East Africa’s Kitchen
Though I drive thousands of miles a year around Los Angeles, I prefer being a passenger. The driver deals with pesky details like road signs and brake lights, while the person next to them can focus on important stuff like spotting previously unnoticed restaurants. Since I can’t always convince my driver to stop and investigate, there is an ever-growing list of discoveries in my phone’s notepad.
I didn’t have to use the notebook on a recent evening because the driver was as avid a fan of unusual cuisines as I am. We had been heading elsewhere for dinner when, just across the Westchester-Inglewood border and still west of the 405, I noticed the “Madinah East African Halal Cuisine” sign and decided to change destination.
When we asked to see menus, the owner asked if we had tried Somali food before; I had. Though most Americans know the place for the smoldering civil war, Somalia’s history includes contact with Ethiopian and Kenyan neighbors as well as Arab and Indian traders and Italian colonizers. There are
hints of all of those in the cuisine, which is richly spiced though
not usually hot.
We were obviously having trouble deciding what to order, so our host suggested, “How about I just make an assortment of things for you?” This sounded like a great idea, so after assuring him that we had no allergies or strong dislikes he went to work and we waited to see what would happen.
First to arrive was a salad of lettuce, tomato, carrot, onion and cilantro, with lemon wedges on the side and a small container of green dressing. I put an incautiously large dollop of dressing on the salad and gasped at the first bite. Remember when I said this cuisine isn’t usually hot? This was an exception, a sauce with an exuberant amount of green chilies used in its manufacture. In small amounts alongside the lemon, the dressing was fine. Straight, it was brutal.
That experience led me to be cautious when the soup arrived, but the vegetarian stock of pureed lentils and onion had only a pinch of chili. The dominant spice was cumin, and it reminded me of a subtle version of an Indian mulligatawny soup. We liked it enough that we almost asked for pita bread to wipe our bowls, but I saw the size of the entree that the cook was making and changed my mind.
Our host had asked if we wished to eat like Somalis, and since we did he brought one gigantic plate to put between us. It contained a heap of spiced long-grain rice, Somali-style spaghetti, roasted goat and chicken sautéed with bell pepper, onion and tomato. As he put it on the table, he mentioned that he was about to make the next item, the fried meat pies called sambusas. We stared at the meal with some disbelief, wondering how we could possibly finish it, and decided that we couldn’t — we would just eat until we were sated, leaving room for the turnovers.
We ended up eating more than we’d planned because it was delicious. The chicken dish is called Suqaar, which means “little chunks” and refers to the chopped meat. The sauce was fragrant with pepper and garlic, a reminder that for centuries Somalia was a stop on the spice trade route through the Red Sea.
I detected more of an Arab influence in the goat, and it was the standout of our meal. Goat is one of my favorite meats and I can hardly remember a preparation to equal this; it was fall-off-the bone tender but not mushy, and no single flavor dominated the complex spice mix.
The starches that accompanied the proteins were more than just background music; the rice had been made biryani-style in a stock with mild spices and had gentle seasonings. The angel hair pasta was more unusual; it had been tossed in a small amount of tomato-based sauce with a hint of curry and topped with chopped tomatoes and raw onion. It was less outstanding than the other items on the plate, but a good palate cleanser.
We had downed most of the main course when the sambusas showed up — freshly fried pastry triangles filled with mildly seasoned ground beef and onion. They were obviously inspired by samosas but made with wheat dough instead of the garbanzo-based pastry used in India and Pakistan, and they made a fine end to the meal.
As my companion packed up our leftovers, I went to the counter to pay and was shocked by the total. A lavish dinner for two ran just $25. I asked the owner if perhaps he had left something out and he said no, the bottled water and hot tea were included. If I compiled a list of the dining bargains of the past year, I expect this would be at the very top.
Our meal at Madinah Restaurant was not fast, but that’s fine — we weren’t in a hurry and enjoyed the hospitality and chance to chat with the owner. He told us that there are only about 200 Somalis in Los Angeles, and despite the turmoil in their native land they all get along just fine. Madinah may be the place where some Angelenos engage with this community while they enjoy a taste of the Africa that very few Americans even know exists.
Madinah Restaurant 1100 W. Florence Ave., Inglewood (310) 342-0008 madinahrestaurant.com