I’ve lived in Hargeisa for nearly three years, and learned a lot through trial and error and… more error. I can get around pretty well on my own, including at the market, diving in, finding what I need, negotiating a bit, and jumping back out.
But there’s one section of the market I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around: Grain Alley. (This is a totally fabricated name that I established to reflect how intimidated I am by this place. It works, yes? Like a Somali Diagon Alley, but more souk-esque). Grain Alley is lined on either side with giant sacks of legumes, cereals, and other dried goods. Vendors, all women dressed in colorful jilbab or wrapped in patterned scarves, sit perched atop their mountainous spreads, each sack not much farther than arms length.
If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a logic to Grain Alley: You find your preferred vendor, ask for a cupful of this, maybe mixed with a cupful of that, haul it over to the miller if you want it ground, and make out with a few kilos of cereals for as many dollars.
Here’s my issue: I can’t identify what’s in the sacks. With the exception of corn and lentils, everything else is a mystery. That kinda looks like wheat or… barley or… farro? Every time I go, I scratch my head and hightail it before I make a fool of myself.
I’ve tried different methods to figure this out: I’ve taken close-up photos and searched Google images, but there are multiple colors/varieties of most of the grains, and things look different hulled or not hulled… I don’t get any closer to answers.
I can’t find anyone who knows the names in both English and Somali and the kicker is that Google translate, for example, usually skews towards the South-Central Somali dialect, which is a bit different from here up north. Plus, names for some of these differ a few hundred kilometers in either direction. This all means that Google-assisted research has been fruitless so far.
The few times I thought I put my finger on a translation—sarreen, for example, which I thought was barley—it slips away when I find someone else who translates it differently (a friend down the road thinks it’s farro, another says it simply means wheat).
This morning I asked a friend to accompany me to Grain Alley to sort things out once and for all: she speaks Somali, Arabic, and English fluently. But when we arrived, she was stumped as well, and disagreed with the vendor about the Somali name of a few items!
So, I’m reaching out, friends. Anybody out there a cereals/grains aficionado? Anyone cook regularly with these? What am I working with here?
If any of this looks familiar, let me know! Would appreciate any input to head back to Grain Alley with confidence! I’ll send you a few kilos in thanks, maybe strapped to the back of a camel.