Curry and cumin. Lamb and goat. Seasoned rice and spaghetti. Those are some of the flavors and foods of Somali cuisine found in San Diego’s City Heights community.
Continuing our series celebrating San Diego’s rich cultural diversity and food scene, here are the places we visited and the dishes we tried (see our interactive map below to explore the locations):
Fatuma Restaurant (4869 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105):
Combo plate with grilled goat, fried tilapia, rice and vegetables
Soor, which is a style of corn grits, served under seasoned spinach
Mixed fruit drink (tastes like guava juice)
Faridas East African Cuisine (1754 Euclid Ave, San Diego, CA 92105)
Chicken and beef sambusas (fried meat or vegetable pastries)
Combo chicken plate
Traditional Somali tea, which is fragrant milk tea
If you like spicy, make sure you ask for the green sauce – or as online reviewers like to refer to as “the green stuff.” The restaurant may give you a banana with your meal. If you can resist, don’t eat it right away. It isn’t an appetizer. Traditionally, the banana is eaten with the meal, like a condiment.
In the ’90s thousands of people escaped Somalia as a result of the Somali Civil War. Before then, imperial powers and civil unrest had already displaced many Somalis around Africa (notably North and South Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti) and the world.
There are between 10,000 and 20,000 Somalis residing in San Diego, making San Diego home to the second largest Somali population in the United States.
Abdikidar Osman welcomed us into his business, Fatuma Restaurant, and explained customers can sit and eat at tables or take off their shoes and eat on the carpet on the ground. Traditionally, Somali food is eaten that way, using hands.
“One of the most important things people should know about Somali culture is we are very open-minded people. We like to talk, and Somalis are well known for sitting around having tea,” said Osman.
When asked what a first-timer should try at his restaurant, he recommended the lamb and goat with rice dishes.
The goat is boiled for two to three hours to make it very tender. It’s then spiced with cumin, curry, pepper and Fatuma’s secret mix of other spices. Many people like the goat grilled after it’s boiled to give it a deliciously gristly crunch.
In 1990, Osman came to the U.S. by himself. He had two things – $19 in his pocket and a positive attitude. He named his restaurant Fatuma, after his wife who currently resides in Ethiopia. Together they have six children. Noticing the Somali community in San Diego didn’t have the best access to the food they needed, he opened a market in City Heights and then a restaurant.
Somalis are Muslim. They eat Halal food, which means it’s prepared following Islamic principle.
Although Somalis are, geographically, a divided people, Osman says San Diego has united them.
“The most amazing thing in San Diego, compared to other cities, and I can fully say this – the community, the elders in San Diego are very united elders,” he explained. “We were divided back in Somalia because of the civil war, but once we come over here it’s a completely different mentality.”
Elders are the most respected – the decision makers – in Somali communities.