By Timothy Gillis
Somalis in the greater Portland area can get a taste of home at Mini Mogadishu, the new Forest Avenue restaurant that opened Saturday. It’s owned and operated by Nimo and Halimo Mohamud, spiritual sisters and pioneers in an ethnic fare usually served up by men.
Al Huda, Fez Mediterranean, and Asmara offer Somali and the somewhat similar Eritrean food, as do several other markets dotted in between, but the tendency is that some can turn into hang out spots for males, making it awkward for young African women to share the same space. Mini Mogadishu is not designed just for women of course, but the idea is to have it run by women making authentic homemade Somali food, with an enclosed space in the restaurant for women only where one can comfortably remove hijab.
Halimo Mohamud came to Portland in 1999. Nimo arrived a couple of years later. They met in 2002 through a mutual friend and discovered they were from the same Abgaal tribe. They talked about their new lives as immigrants, raising kids in a foreign community, and agreed that mealtime was a solidifying experience.
“Growing up in Somalia made you tough but empathetic. Surrounded by such uncertainty and hardship meant that sometimes the only good part of life was the time spent with family around the dinner table,” Nimo said. “I’ve watched a large group of kids grow. Some of them my own and some of them within my neighborhood and community. I remember them coming to my house with my children to have supper with us. It is a nice feeling knowing that however small, I did have a little impact on their maturity through a home cooked meal.”
Halimo and her cousin had operated a transportation company. Nimo drove for them, and plans began for the restaurant.
Operating all day, Mini Mogadishu will serve classic Somali breakfast fare including aanjeero crepes (a fermented pancake-like bread) with hilib (goat or beef) or chicken sugar. Lunchtime offerings include dalac bilash (a tomato soup), boor (fried dough), mushaari bowl (porridge), and fresh pita or jaapaati. Sip fruit smoothies, mango or guava juice.
“And many Italian foods,” says Abdul Yousef, Nimo’s son who painted the left side wall blue with å large white star to reflect the Somali flag. “Italians were settlers in Somalia and part of their culture was left behind. Lasagna, ziti, spaghetti – there are a lot of pasta dishes in our culture.” His sister Hanan and brother Abdi helped renovate the restaurant from its former days as Nur’s, Abdi Rahman’s Halaal Market. In addition to painting the walls, the family tackled the kitchen and bathroom, and tore up layers of tile floors. But they kept the brick oven to consider serving pizza.
“There’s a big difference for what you need in a kitchen between a restaurant and a market,” Yousef said. The changes were both necessary and an aim to put their mark on the building, but the look will keep evolving. Conformity is not so important in Somali culture, he says, so they’ll have a mix of rearrangeable booth and single seating, a café, and a more private section for women only. And with family style seating available, Mini Mogadishu can accommodate eight to ten people.
“We want to reflect how people do things in their own homes, and try to do our best to recreate that,” he said.