Overcoming stereotypes in the Midwest
What used to be a few menu-less restaurants in the mid-’90s is now a thriving community with hundreds of eateries serving traditional East African food. Fusion dishes -- like African-spiced pastas, fast-casual gyros, Somali steaks, and spicy keke noodles -- are selling out in downtown skyway eateries. Retail outlets selling handmade clothes, halal meats, and bulk spices are in almost every urban and suburban area, and customers can even bargain for their prices just as they would in an open-air market back home.
These businesses have found great success with their Minnesotan neighbors thanks to their appeal as a unique cuisine that has approachable crossovers with familiar favorites like Indian or Italian food. As a former Italian colony, Somalia, in particular, makes its cuisine an approachable new fusion option with a twist; an apt parallel would be the way that French baguettes turned into banh mi in the hands of able Vietnamese cooks while Vietnam was still colonized. It also turns out that Minnesotans have a much higher appetite for spicy food and rich flavors than stereotypes would suggest.
“The food I'm making is for everybody, but the people I keep in mind most are people who have never had Somali food before,” said Hashi. “That's what motivates me to stay in the industry.”
Kahin has had the most high profile career of late through AfroDeli, a fast-casual restaurant that aspires to be the Chipotle of African cuisine. AfroDeli has been so successful that it now has three locations throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, demonstrating the high demand for African food despite the stereotype that Minnesotans shy away from spice and flavor.