Checking behind him as James Bond in an enemy’s lair, an eleven-year-old in his school uniform, whom we’ll call “Y.,” dashes into the nondescript Arabian Restaurant in South Delhi’s Hauz Rani, five minutes’ walk from the triplet Saket malls. He is occasionally sent to this neighbourhood Somali restaurant by his mother to fetch food when she doesn’t feel like cooking. This afternoon, he’s ducked in to escape a certain beating for failing his English test. Abdullah, the server, receives the sitrep, in Somali, and lets Y. be.
The menu of the day is rice; spaghetti; anjero and suqaar; and sambuus, a Somali version of the samosa with meat filling. There’s tea with milk and without. All this is standard fare at Y.’s home. He doesn’t seem to be here for the food - also, he doesn’t have any money. “I had this same dosa for breakfast, but with salad,” he says in Hindustani, pointing to a plate of anjero (also canjeero and canjeelo, but perhaps best known as Ethiopia’s injera) - spongy pancake-like bread made of flour and eggs, mixed with water (and sometimes a little milk) that Abdullah just brings in from the kitchen. It’s served along with suqaar - quick-fried diced chicken, carrots, potatoes, and peas; and a capsicum and cabbage salad with a lemon quarter.
Y. translates concepts like the anjero to make it more relatable to an Indian writer. His command of the local language is better than that of many other patrons of Arabian Restaurant, who mostly speak Arabic and Somali. “I have been in India for seven years, that’s why,” he explains, and goes on to point out that our words for “chai” (Somalis call it “shaah,” pronounced shey) and “samosa” (the sambuus) have a lot in common.
Y. left his East African homeland as a four-year-old. “It’s like my eyes were closed,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut behind his blue, plastic-framed spectacles. “I remember nothing about Somalia.” Here, he says chirpily, he lives with two sisters, two aunts and his mother. His father works in Somalia, but was able to visit for a few months last year.
Arabian Restaurant has been around for two years now. Its other patrons, mostly grown-up students and medical tourists - all men - send him friendly nods and greetings as they head to the basin to wash their hands before meals. On the wall, Al Jazeera’s English news channel plays on a 32-inch television. Among these men is Nadir, who like Y, has no memories of Somalia. Until he came to study political science at Hyderabad three years ago, his home was the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
“My mother was pregnant with me when she fled Somalia’s civil war twenty-four years ago, after my father was killed in a bombing,” says Nadir in a low voice. He has never been back. “There is the sadness of death in Somalia all the time, so I never went there.” He takes a sip of his hot shaah, deep-brown and sugary with a strong scent of cinnamon and cardamom.
Despite never having lived in Somalia, Nadir feels strongly about Somali cuisine, and emphasises how distinct it is from Ethiopian food. “The anjero is probably the only commonality,” he explains. “Rice and spaghetti are important for Somalis, while eggs, meat, beef and chicken dominate Ethiopian food.” His mother’s cooking ensured that the memory of Somalia stayed alive in their Addis kitchen. In India, he cooks for himself. Life in Hyderabad has given him a profound appreciation of biryani and chicken 65, but on the whole, the oil and spice of Indian food is hard to adapt to. Every Somali national at Arabian Restaurant has the same difficulty.
Many say they take comfort in the not-so-fiery food of another set of migrants in this neighbourhood – the Afghans. It is also two Afghan women who prepare Arabian Restaurant’s home-like Somali cuisine. This is not a fact Nadir or most other patrons appear to know. On our first visit, we are too late to meet them: it is past 4pm and they have left to attend Hindi classes for refugees run by Don Bosco and UNCHR, not far from here.
The next morning, as they do every day, the women fire up the kitchen of Arabian Restaurant at 6.30 am.
Nabila, 24, is a university graduate and former teacher from Kabul, and the chef de cuisine here. Dressed in a pale salwar-kameez, she runs from one counter to the other, cooking, chopping, plating and packing orders. Hussain, one of Arabian Restaurant’s three partners, checks in with an order every five minutes.
“I have the degrees but there is no job,” Nabila explains in Hindustani. “You know how it is for refugees.” She heard about this job from Arabian’s former chef, a Somali woman who lived in Nabila’s apartment building and had to quit work for health reasons. She suggested Nabila, looking for any kind of halaal work - permissible by Islamic law - as her replacement.
By 9am, Nabila has already prepared the entire day’s stock of anjero. Meanwhile, the shorter and chubby-faced R., aged 17, who hails from north-east Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, is obsessively cleaning every surface in the kitchen. Dressed in jeans, pink-coloured cotton kurta and a floral headscarf, she will execute her big edible responsibility, making sambuus, later in the day. She’s new to the job: it’s the first one she’s had since she came to India two years ago. Back home, she was a student.
Hussain re-enters the kitchen to pass on an order in Somali. Nabila repeats it back in the same language to confirm, and heads to the gas stove. “Initially it was difficult cooking this cuisine, but I learnt from YouTube videos and by asking Somali people in the neighbourhood,” she says, while making boorshe, or porridge. She moves to another counter and picks up a meat knife to slice goat liver for an order of “beer,” a morning favourite of thin strips of stir-fried liver, onion and capsicum.
Hussain returns for the boorshe, and listens to Nabila telling us about the beer. “We have to substitute goat-meat with chicken in every dish because it is cheaper,” he says, sadly: mutton costs Rs 500 a kilo, while chicken costs Rs 200. Luckily, not everything has to be substituted. “Zeera,” Nabila says succinctly, stirring powdered spices into her pan: cumin, she says, is a huge Somali favourite.
“Some days, one round of cooking lasts the whole day. On a day with good orders, I prepare food twice or thrice,” Nabila says. We enter a period of silence as she bustles furiously, preparing all her orders before she leaves for her English class at the refugee centre. She’ll be back for round two after she’s done. She doesn’t say goodbye when we part. She says, “Come home, I’ll make Afghan food for you.”
Getting there: 8/3B, Gandhi Park, Hauz Rani, (near Select Citywalk mall) about a kilometre’s walk from Gate number 3 of Malviya Nagar metro station, call 9676595725.
The names of minors have been omitted from this article.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has reported and shot for Scroll.in, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
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