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Camel burgers and beyond: Minneapolis' Somali food scene

Posted August 15

Minnesota is often associated with snow, lakes and Prince. Somalis and camel burgers? Not so much.

Most people aren't aware that Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the United States.

In 2015, the Minnesota State Demographic Center reported that 57,000 Minnesotans claimed Somali ancestry, while 31,000 were born in Somalia.

Refugees fleeing the civil war in the early '90s account for the first waves, with the majority settling in the Twin Cities.

Despite the state's unforgiving winters, new arrivals were drawn by an existing network of previously settled Somalis and nonprofit resettlement agencies. Job opportunities and the lower cost of living factored in as well.

The result is a vibrant, growing community where one can find two Somali malls, stores and restaurants. Many of these exist in an area that's become known as Little Mogadishu.

Among the Somali transplants is Sade Hashi, the successful owner of Safari Express, a popular spot for Somali cuisine in Midtown Global Market.

To the uninitiated, food from this East African nation is actually a blend of African, Indian, Middle Eastern and even Italian dishes. The diversity is a result of ancient trade routes and Italian colonial rule.

At Safari Express, customers can find items such as sambusa, which is similar to an Indian samosa except with a thinner dough that's filled with ground beef, cilantro and cumin.

But the camel burger is the real star.

Bactrian or dromedary?

Wearing a T-shirt that proclaims, "Keep calm and eat camel," Hashi cautions, "Camel doesn't taste anything close to chicken."

Instead, he compares its lean, gamey meat to bison. The one-humped dromedary is a staple of Somalian cooking.

The camel meat is imported from Australia, where large herds roam free; their large numbers have taxed the local ecosystem.

Since it was added to the menu, the camel burger has become a popular item among Somalis and non-Somalis alike. In fact, aside from the pineapple topping, it could almost pass for a regular hamburger.

But it's not the only Somali specialty worth consuming.

One of Hashi's favorite dishes is the Chicken Fantastic. It was invented at Safari Express, but it is also served at Afro Deli, a casual St. Paul eatery. The grilled chicken is plated over basmati rice and covered in a creamy coconut sauce. You can also get sambusas as the perfect side.

Another favorite is Barwaaqo Juice & Coffee Shop for the Somalian version of chai, which is made with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, milk and loose tea leaves. Hashi enjoys it so much he stops by up to three times a day.

"The food, the culture, it adds a lot of dynamic value in this town," says Hashi. "It's richer because of it."

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