How to Experience and Appreciate the Vibrant East African Culture in the Twin Cities

By Becki Iverson | Qalanjo

‌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, a region best known for hot dishes and casserole. But, in fact, this kind of cuisine is common in East African restaurants in Minneapolis, the new vanguard of global 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 the state House of Representatives, it’s time to acknowledge that, as a Somali-American from Minneasota, 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.”

Why is there an influx of East African immigrants in Minnesota?

Snowy Minnesota might seem an unlikely destination for people born in one of the hottest, driest climates on earth. But a wave of east Afraican immigrants 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. Thanks to the strength of programs in Minnesota that help refugees resettle, most decided to stay and grow roots, and over the years have become an integral part of the Minnesota community. 


“I immigrated, but there are a lot of kids who are now born in this country,” says Abdirahman Kahin, founder of the enormously popular fast-casual fusion restaurant AfroDeli. “Right now those who are under 15 outnumber the older ones. Minnesota is very lucky to have those kids for the future.”

It turned out the biggest hurdle was just getting started. The first restaurants operated the way they did back home — 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, many concerns were quickly put to rest. 

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“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.”

Read from source Qalanjo