At first glance, Banadir Somali Restaurant looks more like a Somalian community center than a restaurant. White bars cover the shaded and tinted windows. The main entrance leads to a long hallway with a kitchen off to the left. You have to look around a bit before noticing a door that leads to the dining room. The tables are inexplicably covered with 1950s-style plastic tablecloths that would look more at home in a Pasadena grandmother's breakfast nook than a Somali restaurant. The patrons are almost all men watching television as they eat.
You should make note of the large menu board near the entrance, as there are no printed menus. Although the owners, Hussein Abdulle Mohamed and Abdirahim Ali Ahmed, happily answered all our stupid questions, it took a bit of coaxing and constant references to dishes on the menu board to get recommendations beyond “goat and rice,” “chicken and rice” or “beef steak and rice.”
If you're not familiar with Somali cuisine — and who is? — the best way to enjoy a primer at Banadir is with at least two or three friends, as the portions are generous. If you go around 11:30 in the morning, breakfast dishes will still be available, so you can order the ful with anjero. It's a tasty way to start understanding Somali cuisine's unique grammar of African, Arab and Indian influences born of thousands of years of trade with the Middle East and South Asia. Ful, which means fava beans in Arabic, is a breakfast staple in Egypt. Somalis make it with West African cowpeas, which they call by the Indian name chori, yet serve and eat the finished dish in a Middle Eastern manner with anjero or pita bread.
Almost all the breakfast items are served with anjero, which Somalis usually eat only at breakfast. Although etymologically related to Ethiopian injera, Somali anjero is actually closer in taste to Yemeni lachuchua. At Banadir it's served with goat meat soup, ful, chicken or beef sukar (finely chopped chicken or beef), or beef karanka (braised beef and vegetables). Anjero also is eaten as a sweet crêpe sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with sesame oil, ghee or honey.
Segueing into lunch, if you're expecting similarities with neighboring Ethiopian cuisine, forget about it. Though Ethiopia has a significant Muslim population, the majority are Eastern Orthodox Christians who abstain from meat dishes during proscribed fasting periods. Hence, Ethiopian restaurants serve a lot of vegetarian or vegan dishes. Almost all Somalis are Muslims, thus meat-centric, especially when it comes to restaurant food. Goat is the meat of choice here. The distinct funky, gamey smell of goat permeates the entire restaurant. You come here for goat.
Goat meat often is compared to lamb or beef, even venison. All are appropriate, since depending on the age of the goat and style of preparation, the flavor is sort of a beef, venison and lamb continuum. At Banadir, you won't find the mild flavors of a cabrito (baby goat); things tend more toward the intensely beefy and older mutton end of the spectrum. The goat soup, pressure-cooker goat and braised goat we tried here were simply prepared, with an emphasis on freshness flavored with typical Somali spices such as cardamom, cloves, coriander, bay leaves, cinnamon and cumin.
All are served with a lightly dressed iceberg salad and basbass (a hot sauce similar to Yemeni skhug). Somalis eat bananas with their meals, at almost every meal, not as a dessert. So when you're offered a free banana, don't save it for last. A party of 3 to 4 can easily feast at Banadir for $30-$40.
Susan Ji-Young Park has written three articles for Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Follow her on Twitter at @SParkThis. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.