Somali Food in Alaska
By: Shannon Kuhn | 10 February, 2013 | 9183 Views
Reprinted with permission from the Anchorage Press.
Born in Somalia, Sainab Yussuf moved to the United States with a dream of opening her own restaurant. After leaving her country, known to most as a land devastated by civil war and famine, she settled in Columbus, Ohio, for over a decade. Sainab moved to Anchorage a year ago with her family, joining the blossoming Somali community in Alaska. Today, Yussuf’s dream is a reality.
Safari Restaurant opened its doors in October, quietly moving into the former Cold Stone Creamery franchise location between Northern Lights and C Street. Ice cream fanatics continuing to pull in to the obscure location will still reach for the metal ice cream cone handle on the door, but looking up they will see a new sign overhead. In yellow and black letters, Safari announces its arrival and promises customers a taste of East Africa.
I enter cautiously, unaware that I am about to fall in love with Somali food.
The eight page menu offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. “Nothing sits in the fridge,” host Zakaria Hassan tells me proudly. “All made fresh when you order.” Safari Restaurant makes homemade mandazi bread, samosas, falafels, and kebabs daily. Yussuf literally brought out an entire feast for us to try, including their beef steak, fish sandwich, spaghetti and meatballs, and BBQ drumsticks. Mandazi ($1.50) is a traditional sweet and airy East African bread made with flour, salt, sugar, eggs, and butter, deep-fried and served piping hot. On a cold day, the samosas (two for $4) are especially satisfying. Stuffed with a filling of ground beef, onion, potatoes, carrots, and spices, they will be sure to win your taste buds over.
My favorite entrée so far is the rice suqar, essentially the Somali version of fried rice, served with your choice of chicken, beef, lamb, or veggies. It comes with a special homemade green jalapeno sauce that will make you put down that bottle of sriracha hidden in your purse. I asked Yussuf if she could make me her favorite dish on the menu, and she brought out a drool-inducing plate of lamb with rice ($13.99). With gestures, I understood that she was serving me the lamb’s feet (!) on a bed of rice, now checked off my bucket list. The recipe was born generations ago out of poverty, when meat was rare and every animal part needed to be used. Slow-cooked for multiple hours, I can attest that the meat was delicious and so tender it melted in my mouth.
No pork is served at Safari Restaurant, and all the food is halal (allowable under Islamic dietary guidelines). Their portions are extremely generous, filling, and lip-smacking good.
Yussuf is a strong female leader in the growing Somali community, which includes many refugees re-settling in Anchorage with the help of Catholic Social Services (CSS). Karen Ferguson is program director/state refugee coordinator for the CSS Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services (RAIS) program. She tells me that in the past three-year period (from October 2009 until now), the program has resettled 96 Somali refugees who are new to the United States. This is in addition to the larger population of Somalis who have moved here from other states. Almost all have come to the U.S. as refugees, often from refugee camps in Kenya.
“It is exciting to see refugee groups not only successfully integrating, but making Anchorage home. When you do something like Sainab did and open a restaurant, you give back and enrich the community,” Ferguson said.
“Everyone is welcome here,” declares Yussuf. She tells me she has met a lot of the Somali refugees through her restaurant. With low-end estimates of 400-600 Somalis in Anchorage, it is natural that the community would begin to open its own restaurants and stores.
Lucky for us, is all I can say. You see, East African food is crazy delicious, full of unforgettable flavors and spices. I wholeheartedly recommend going to Safari and trying authentic Somali cuisine. I’ll admit it was a slightly jarring to be eating food from a faraway continent in a place that still very much looks like an All-American ice cream conglomerate. The red and black décor is the same, reminiscent of high school kids singing “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho” while scooping rainbow sprinkles, although Yussuf plans to re-decorate soon and make the place her own.
I hear the chef singing in the kitchen. With each bite, I imagine what it must be like to be Somali in Anchorage and without these flavors from home. When I lived in the Lower 48 and received care packages of smoked salmon and wild blueberry jam it was like being back in Alaska. As Ferguson said, “Having access to your food is what makes a place home.”
I tell Yussuf I love Somali food. I ask her if she will go back to Somalia.
Yussuf smiles. “This is my country now. I love my country.”
Safari Restaurant is located at 2813 Dawson St., Anchorage, AK 99503
Shannon Kuhn, Co-Founder
Born on the coast of South Korea and raised in Anchorage, Shannon is a lifelong Alaskan with a kimchi twist. She lives to eat adventurously, meet new people, and learn about different cultures and places. She is passionate about reconnecting with her food heritage, as well as the soil it was grown in. Shannon works for the city of Anchorage in public health and is a freelance writer around food and culture.