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.”