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."