On a cold, grey Canadian afternoon in Toronto’s Rexdale neighborhood, locals are packing into Hamdi, a small Somali restaurant in a strip mall that is serving up everything from goat shoulder with chapati to spaghetti.
Mohamed Omar, the owner of Hamdi, attributes his restaurant’s popularity in part to the culinary cross-pollination that happened throughout the history of his homeland: Somalia spent decades under British and Italian rule in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as centuries as a port for spices from India. Somali cuisine, as a result, has synthesised these external influences into a range of staples that includes samosas, camel meat, and fried chicken.
“Our customers are of African background, Southeast Asian background, Middle Eastern, we have here and there European cultures, as well. So, it’s a very rich, diverse customer base that we have and the reason is because of the influence that other culture has had on our food. That attracts them and brings them here.”
In the kitchen, 28-year-old chef Rashid Farah, who’s been working at Hamdi for ten years now, oversees the restaurant’s small but varied menu. And while Farah says he might have learned a thing or two from working at a Toronto Pizza Hut in his teens, his true education came from preparing Somali food.
“It’s really cool to learn all those things,” Farah says. “It’s really nice to learn about your culture and what they make and how they produce other food. We learn about Indian, Middle Eastern, we use some of their spices. So, we take a little bit about every culture and we mix it up and we put it with our culture together and mix it up, and voilà, there you have it!”
At Hamdi, almost every dish is served with a whole, unpeeled banana on the side. The banana's agricultural ubiquity in Somalia has turned it into an almost-mandatory garnish. “In Somalia, we are very rich in fruit and agriculture,” Omar explains. “Basically, in Somali society, you might have a banana anywhere; a wild banana or in someone’s backyard [...]. It became sort of Somali national fruit, if you will, and to give you an idea, if you want to have a complete Somali meal or food, then you need to get your main dish, it can be pasta or roasted goat or fish or camel meat, and you have to have a piece of banana with your meal. If you don’t have that, it’s kind of not complete."
“It’s part of the meal, and you might have it three or four times a day, instead of one time in the morning when you wake. I might have with lunch and I might have it again with dinner. So, basically, if you can get it, you will have it with your meal at any time you are eating.”
“It’s all about the technique,” Rashid says with a laugh, as he explains the appropriate banana-to-pasta ratio: the banana is cut into slices, then pierced with a fork, and wrapped in noodles and sauce. The hot-cold, salty-sweet, al dente-soft contrast is striking at first but tasty and balanced. Mixed in with the heavily seasoned tomato sauce, it doesn’t taste like banana per se, but like a quick, melty blast of sweetness. “Back in the day, people used banana not only for just pasta but other dishes. Banana is the main fruit, it’s part of our culture. We took our culture and Italian culture and mixed it up together.”
Asked if he takes issue with a staple like the spaghetti being rooted in European colonialism, Omar keeps his focus on the dish before him and the joy it brings to customers.
“I don’t see any problem as long as we are talking about food,” he says. “Food is enjoyable and I don’t have any problem with that. Somalis have their own traditional food, it’s not only pasta that we eat. Somalia has not only Italian, but it has the influence of a lot of different cultures, like the Indian, the British, the Middle Eastern, Arab countries, African and so on and so forth.”
Hamdi is also reflective of Toronto’s nickname as the City of Neighborhoods. “Toronto is really about communities,” Farah adds. “If you go to different communities, that’s when you see what Toronto is. So, for example, Etobicoke or Rexdale or Dixon, where the Somali communities are, there’s a bunch of Somali restaurants there.”
One of Toronto’s biggest strengths as a food city is its multiculturalism. From gargantuan Northern Portuguese sandwiches to Tibetan blood sausage, it’s a city where diversity is not only celebrated but eaten in large quantities. For Rashid Farah, the City of Neighborhoods is not only home, but a constant source of inspiration.
“It really inspires me,” he says. “Once you’re a chef, you’ve got to get inspired. It really makes me proud to have a diverse cuisine because not a lot of other cultures know about Somali food, but I’d be very happy if people get to know. Once the community grows, the food will get there. It’s a very rich culture.”