4879 University Avenue, City Heights
Okay, this was during Ramadan. Muslim month of abstinence kinda like the Christian Lent. I knew there’d be basically no eating till sunset. So no surprise that Coffee Time Daily was empty. This is where all the Somali taxi drivers gather to drink tea, usually, and eat goat meat, and argue Somali politics. This day, just one Somali guy in traditional white robes sits fingering his beads and watching a mullah on the TV deliver a sermon.
This is on University, east of the Tower by Euclid. Coffee Time Daily is a little corner place usually concealed behind a barricade of yellow and blue and white and red cabs. But right now, I guess everyone’s waiting for evening when you can end the fast for another day.
“Even then, most people don’t eat here,” says the lady behind the counter inside. “After prayers, the mosque gives out free food. Why pay for it here?”
She’s dressed in flowing, bright-colored Somali-style robes. Name’s Asha. “Or Sara,” she says. She has a face that totally lights up when she laughs.
Me, I’m thinking food of the last time I came. Swear it was here that the owner, Mr. Mohammed Ali, had some camel meat in. A rare treat. Tasted like a combo of lamb and buffalo. A little gamey, but good. Had come from Australia, where feral camel herds have roamed since pioneers imported herds to be ships of the desert in Oz’s Empty Heart.
Yes. That was great. But right now, things look a little, well, empty right here too.
“But we do have what’s called ‘breakfast,’ for eating in the evening after prayers, breaking the fast,” Asha says. “I can heat some up for you.”
It’s called “iftar,” and it has lots of little snacks to revive your appetite. The “asariyo quartet” is the four basic ingredients for Somali afternoon (“asariyo”) tea, which is a big deal. Tea, plus at least three of what the French call “amuse-bouches,” mouth-amusers, which says it all.
So here’s what Asha brings out from the kitchen: a sweet pastry called “bur saliid,” ($1 each) which are like really sweet breads, dunked in the deep fryer. Then “Bajiya,” deep-fried donut-shaped snacks made from black-eyed peas, with onion, garlic, jalapeño pepper, turmeric, coriander, plus a spicy sauce (50 cents each, and worth it. These are totally delicious). Next, “mashmash,” or “bishbishi” (50 cents), which are sweet fried dough disks that make you think of wontons, but sweet, and then a couple of beef sambusas ($1 each). Plus, wow, a scarlet ball of fried dough.
“This is ‘nafaqo,’” says Asha. “We just stain it red.”
Turns out “nafaqo” means “food,” or “nutrition.” Like “nafaqo daro” means “malnutrition,” a feared word in Somalia. I can see why they call it “nafaqo,” because it looks filling. It’s basically potato wrapped around a hard-boiled egg, all crumbed and deep-fried. Makes you think of the British Scotch egg. Costs $1 and man it’s filling, and way more peppery than the British cousin.
Wow. And so far I must have spent all of six, seven bucks. Guess I should have the traditional hot tea, but it’s so hot outside I go get a can of Brisk lemon tea from the cooler under the TV.
The real wow moment comes when Asha brings out a small pile of Somali canjeero, the round sourdough flatbread. “It’s different from the Ethiopian injera,” says Asha. “That’s huge and thick, and they let it ferment for three days. We eat ours on the first day, straight from the oven. And it’s thin and savory.”
And now she brings out a pan of tiny cubes of beef. “This is odka,” she says, “or ‘muqmad.’ It means preserved meat. It is very traditional Somali food.”
Turns out this is the beef jerky of the Somali world. Desert nomads could survive on milk from their camels, and meat from this diced, sun-dried beef that could last up to a year without going off. Asha says here they just fry and dice it. There’s no need to dry and preserve it. But it keeps the look, and most important, the flavor of the staple that you can see must have always made the difference between life and death over there, just as jerky often did in the American West back in the day.
But the basic thing for me is this flavor is just totally scrumptious. With the canjeera – which I think I like better than the thick Ethiopian version – it really is a combo to remember. Specially with the banana Asha brings. “Somalis like bananas with everything,” she says. “And we don’t just have your one banana, we have maybe fifty different kinds to choose from, back home.”
I ask how much she misses it. “It is so beautiful,” she says, “but crazy people have taken over. Children can’t graduate. There was fighting again today. It is so hard. I have two sisters. I try to talk to my father on the phone, but he is sick. He can’t speak to me anymore.”
And suddenly tears sprout from her eyes. She has to turn away to gather herself.
I end up taking an $8 plate of rice with two chicken drumsticks back to share with Carla. “Kentucky chicken Somali-style,” says Asha. She’s right. It’s covered in wicked batter, but comes with plenty of basmati rice and veggies, and a hot sauce that could evaporate you in 10 seconds if you took more than a drop.
’Course I would have gone for the goat with basmati rice, or spaghetti chicken steak, or rice with fish, each $8, along with some gringo choices like Philly chicken steak with cheese for $3.99, and chopped beef cheese ($4.99), and falafel sandwich at $2.99, but hey, stack any of these against my new love, the odka? Fuggeddaboutit.
Prices: Bur Saliid (sweet pastry), $1; Bajiya (savory snack made from black-eyed peas), 50 cents; beef sambusa, $1; nafaqo (potato wrapped around a hard-boiled egg, $1; rice with goat meat, $8; spaghetti chicken steak, $8; rice with fish, $8; Philly chicken steak, cheese, $3.99; chopped beef cheese ($4.99), chicken salad, $3.99; falafel sandwich, $2.99
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily
Bus: 7, 10
Nearest bus stop: University at Euclid