Discovering a New Cuisine and Community at a Local Somali Restaurant

At Juba Restaurant and Cafe, Muslim men gather for a lunch unfamiliar to most.

"Soup! Soup! Soup!” shouts a man in short staccato bursts as he maneuvers a cart with complimentary bowls of goat-bone broth around tables filled with nearly 100 men—many of them wearing kufis, the tight-fitting, round caps traditionally donned by Muslims, as well as thawbs, cotton and silk gowns that fall to their feet. I’d driven to Tukwila on the advice of a Somali Uber driver who told me there were many Somali restaurants near SeaTac. However, I had no idea that lunch on a Friday coincided with jumu’ah, noon prayer, at a mosque next door to Juba, the halal restaurant I’d chosen as my introduction to the cuisine.

As crowds of men file in, I tentatively take a seat and hope that my presence isn’t unwelcome. In fact, the diners don’t give me a glance. The owner, Abshir Warsame, a friendly man in a red thawb with a beaming smile, explains that most of the men are cab drivers or airport employees on their lunch break, hungry and hurried. Friday is his busiest time of the week due to the prayer service, and indeed at least three or four waiters scurry around the large, rectangular, bare-bones space, taking orders, delivering food, clearing plates, and filling bowls of steaming soup.

As I try to make sense of the menu, I sneak glances at nearby tables, smiling to myself at two young men with red Nike hightops visible below the hem of their gown and a soccer jersey peeking over the top. Most of the tables of two are sharing platters of rice and pasta piled with various meats, which the men eat with their hands. The pasta surprises me, until Warsame reminds me that Somalia was once a colony of Italy. Like the Vietnamese with their French baguettes, the Somali kept the noodles.

While some diners choose one starch or the other, many order both in a combo called a “Federation.” I decide to do the same. The pasta is very lightly covered with tomato sauce. I opt to top mine with lamb shanks, two huge Flintstone-sized ones. The meat is tender and mildly flavored—signature spices of the cuisine are cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, and coriander seeds—and comes with lots of grilled onions.

When two unpeeled bananas show up alongside it, I’m perplexed but, again, quickly catch on by observing the men beside me. The bananas are peeled, broken up, and laid atop the dish, and eventually incorporated into it as another ingredient. While Ethiopians use spongy injera bread to pick up the various meats and vegetables with their hands, bananas serve a similar purpose in Somali cuisine, often becoming a tool with which to swipe a chunk of meat or clump of rice. Sometimes, though, hands do all the work, scooping up mouthfuls. Fingers glisten with oil and the men lick them unself-consciously before burying them back in the heap. Some, however, use utensils, and I decide to stick with my fork.

While my $18 lamb feast fills me up, I’m curious to try other dishes, so I also order the beef steak with chapati. While chapati is a common Indian flatbread, the traditional Somali version is called sabaayad/kamis, and it’s a tad oilier. At the restaurant, however, the menu surprisingly uses the Indian nomenclature. Large pieces of boneless grilled skirt steak thinly cut are served with a fresh green salad and tomatoes and a side of about 10 squares of chapati. To give the gentle, slightly sweet beef a kick, I squirt it with copious amounts of the staple green hot sauce made of jalapeños, onion, and garlic—a fixture at every table.

Fortunately, if you overdo it on the sauce, another free fixture is a plastic pitcher of mango juice. And though it’s not my favorite, I feel that I can’t leave without trying the goat, one of the cuisine’s most popular hallmarks. I opt to have it over “soor,” or cornmeal—the Somali version of grits—which comes with the middle hollowed out; into it goes pieces of goat on the bone and a soupy spinach/tomato sauce. The goat is not too gamy, as I’d feared, and the sauce reminds me a little of Indian dals.

I notice that many men have chosen salmon as their meat topping, and I’m doubtful that this is a traditional Somali ingredient. Indeed, Warsame tells me that Somalis rarely eat fish, and when they do it’s always a whitefish. Seattle, it seems, has added its mark to this ancient culture. “Living here, we have become addicted to salmon,” he says grinning. I love that; it’s the story of food everywhere, the assimilation of regional influences creating an entirely unique riff on the original.

I leave with four boxes of leftovers and at least five or six small plastic containers of the hot sauce (I asked Warsame for extras), as well as that particular feeling of satisfaction that comes with discovering a new cuisine—and a community—practically in your own backyard.

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