What's in them sambusas?

Selling East African cuisine isn’t easy

Hasno Ali says, “I want to be outside, seeing the good people every day. Happy.”
  • Hasno Ali says, “I want to be outside, seeing the good people every day. Happy.”

On a warm Sunday afternoon in late September, the San Diego Public Market teems with socially responsible shoppers toting reusable bags.

A crowd of eight to ten people is in front of a booth marked with a canvas sign that reads “East African Cuisine.” Some browse the menu or reach for the small sample cups filled with a purple-hibiscus iced tea. Others peer through the glass in front of the steam table to get a look at the food. The rest wait for their turn to order.

“I just want you to make me a plate,” a woman in a fuchsia tank top says, leaning against the glass, “like you did for my husband.”

Hasno Ali, the round-faced, 46-year-old owner of East African Cuisine, grabs a large Styrofoam container from a stack on the table beside her and begins to fill it with rice, lentils, and cabbage.

The woman in fuchsia claps her hands in anticipation. “I want it all!” she says. “How much for the sambusas? I want a chicken and a beef.”

Ali’s face beams at the woman’s enthusiasm, and before she closes the container, she adds a chicken kebab.

“No charge,” she says, smiling.

A man in a faded denim cap that reads “Santa Barbara” bypasses the crowd in front of the booth, approaching from a side angle, and asks, “What’s a sambusa?”

Ali’s 25-year-old son Hamsa points to a pile of the triangular fried pastries (also known as samosa, sambosa, sambusak, sanbusaj) on the steam table. He explains that the man has his choice of six flavors: chicken, beef, curry potato, lentil, spinach, and cream cheese.

“One dollar each,” Hamsa says.

“Cream cheese?” the man asks. “Sounds rich.”

“Yeah, they’re good,” Hamsa replies.

The man’s mouth turns down at the corners and he turns to leave, pausing to take a sample cup of the purple iced tea on his way.

Today marks the second Sunday in the life of this new Wednesday/Sunday market on National Avenue in Logan Heights, and many visitors are here for the first time. The shoppers meander slowly through the 92,000-square-foot warehouse, smiling noncommittally at vendors as they pause to scan the flowers, the garlic spreads, or organic vegetables. The sound of a Spanish guitar plays overhead.

Every week, Hasno Ali spends a total of $200 ($40 per day) to rent space in a commercial kitchen at the Minnehaha Somali supermarket on University Avenue in Rolando. Once a week, she and her oldest daughter spend a day in the kitchen making 500 sambusas to sell at this market on Wednesdays and Sundays, at Pacific Beach on Tuesdays, and in North Park on Thursdays. Ali rents the kitchen again each market day, getting up at 3:00 a.m. to make the lentils, cabbage, rice, and chicken.

This booth costs $65 a day. The cost is the same at Pacific Beach. At North Park, it’s $15 cheaper. At 2:00 p.m. today, after she pays the booth cost to the wiry, tan woman who comes to collect the rent, Ali will count up $155 in her steel cash box. Last Wednesday, she grossed $180 in sales here.

The next few people in line order two, three, four sambusas, which Ali drops into paper bags with a pair of tongs.

When the small rush is over, she turns a knob on her Camp Chef Expedition 3X triple-burner stove and begins to heat up a large pot of oil. She instructs her 12-year-old, hijab-clad daughter Amina to stand up from the cooler where she’s been sitting and to reach in for a bag of frozen lentil sambusas. The girl does so, and then she returns to her seat, to the coloring pages with which she’s occupying another, much smaller girl.

A middle-aged man in a contemporary Hawaiian-print shirt steps up to the booth and asks, “What’s in them sambusas?” He speaks with what is apparently an ironic country accent. His companion, a woman in a black-and-white-striped maxi-dress and a lace shawl, laughs, peers over the top of the glass, and asks for a taste of the cabbage.

In the end, after much discussion, the couple orders three sambusas (chicken, lentil, and spinach) and a small plate of cabbage. The total is $7, but the man only has $6. Ali tells him it’s no problem.

“Yeah, okay,” the man says, laughing as they walk away. “We’ll bring you an extra dollar next week.”

Ali turns back to her camp stove. She uses the tongs again to drop frozen sambusas into the pot of hot oil. It bubbles and hisses. While the sambusas cook, she uses the ladle that sits in a tea jug to pour herself a cup of hibiscus tea. She refers to both this and the lemonade as “waters.”

In 1995, Ali tells me, she and her husband and six of their children arrived in San Diego by way of Fort Worth, Texas, where they’d lived for three months. For the two years prior, they’d lived in a refugee camp in Kenya, following their escape from Somalia during the country’s now decades-long civil war.

“I was having a new baby at that time,” she says. “My husband told us we got to go. We didn’t bring anything. We just picked up the kids and [left].”

Three years after the family’s arrival in San Diego — they lived in City Heights — Ali’s husband died. He left her with three boys and three girls.

“I was sad for 11 years,” she says. “I stayed home and didn’t want to go anywhere.”

During that time, she lived off public assistance ($700 per month in cash, $300 per month in food stamps). She and her children moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in the same area, which they rented for $525 per month.

In 2009, Ali offered to help another Somali woman make sambusas to sell out of her booth at the North Park market.

“I didn’t want to stay home sad anymore,” she says. “I want to be outside, seeing the good people every day. Happy.”

The agreement was that Ali would be paid in sambusas to take home to her family. The gig lasted for three months, until the relationship between the two women deteriorated over a catering job that included an order for 2000 sambusas. For a week, Ali worked to fill the order. She claims that, although the other woman was paid $700 for the catering job, she never gave Ali a dime.

“I showed her how to make sambusas,” Ali says. “I showed her how to keep them fresh. If you make sambusa and put it in the refrigerator, and then take it back to the market, it will have bacteria. I taught her.”

She turns away, ending the conversation with a flick of her hand. But a half-second later, she turns back and adds, “She didn’t pay me a penny. Even for the grocery. She can get away from me, but she can’t get away from God.”

After the 2000-sambusa incident, Ali decided to venture out on her own.

For the next three years, she sold her own food out of booths at the Mission Valley (on Fridays) and Point Loma (on Sundays) markets. She eventually came off public assistance, save for the food stamps. In November 2011, however, she took a month off to travel to Kenya to visit her ailing mother, and when she returned to San Diego, her space at both markets had been filled. It took four months to get back into the market system. When she did, the booths were at unfamiliar markets.

“It’s hard to come back,” she says. “I have a good reputation, but people don’t know me [at the new markets] yet.”

Three people stand reading the canvas menu from a distance of a couple of feet. When Hamsa greets them, they smile and move on.

Ali assesses the iced tea. The lemonade, held in a jug half the size of that which holds the hibiscus tea, is almost gone. The tea jug is still half full.

“Next time,” she tells Hamsa, “we’ll put the lemonade in the big one.”

Hamsa laughs. “Yeah, I think so.”

Ali uses a large, flat spoon to remove a batch of lentil sambusas from the oil. Then she reaches into the bag of frozen sambusas with her tongs, grabs a few more, and drops them into the oil.

One of the three noncommittal browsers returns. He wears a Steel Pulse T-shirt and has patchy facial hair.

“What’s the most popular sambusa?” he asks Hamsa. Then to Ali, “How about you? What are your favorites?”

Hamsa says spinach. Ali leans in and says her favorite is the lentil.

“But what about the beef, and the curry potato?” Steel Pulse asks.

“They’re all good,” Hamsa says.

“Okay, give me that,” Steel Pulse says. “One each. Beef, and curry potato.”

At the back of Ali’s booth, the small girl (the daughter of a friend) demands that Amina teach her how to draw stars with the pink marker, not the blue one.

The man running the next booth over offers baby carrots to passersby. He encourages them to try his organic hummus and creamy-garlic spreads. Some smile, shake their heads, and keep walking. Others step in closer and accept the hummus-laden carrots.

The Spanish guitar music piped into the cavernous warehouse space echoes off concrete walls and cement floors.

Before Ali continues her story, she pushes Hamsa out of the booth with both hands.

“Two women are talking, and you want to stand between them,” she says. “Go on.”

He smiles mischievously at me, as if he knows he has pushed just the right buttons.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he says. “I’m going.”

He wanders off into the market.

Ali continues her story. In late 2011, one of her daughters bought an old food truck from a Chinese man. Ali planned to use it to sell her food, but it sat for a year before she took out a $1500 loan from the International Rescue Committee to outfit the truck with a sink and a water heater. It also needed beautification.

Last week, Ali took the truck to El Cajon to be painted. She was disappointed, however, to discover that $500 only afforded her the name of her business (East African Cuisine) and the menu painted on the side of the truck. She was hoping to get the whole truck done, and with a little more pizzazz. For that, however, she’ll have to pay another $2000, which means taking out another loan. Ali already owes Minnehaha and one other local Somali market a total of $3000 for groceries, and so, for now, she’ll leave the truck as is.

In March, she purchased a $440 permit to sell out of the truck. Later in the month, she did a trial run at Mission Bay. Within the first hour, she received a warning from a police officer for selling without the permits necessary for operating a mobile food unit in Mission Bay, specifically. She is currently in the process of obtaining the proper paperwork.

“It’s not easy,” Ali says, dabbing at her forehead with a paper napkin.

For a moment, she stands still. She rubs at her lower back, saying nothing. Then she takes a look around the booth, grabs a plate, and scoops the last of the rice and lentils onto a plate.

Amina comes around from the back of the booth and stands at the front.

“Can I have some sambusas?” she asks her mom, holding out a container. “I want to go get cupcakes.”

It’s nearly 2:00 p.m., and vendors are packing up their goods and their gear. There’s nothing more to browse for or buy. The market visitors have all left. Hamsa has still not returned. Ali puts her plate down and gives Amina four sambusas. The 12-year-old skips off, leaving her little friend with all the markers to herself.

Ali picks up the plate again.

“That’s another thing about that woman. The one who didn’t pay me for making 2000 sambusas?” She points her fork in my direction. “She never drinks her own waters or never eats her food. That’s why I don’t like her.”

Amina returns with a small cake box filled with seven luxuriously frosted cupcakes. Ali peeks into the box, assesses the fairness of the trade, and sends Amina back to the vendor with the last of the sambusas.

Two weeks later, I return to the San Diego Public Market on a Wednesday morning. I don’t see Ali in her usual spot. After asking around, I find her in a back corner, selling not from a tent but from her new truck. It is shiny and clean, white and chrome.

“I’m not making any money at all,” she says, leaning out the window. “I have to pay for gas, and the people don’t know me, so I’m selling less.”

This morning, she wears a purple head-wrap, purple sweater, and an orange dress. Hamsa stands beside her. Drum-and-bass music plays overhead. Aside from a few shoppers and a handful of school groups, the market is quiet.

Ali explains that she had to start using the truck because she was cited for not having the $500 permit required to sell out of the tent. The truck is already permitted.

“I’m losing money,” she says again. “If I were a normal person, I’d go sit at home. But if I sit in the house, I’ll get anxiety attacks, and they’ll have to take me to the emergency room every week. Here, when I work, the anxiety goes away.”

After another two months, I again return to the market, and again I cannot find Ali. The truck is not there. But she has seen me looking for her and calls out, “Look who’s here!” I turn to find her waving from a tented booth. The truck, she tells me, was getting too expensive.

“Did you sell it?” I ask.

“No!” she says. “Who would buy it?”

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