Al Uruba restaurant on Renton Avenue serves up traditional food in the kind of peaceful setting that may finally be returning to Somalia after decades of war.
“In Somalia, Goat and rice are like hamburgers!” Osman Busuri said, encouraging us to order his favorite dish at his restaurant in Rainier Valley.
Al-Uruba, owned by Osman and two friends, is one of several Somali restaurants in the Seattle area.
King County has the third largest population of Somalis in the United States. Like Osman, most of them fled in the early 1990s when Somalia’s government collapsed in the midst of a civil war, sending a wave of refugees around the world.
Somalis used to live mostly in Rainier but as rent prices have climbed, families have fanned further outside the city in search of affordable housing. Osman remembers when the building that now houses a Columbia City Starbucks used to be a Somali grocery store.
Today, the majority of Somali immigrants live in Tukwila where rent prices are an average of $500 cheaper than in the rest of the city. But Somalis still live in Rainier and Somali culture remains imprinted on the community.
I didn’t know much about Somali food, but when Osman brought out oversized beef samosas that we dunked in a fluorescent green chili garlic sauce, I knew we couldn’t go wrong.
Those were followed by Nafaqo, boiled eggs rolled mashed potatoes and fried, and then Caysh by a fluffy flatbread served with Za’atar, spiced olive oil.
For our entrée, my slightly overwhelmed parents and I ordered a combination platter which arrived piled high onto a huge, communal plate. Chunks of spiced goat, a large flavorful salmon filet, and half a roasted chicken were ringed by fluffy piles of rice thick with flavors of butter and cardamom.
We finished our meal with mint lemonade and a platter of cookies loaded with a sweet, chewy jelly.
It didn’t seem like you could go wrong on that menu, although I can’t speak for the camel Osman claims to also roast up for special occasions.
Osman’s family still lives in Rainier not far from the restaurant. His four children were all born here and he says it makes him sad that they were never able to know the place he still thinks of as home.
“All my kids know of Somalia is what they see in the movies and on TV, that’s what they think the country is like,” he says.
He says Somalia is rich in natural beauty, a side seldom portrayed in the West. The bright blue Indian Ocean hugs the borders of the country creating the longest coastline in Africa.
Osman has hung pictures of Somalia around the restaurants to remind customers, and himself, of how he remembers his country.
Somalia is beginning to show promising signs of change. In August, a new provisional constitution was passed and the Federal Government of Somalia became the first permanent central government since civil war broke out way back in 1991. In September, the parliament elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the new President. Al-Shabab, the radical sect that has held control over a great deal of the country, seems to be on its way out.
With tenuous signs of stability, some Somalis in the diaspora are considering the possibility of peace in a country they thought they would never be able to return to.
Despite the enthusiasm Osman isn’t so sure. “I would love to go back there someday, but not now, it’s just too risky, we don’t know anything for sure yet.”
He hopes for peace someday soon, he would love his kids to be able to know the Somalia he grew up in.
More than anything he says he misses the community he remembers from Somalia.
“The large families, the neighborhoods where children run from house to house, there was so much life,” he says. “Children are raised by everyone there, the saying ‘it takes a village’ is really how it is.”
We left the restaurant with a teetering pile of take out containers filled with everything we couldn’t cram into our gut, and marveled at having spent only $40.
On the way out, I turned back for a last look at the restaurant. At one table, three men chatted in the guttural Somali language over cups of tea. A large family filled the back room. Children careened around as if it was their own home, chasing each other and jumping off the booths that ringed the room.
I wondered if Osman felt like this new home he’d created even came close to his memories of Mogadishu.