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?). 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… So, I’m reaching out, friends. Anybody out there a cereals/grains aficionado? Anyone cook regularly with these? What am I working with here?
I’ll admit pomegranate scones seem incongruous, like a peacock in the bathtub, but with some zest from oranges and mandarins (provenance: desert oases in Awdal Region of Somaliland) the tart pomegranate works. Did you know that winter is pomegranate season? (You probably did, you smarty-pants). At least in the northern hemisphere, that’s the case. The gems around our home had been looking awfully plump and crimson on their branches lately, despite dry and chilly weather. I just assumed they were in a good mood for whatever reason, but it turns out they, like me, get rosy cheeks from the brisk air!
It’s getting to be that time again…when my stash of comfort foods from home has waned and I’m weeks away from my next trip, so it’s time to get creative with local finds in a non-local kitchen (see Somali loxoox, still beyond my level of skill). It’s an expat food-lover’s conundrum: How to create magic, or at least something edible, out of a selection of options you’ve spent too much time with already. (This may also be a regular lover’s conundrum). In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that the first cute little flour volcano I molded and filled with bright yellow eggs on our slightly angled counter top turned into a sticky, slip-and-slide disaster; I tried to whip it together with the gentle dexterity of Godzilla and ended up with egg yolks in my lap. That may have happened with the second cute little flour volcano as well. Then I wised up, forwent my ego, and mixed the dough in a perfectly reasonable bowl, which worked out a bit better, per my lap. A breakthrough: orecchiette. Al dente thumbprints that held pockets of buttery tomato sauce and delivered them in perfect form right down the hatch, one after the other.
Perhaps the best known drink in this part of the world is Somali tea, well-featured on these pages. But there’s another, less-noticed cuppa that pops up from time to time. It’s well-known around these parts, but not as embedded in local culinary identity as Somali tea.
If it’s camel milk you’re after, you’re in luck; head to the market at dawn or dusk and you’ll find the absolute freshest available, just after it’s milked, to cure whatever ails you. When my partner’s mother visited us earlier this year and fell ill, his father brought her fresh camel milk, with fervor of devotion, just after milking time morning and night, as she insisted it was the most effective tonic and quickest route to health. What you can hardly find unless you have the right connections, is fresh cow’s milk. Local stores carry massive canisters of the powdered variety, most often mixed into Somali tea or instant coffee. Some groceries have shelf-stable liquid milk, but this has simply been dehydrated into powder and then rehydrated again – a far cry from fresh. If you’re lucky, you’ll find non-dehydrated liquid cow’s milk in cardboard cartons in the refrigerated section of the most expensive groceries, but even that comes from abroad and, given the limitations of cold chain shipping in the region, I question its integrity. …
Like most cross-cultural foods, there are a zillion and one recipes for loxoox, from Somalia and Somaliland to Djibouti, Yemen, and even as far as Israel. Locally, loxoox is eaten for breakfast with Somali tea, or honey and goat ghee, or olive oil. Oftentimes , Somali breakfasters plop a small stack of loxoox on a plate and pour tea right on top of it. Usually cooked on a cast iron skillet with a thin veneer of vegetable oil rubbed across it using a folded piece of loxoox, the batter is drizzled onto the center of the pan and then pushed outwards in a circular motion with a spoon, spatula, or the bottom of a cup, creating a beautiful swirl.