Oh, man. What’s up? When a place you’ve been going to every now and then for years turns up in world headlines, you sit up with a jerk.
When the news hit that a San Diego guy, Douglas McArthur McCain, had been killed fighting for ISIS, that was one thing. When it turned out he’d been working at African Spice, the eatery inside the Somali Safari Center up on 54th near El Cajon Boulevard, I started asking myself: Was he working there the times I went up and ate?
No way to find out but to hoof up there.
So, this is about 6:30 on a Saturday night. I turn down 54th past Café Bien, the Vietnamese place where guys smoke and play Lotto, to… wha? The entire Safari Center is dark, closed, looking like an abandoned hangar.
So, I start back. And this is when I see a small entrance beside a sign that reads, “Grand Opening. New Safari Mall.”
Huh. I head in to a passage with mostly women’s gowns on display in every color, under strip lighting. Other stalls make little streets off the main passage. Some men sit at stools beside their shop. Women, too, mostly dressed in long black robes and head scarves but no face coverings.
I turn right at African Expressions, which has handbags and scarves hanging on its walls. “Uh, is there a place to eat?” I ask two ladies. “I used to come to African Spice next door.”
“Oh, no more,” says the one in a long floral gown. She gets up and leads me back to the first passage. “Saadia,” she says to another woman sitting behind a kind of trellis-topped wall.
My new friend turns to me and says, “Twenty minutes? She needs to heat up the sesame oil. Sambusas. Okay?”
“Uh...oh, sure. Thanks.”
“She makes Somali sambusas,” she says. “Different. The best.”
I reach out my hand to shake hers as I thank her.
“No,” she says. “Our custom, women don’t shake men’s hands. So sorry.” She puts her hand on her heart.
“So, this isn’t African Spice?” I ask Saadia. She’s a little woman. “No,” she says. “This is just for the people coming to mosque, and for the shopkeepers and customers.”
We talk mainly through sign language and simple yesses and no’s. No, they don’t do the normal Somali dishes of canjeero pancakes, goat or beef or camel stew, rice or spaghetti, or even the bananas that usually go with everything in Somali eating.
But sambusas, yes. Saadia says hers tonight are stuffed with chicken, veggies, onions, and spices.
I notice a steady stream of people — men, mostly — walking past.
“Mosque,” says Saadia. Ah. Must be a service coming up in the hall behind. I ask for three sambusas ($1 each) and a cup of Somali tea ($1). It takes about 15 minutes, but the sambusas come out crackling hot and golden. She sets the paper cup of tea down beside them. And, man. Vapors are rich with cloves.
“Asariye,” says Saadia.
I’m just wondering what that means when this young guy comes in with his own plate. It’s loaded with green stuff.
“‘Asariye’ means ‘Somali afternoon tea,’” he says. “And we always have tea and sambusa at asariye.”
His name’s Mukhtar. I take a sip of the tea. “Nutmeg, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, some sugar,” Saadia says (with Mukhtar’s help). Beautiful spicy flavor, but spicy-aromatic, not chili-hot-spicy.
“That’s the difference with our food,” says Mukhtar.
It’s the same with the sambusas. Soon as I can, I bite off a couple of corners of the first one and blow out some of the steam. Then I chomp. Mmm. Green inside. Crumbly. Curry taste. Ground chicken. And that sesame. Delicious. And in tune with the tea.
“In the month of Ramadan, when we fast until sunset,” Mukhtar says, “sambusas are what we dream of all day long.”
Turns out this li’l triangular food pouch is very old. They have been eating these same things for at least 1000 years in the Middle East, maybe 800 in India.
But Saadia says Somali sambusas have their own flavor. “Beef and chicken are what we have mostly. But you can have lamb or vegetarian. Or fish.” Her eyes go a little dreamy. “Nobody has fish like Somalia. A fish we call yumbe” — I think I hear her right — “clean, tender, sweet.”
I have to ask Mukhtar what the green mush is that he’s eating and how much it costs. “Oh, it’s not for sale. I just brought this with me. It’s ambulo, sometimes we call it the ‘federation,’ because it is a combination of azuki beans, maybe white corn, wheat, maybe basmati rice, lentils. And you must add sugar. We like sweet things. This combo is called diggr. Very good for your lower back.”
Wow. Medical benefits, too. He gives me a taste. Sweet, with different veggie flavors.
As I’m digging into my third samosa, he is telling me what his name means. “‘Mukhtar’ means ‘the selected, the chosen.’”
That reminds me. The guy who worked at African Spice who went to fight for ISIS in Syria. Douglas McArthur McCain. Did he know him?
“No. I have only been here a short time. I was captured by al-Shabaab in Somalia. They kill you like a chicken. Slit your throat. They killed my uncle, my cousin. They cut off my aunt’s left arm. We are from a minority clan. The bigger clan killed my mother and father and took our farm, animals, everything. I escaped to Kenya, then Yemen, then here. My wife escaped to Saudi. They have ruined our family.”
“Allahu akbar…” The distant sound of the call from the mosque down the hall gets Mukhtar and Saadia’s attention. She has to close up. He has to go. They’re both going to the service. In a couple of minutes they join the quiet procession of the faithful heading toward the voice.
- The Place: Saadia’s Community Café, 4350-A 54th Street (near El Cajon Boulevard)
- Prices: Samosas, $1 each
- Hours: 9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m., daily
- Buses: 1, 15, 955
- Nearest bus stop: El Cajon Boulevard and 54th Street