the Arabic has the same comforting resonance as Latin does for Catholics. I kneel down, like everybody else, on the balls of my feet and my knees. And then lean forward till my forehead touches the carpet. Then it's up, till you're standing, leaning your hands on your knees, asking Allah -- God -- for forgiveness, and down two more times. At the end, after the mullah says more prayers, we all chant "A-meen." Meaning, as in Judaism and Christendom, "accepted."
It's the similarities, not the differences, that stay with me as we put our shoes back on outside.
"Now," says Abdul. "Let's eat."
We jump in his car and head west along University towards Euclid. Right next to Mid-City Grocery & Produce, a grill-fronted red-and-green building sports a sign you'd miss if you weren't looking: "Taste of African Cuisine."
"It's where Somalis gather," says Abdul. " 'Specially on Fridays."
Some men -- and it's only men here -- are already at tables, playing dominoes. Slap, bang, laugh, argue.
We head into the big dining area inside, and the first thing I notice is guys eating meat, salad, and -- spaghetti.
"Don't forget, we had Italians in Somalia for a long time before independence," Abdul says. "They left. Spaghetti stayed."
Abdul says Somali lunch food is basically basmati rice or spaghetti and meat, like beef, goat, lamb. "No pork. We're a Muslim country," he says. "But if we were in Somalia you'd certainly add the favorite, camel meat."
My ears prick up. Camel meat? Now that would be a first. 'Course, this is not my first Somali restaurant. That was the late lamented Afrique, a couple of years back. The one thing I remember from that place is bananas. Bananas came with everything. And here, sure enough, all the guys are peeling and chopping, squeezing the banana pieces over rice, chunks of meat, salads, piles of fava beans, into soups.
"What's with the bananas?" I ask.
"We love them," Abdul says. "Somalia has the sweetest bananas in the world. Bananas in this country aren't so sweet, but we use them anyway."
He says this meal is called qado, lunch. "You can have rice or spaghetti with goat, fish [mahi mahi], chicken, lamb, or a fadareshin." He pronounces it like "federation." It means a selection, a mixed plate. They're all the same price: $7.00.
I go for the fadareshin, and when it arrives, you can imagine a sort of map of Somalia. The delicious, herby, on-the-bone roasted goat meat makes you think of Somalia's goat country, its mountains and plateaus. The two slabs of fried fish (mahi mahi) tell of Somalia's coastline, the longest of any country in Africa. The basmati rice is the Indian influence, a monsoon-driven dhow trip to the northeast, and the pile of spaghetti shows who came and colonized this country in 1888. And bananas? They're the fruits of the oases in the Land of Punt, "God's Land," as the Egyptians called it, that made Somalia famous in the region.
By now, lots of young guys are sitting around the tables, sharing large plates of rice and spaghetti and meat. Even this early, there's plenty of joshing and laughing. You can tell: Friday after mosque is the release moment of the week. The place feels Somali, with the Arab-sounding language, the smells of sesame and roasting goat meat, and the decor, gray-and-blue tiles and blue-striped orange rafters. "Blue is Somalia's color," says Abdul.
We sit down at a glass-topped table with a flowery plastic cloth. "We have lots of taxi drivers come in," says Abdullahi Gass. He's the owner. "They don't have family in this country. They like to socialize. We order big plates to share."
"Somalis are outgoing people," says Abdul. "We'll put arms around shoulders, tell jokes."
Of course, he means men. That's the other thing that gives this place atmosphere. So...what about the women?
"In our tradition, women prepare the food for the men," says Abdul. "I'm 26. I have two sisters. We just never eat together."
Ibrahim, the guy serving all this food, brings a dark tea ($1.00) with cinnamon, and sugar, plus maybe...is that cardamom? Mint? Or is this just an herb tea? Whatever, it comes sweet, hot, and with a can of Carnation milk, two holes punctured into the top for pouring.
I follow Abdul's lead and break up my banana, strew it around my plate, take a deep breath, and plunge in.
Here's the other thing: you can use spoons, forks, whatever, but the cool, traditional, and, actually, the sensual thing to do is eat with your right hand (only use the left to help). I mix in the banana with the rice (mmm!), the salad, the spaghetti (uh, okay), the fish (yeah), and the goat. Your fingers mush it, mix it, sort it out, feel the wet, the dry, the leafy, the sticky, the different meat textures. You get to enjoy the direct-touch contact with the food. You get to wonder how much you've missed, all these years, using no-touch, metal knife-and-fork proxies. This is luscious!
Trouble is, everyone around me seems to be able to gather up fingerfuls of food and pop it in their mouths cleanly, a bull's eye. Me, my face looks as if I just lost a sticky-rice-throwing contest.
4879 University Avenue, City Heights
5241 University Avenue, City Heights
DAY TWO: DINNER
So a few days later, I'm back up in this part of town, and just across the road from a 7-Eleven I spot this homely little place. It's called "Coffee Time Daily," but you can tell it's probably a Somali outfit from the men chatting and sitting outside behind half a dozen taxis. Along with the Eritreans, Somalis seem to have cornered the taxi biz in this town.
Inside, through the fly-flap plastic curtains, half a dozen green "marble" Formica tables are scattered about. Walls are plain white, but they have a picture of the great square in Mecca where the pilgrims gather. At the back, there's a counter and kitchen. All in a pretty small space.
I'm thinking dinner. I'm eager to get into muufos. That's the round kind of bread I remember from Afrique. Like bananas, muufos are for shredding, dunking, squishing into the rest of the meal.
"Welcome," says this bright-looking guy behind the counter. Ali. "Welcome, welcome," says the kid with him, Ali Ali. Actually Ali Ali just grins, but that's what his grin says. It was pretty warm outside, but inside, it's an oven. Still, I guess that makes it a little more like home.
"Something for an evening meal," I say. "Something with muufo?"
"Muufo? No problem," says Ali.
There are other dishes, but this is, like, the default choice for nighttime. He asks what I want to drink. "People here like fresh mango and papaya. Or we have sodas."
I go for the mango-papaya ($2.00), and delicious it is. Rubyish-orange color and that rich, heady, syrupy flavor.
For five bucks you get a lot. Ali and Ali Ali turn up with three plates and a banana. One plate has a salad on one side and chopped, sautéed beef and onions on the other. Another carries two muufos. Breads. They look like thick, puffed tortillas. The third has a large bowl of soup with a bone in the middle. I know what to do, thanks to help from two neighbors, Hajji -- as he is known now because he has been to the Haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca -- his birth name is Osman -- and Abdul Rahman.
"You want to use your hands?" Ali asks.
"Good. It feels better by hand. I have a basin if you want to wash them first."
So I go to the kitchen and wash up, then come back and systematically break up the muufos, tossing the pieces into the soup. Then cross-cut a dozen slices of banana and dunk them into the soup too. After that it's the sautéed beef and onions, and, yes, the salad, all in together.
"Try the sesame oil," Osman says. "It is good for you."
So I upturn the plastic sesame oil bottle and squirt a few circles out. Shake some brown hot sauce from the other bottle on the table for luck.
"Now, mix it all together," says Abdul Rahman. He makes a squishing movement with his fingers. "The more mixed the better."
It's a pulpy mess by the time I'm through. I grab a mittful. This is the part I'm embarrassed about. "There is a way," says Ali. "See?" He points to Abdul Rahman again. His graceful, long-fingered hand wraps a bite-sized portion into a lump with his thumb, then his thumb acts as elevator, pushing the bundle up into his mouth. No mess, no ooze, no problem.
Man, I've got a long way to go. But the taste combo really is good, if you like the sweet influence of the banana. I do. The sesame oil, the coriander-spiced beef, and the hot sauce all play their part.
Ali drops off a fish sambussa (50 cents) for me to try. It's good, like a little triangular fish taco.
Now Ali excuses himself. He is off to the mosque to pray. The fifth and last obligation of the day, the Isha prayer. "I'll be back soon," he says.
Abdi comes and sits next to me. He's eating a mess of fool beans. "It's good roughage," he says. "Good for the digestion at night. You eat goat for breakfast, beef and spaghetti for lunch, you need something like this at night."
"So what about camel?" I say. I'm really talking meat, to eat. But everybody just sighs. Turns out camels are traditionally so important to Somalis they have 46 different words to describe them. They have endless poetry about them. "My father owns 300," says another customer also named Ali. "He sells them to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I know people who have never drunk water in their lives. They drink camel's milk and eat camel meat. A complete diet. We miss it here."
So do I. That would have been interesting. They say it has a special taste, mild, spicy, tender, and it gives you strength like no other meat. And if you cook it, it can last for months without going bad. The perfect traveler's food.
Meanwhile, Osman elegantly cuts into his banana, dropping the lopped-off pieces onto his salad and biryani rice with beef on top ($5.00), and Abdul Rahman mixes his with spaghetti, salad, and fried grouper ($5.00). Then, it's "Pass the masara [sesame oil], please."
I even use masara on a malawa. Malawa is a crisp anjera, the traditional flat bread of Somalia, with sugar (50 cents), accompanied by a beautiful sweet frothed-milk tea ($1.00) with an herb scattered on top called hayl. It has a -- what? -- rosemary-style taste to it. "That's what defines Somali tea," says Ahmed, who's the cook here. And, what the heck, I also go for a wobbly, reddish, gelatinish sweet called halwa, or xalwa, as the Somalis spell it ($2.00 for the large size). On top: scrumptious crystalized sugar.
"Ooh, that xalwa, wicked," I coo.
"Wicked?" says Ali, who's back from his Isha prayers.
"Meaning 'delicious,'" I say. "How do you say 'delicious' in Somali?"
"Well, this combo, the malawa and the xalwa are, like, mahan-issimo."
Talk continues, about life in San Diego (the good: educational possibilities, Somalia-like weather, driving taxis; the bad: processed American food, the rat race, driving taxis). And about battered Somalia itself, reeling from the Italians, the British, the French, the Soviet Union, the US, pulling at this ancient country one way and the other for a century, till it was pulled apart.
Ali ends by gently kicking us all out. "I have to be back in nine hours," he says.
DAY THREE: BREAKFAST Victory! Camel at last! It's late the next morning, a Friday again. Ali's been here at the restaurant since 6:00 a.m, but he's headed off now the second of his five obligatory salah, daily prayers, the duhr (midday) prayer. His guys still have some breakfast left. Which is good, 'cause I'm raring to eat, 'specially since anjera, traditionally made from sorghum or millet, is really a breakfast thing.
"Somali anjera is milder than Ethiopian injera," ,says Yasim. "Injera is stronger, heavier, more sour."
People are drinking mainly that hayl-topped boiled-milk tea. And half are having lunch. I ask for breakfast -- and ten minutes later get this wonderful plate with a nine-inch round of anjera loaded with one pile of fool (fava beans, tomatoes, fried onions), another pile of sukhar, which is grilled ground beef and some tomato or vegetable sauce, and -- drum roll, please: the last pile is odkac, cut-up beef and...hey hey! Camel. Yes, Ahmed has managed to get in some camel meat, all the way from either Australia, or perhaps Qatar. Fried in goat oil!
And let's not forget the banana.
I must say, the odkac is intriguing, sort of smoky. So another first: I've eaten camel. But the sukhar is the delicious thing here. It lights up the anjera.
I ask about the, well, slightly misleading name, "Coffee Time Daily." It turns out most people in the Somali community call it by an old moniker given way back: A'Laa'Al. Everyone laughs a little shyly about this. "Africans would come here because it was a place they could talk about the bad times they had all had [in wars and refugee camps] at home," says Ahmed. "So they called it A'Laa'Al. 'The Bad Old Days.' And the name has stuck."
That is great. By now I want to find out more. I know I've just scratched the surface here. I haven't even gotten into the lamb thing. Or the goat thing. Or really, the whole variety of the sambussa thing.
Still, it's a good start. And one thing I know unites me and the Somalis: we all have a sweet tooth.
What's best about these Somali joints is that they're still aimed at Somalis. Venture in, and you get the real thing. Not some plushed-up, watered-down version to suit Western palates. Already, there's talk of opening a place that would be "American-friendly." So best to strike now, before the sambussas turn up with avocado and bacon in them and muufos morph into wraps.
Oh, and one last question for Ahmed: "Would American women be welcome here?"
"Of course. Muslim women don't come, because they feel awkward eating a meal in the company of men who aren't their husbands. Non-Muslim women, it isn't an issue. They are welcome."