This is a big one for me.
|Photo courtesy of Thrillist|
As long-time readers know, I've been writing for Thrillist for a couple of years now. Most of what I've had the chance to write has been listicle style roundups, but I was recently afforded the chance to write a focus piece on the East African community's deep roots in the Twin Cities. I take this opportunity very seriously and am so grateful for the chance to detail a positive, beautiful community I've admired deeply ever since I first moved to Minneapolis.
As usual, the editors clipped some of my writing without getting a chance to share the whole thing. If you want to read their published version, please click here (and please do click! I want them to see this story getting lots of eyeballs). I have included my full copy below so readers can see the portions they cropped at the end, which includes more detail from Ifrah Mansour and about the current state of the community.
Please give this lots of reads on the Thrillist travel site and encourage them to provide more coverage like this! There are so many hidden communities in the middle of our country who are thriving and doing amazing things, and they deserve to be covered as such. I appreciate your support!
Steam rises from a cup of cardamom and clove tea. Fragrant fish curry bubbles. Meat kebabs sizzle next to a half-dozen flaky, golden sambusas. This doesn’t sound like a typical meal you’d get in the Midwest. But, in fact, this kind of cuisine is common in East African restaurants in Minneapolis, the new vanguard of ethnic dining in the Twin Cities and the most visible element of a thriving immigrant community.
With Ilhan Omar making waves in the national political arena as the highest profile member of Minnesota’s House of Representatives in Congress, it’s time to acknowledge that she is not an anomaly. For the last 30 years, a robust, diverse group of East African immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya has happily called the Twin Cities home -- and their roots run deep.
“The next place to experience Somali culture outside of Somalia is definitely Minnesota,” said Jamal Hashi, owner of Safari Restaurant and several other business ventures. “This is our home. A lot of us don’t know anywhere else.”
Snowy Minnesota might seem an unlikely destination for people born in one of the hottest, driest climates on earth, but it’s turned out to be an excellent choice for several reasons. Most of the first wave settled here as refugees after the Somali civil war started in 1991, placed by the U.S. State Department as part of the VOLAG program in which voluntary organizations sponsor refugees for their first point of entry to the United States. Minnesota has an unusually active concentration of VOLAG groups, including Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota; these groups are also responsible for Minnesota’s high population of refugees from other regions too, such as the Hmong or Liberian communities. Once in the U.S. and on their feet, refugees have the option to move; thanks to the strength of programs in Minnesota that help refugees resettle and the growing numbers of friends and family moving to the state each year, most decided to stay and grow roots.
Abdirahman Kahin, founder of the enormously popular fast-casual fusion restaurant AfroDeli, agrees. “I immigrated, but there are a lot of kids who are born in this country,” Abdirahman Kahin said. “Right now those who are under 15 outnumber the older ones. Minnesota is very lucky to have those kids for the future.”
By all signs, the community is thriving. From a scattered handful of menu-less restaurants in the mid ’90s there are now hundreds of modern eateries serving traditional food from East African cultures. Fusion dishes -- like African-spiced pastas, fast-casual gyros, Somali steaks, and spicy keke noodles -- are selling out in downtown skyway eateries. Retail outlets selling handmade clothes, halal meats, and bulk spices are in almost every urban and suburban area, and customers can even bargain for their prices just as they would in an open-air market back home.
These businesses have found great success with their Minnesotan neighbors thanks to their appeal as a unique cuisine that has approachable crossovers with familiar favorites like Indian or Italian food. Somalia’s rich history in particular as an important hub for international trade over many centuries, and as a former Italian colony, makes its cuisine an approachable new fusion option with a twist; an apt parallel would be the way that French baguettes turned into banh mi in the hands of able Vietnamese cooks while Vietnam was still colonized. It also turns out that Minnesotans have a much higher appetite for spicy food and rich flavors than stereotypes would suggest.
“The food I'm making is for everybody but the people I keep in mind most are people who have never had Somali food before,” said Hashi. “That's what motivates me to stay in the industry.”
Kahin has had the most high profile career of late through AfroDeli, a fast-casual restaurant that aspires to be the Chipotle of African cuisine. AfroDeli’s stunning success demonstrates the high demand for African food despite the stereotype that Minnesotans shy away from spice and flavor.
“A lot of people were saying, before I opened, that Minnesotans won’t try spicy food or African food, but we proved them wrong,” Kahin said. “Everyone is amazed how much business we have from the Minnesota community. I thought there was a way to serve this food to everyone, to the large public and package it in a way they can understand. African food is no different than Indian food or Chinese food or Mexican food.”
Part of that success lies in the attention to dining trends and palates that both Hashi and Kahin have expertly navigated.
“There’s a big shift in the last 10 years from fast food to fresh ingredients, organic food, healthier food,” Kahin said. “The spices East African cuisine uses are the healthiest -- like cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, which all help fight disease. We use a lot of organic and buy from local farmers when we can. Our meat is halal, so is killed humanely. We have only one freezer at the store for French fries. You can’t find a single microwave in our restaurants.”
In his nearly 20 years in business, Hashi has also seen big changes.
“People are more educated about what they eat and you don’t have to advertise thanks to Twitter or Yelp,” Hashi said. “It’s a great advantage. The key has been providing an amazing experience that will translate to a new loyal customer. The level of palates have changed, the generations have changed, and for the better. As a chef, nothing remains the same.”
It turned out the biggest hurdle was just getting started. The first restaurants operated the way they did back home; for example, written and printed menus were not available and customers had to ask what the kitchen had on hand to place an order. Many dishes utilized ingredients unfamiliar to diners born and bred in Minnesota. The experience could be intimidating, but with a little organization and innovation any concerns were quickly put to rest.
“I've had a lot of naysayers,” Hashi said. “I wanted to make a fast casual to serve non-Somalis Somali food. Everyone was backing away. I believed in it anyway, and it was 98% non-Somalis who came to eat. Everyone said that Minnesotans don’t like spicy food. What a lie – it blew my mind.”
Especially exciting are younger members of the community, who are bringing new technology and awareness to the East African experience. This includes the restaurant review and payment app Tavolo that innovated in-touch screen ordering and cashless transactions; the Top Figure podcast, providing entrepreneurship advice to aspiring young innovators; and artists like Ifrah Mansour, whose heartbreakingly funny performances provide a respectful, open place for the community to share their experiences.
“My art is inspired by my lived experiences and that of Muslims and refugees, particularly the diaspora community,” Mansour said. “This means that my art speaks to the experience of what it means to be American and an immigrant refugee Muslim woman, and all of the complexity that comes with that.”
Mansour has partnered with some of the most vaunted arts and cultural institutions in the state, including the Guthrie Theater, Children’s Theater Company, Minnesota Historical Society, Walker Art Museum, and Minnesota Institute of Arts (MIA). Her work couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
“What I accidentally started, this conversation of learning the most painful part of your history and unearthing it, is something that we right now as a state, a country, a nation are also unearthing,” Mansour said. “We are also at a crossroad of do we continue the ways we were? Or do we go on this uncharted path to really see the histories we came from, including the histories our ancestors ripped off of the page?”
But life as an East African refugee, of course, has its challenges. Beginning life in a new country is always difficult, but especially so when the climate, language, and dominant religion is so visibly different from where you came from. Kahin has been especially active in fighting the message that the refugee community is a burden, testifying before Congress in defense of their economic contributions.
“I try my best not to create political response pieces, but I happened to have these works that were ready,” Mansour said. “It’s interesting because our audience came with their rage and anger, but we were able to inspire people to say, ‘Here we get to calm down, we get to be human and listen a little bit.’”
There are the monthly profits that Kahin reinvests into his community, the vital conversations through artistic performances and talkbacks as Mansour has led, and the resources and research that Hashi has compiled to publish a book about Somali history and educate Americans about their past. No matter the avenue, this resilient, vibrant community is committed to embedding even deeper in the fabric of America.
“Especially the last two years, there has been a lot of talk about immigrants and how we take jobs,” Kahin said. “I want to go against that narrative, telling the truth that we are creating jobs and adding value to the economy and to the market. We are expanding with the U.S. businesses. We are an asset, not a liability, to the economy. They all agreed, Republican and Democrat, that immigrants are a vital part of small business in America.”
Explore more about the East African community in Minnesota buy paying a visit to these restaurants, museums, and markets.
Phillips West, Minneapolis
The restaurant that introduced Somali food to the U.S.
One of the first Somali restaurants in the United States, Safari created several iconic dishes that have now become menu stalwarts around the globe. Top recommendations include the chicken fantastic, a revelatory interpretation of Somali pasta; the roasted goat cutlet, a traditional dish with flavorful goat meat; or the foule mudammes, an appetizer of steamed tilapia with spinach and savory olive oil.
Midway, St. Paul
Setting the standard for Ethiopian and vegan cuisine
This legendary stop at the corner of Snelling and University is many people’s first exposure to East African cuisines. A pillar of the Ethopian dining scene, it’s also an excellent option for vegan and vegetarian diners who struggle finding good options in group settings. We haven’t had a bad dish here; go for any of the sampler platters to try a little bit of everything.
Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul
The Chipotle of African food you won’t be able to stop ordering
Chipotle better watch out; this African fusion fast-casual restaurant is taking over skyways throughout the Twin Cities. You can’t go wrong with any dishes, but the gyros and sambusas are second to none. Go big or go home with the full veggie platter, which never disappoints. And make sure to stop by the new downtown Minneapolis location opening this October, the first time AfroDeli is making it to the heart of the west side of the Mississippi.
Midtown Phillips, Minneapolis
Swing by for a 101 introduction to the history of Somalis in Minnesota
The home of Somali arts in Minnesota, the Somali Museum is a one-stop shop for learning about Somali arts and culture. It was universally recommended as a safe, approachable place to learn about this community.
Downtown St. Paul
Hear firsthand accounts from East African people’s perspective
MHS is the largest local historical society in the United States. They’ve recently partnered with members of the Somali and Oromo ethnic communities to record their stories and compile an exhibit about their experiences. Come for the impressive work MHS has done; stay for the personal narratives that give firsthand accounts of profound stories.
An innovative, one-stop service for African immigrants for finances, art and more
The ADC’s visionary leadership has transformed the East African community, providing business loans, meeting space and organizational help for fledgling organizations, as well as important educational services for recent immigrants. ADC fills the gap left by dwindling governmental funding and provides vital services to immigrants from many parts of Africa.
Cedar Riverside, Minneapolis
A friendly performance space with an awesome happy hour
A wicked happy hour, ongoing live music, and a large, friendly dance floor are not the only qualities that recommend the Red Sea. It also has a deep reservoir of affordable Ethiopian cuisines for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Make it a part of a tour of the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, where many of the Somali and Oromo community members are concentrated.
A must-stop for an authentic Somali tea and shopping experience
No trip through the East African experience is complete without a stop at one of the malls hosting an authentic shopping experience. A host of specialty imported goods you can’t find anywhere else, including prayer rugs, spices, and handmade clothes, are packed together. Make sure to pick up some Somali tea (reportedly among the best in the Twin Cities) when you stop by.
Becki Iverson is a Thrillist writer and an ardent lover of the Twin Cities. You can follow her wide-ranging passions on her blog, Compendium, or on social media on Instagram @beckiiverson or Facebook. When she's not exploring the local food and arts scene, Becki can be found at her day job in marketing for the AEC industry at Faithful+Gould in downtown Minneapolis.