Everyone I ask about a traditional Somali breakfast gives me the same answer: It must be fried liver and bread. Not just any bread, though, but sabaayad, a flaky flatbread that resembles Indian paratha. I have vague memories of these sorts of breakfasts, long before sugar-laden cereals with free toys took their place; the meat and bread smoky from the charcoal stove, a little garlic or onion still on my mother’s fingers as she placed the food in my mouth. This was in the ’80s, when everything was in short supply in Somalia: fuel, food, and freedom.
Despite the best efforts of my mother and the remittances sent by my sailor father in England, I was sickly, small, and suffering from malnutrition. I remember rushing to lunch, maddened by the smell of food from the kitchen. I was a ravenous meat-eater then, sucking the marrow from lamb bones and chewing on strips of dried beef on the front step of our house. My hair was a fine, light burr, and I preferred sitting and dreaming to running around the neighborhood. Our local hospital was barely functioning and had become the focus of government suppression after a group of doctors there organized a committee to fight chronic neglect and underfunding. Ironically, the refugee camps circling the city had better facilities, and my mother would take me on a bus the 20-something miles to Saba’ad camp, where German doctors treated my malnutrition for free.
With two famines and several food emergencies over the last 30 years, it is hard for me to think about Somali food without thinking about the lack of it, how for many internally displaced people and refugees breakfast is the same gruel, made palatable by either sugar or salt, that they have for every other meal that the fortnightly ration can be stretched to. I remember reading an account from Mogadishu in the late ’80s, before the war had moved south, when a researcher asked its poorest citizens what they ate each day. One elderly grandfather, either from embarrassment or wishful thinking, described an impossible banquet of flesh, fish, and fruit. It made me think that by conjuring up these meals, turning the various tastes and textures over in his mind, he could almost trick himself into believing that he had actually enjoyed such luxuries. The anticipation and pre-planning of what we will eat is a universal human pleasure that often goes beyond the gratification produced by finally eating dishes that are likely to disappoint; too oily, undercooked, overcooked, tepid, or under-spiced. In our minds we can devour perfection and return to meals that are otherwise out of reach due to expense, or location, or the death of the person that knew how to make them in exactly the right way.
If I were given the chance to create my ideal Somali breakfast it would have to involve my grandmothers, who prepared some of my earliest meals but who died long ago. One was well-traveled and came home to Hargeisa with Sudanese songs, Eritrean jewelry, and Yemeni recipes, while the other was much more traditional. From my peripatetic grandmother’s orchard I would pluck papaya, pomegranates, mango, lemons, and watermelon for fruit salads. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, my maternal grandmother would whip up the batter for malawax, a simple crêpe made with eggs and a dash of condensed milk. Once cooked, it would be smothered in subaq and sonkor, ghee and sugar. For extreme sugarholics such as myself there is another step: Take a pan of milk, add black tea, milk, mixed spices (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves), and as much sugar as your kidneys can handle, and when frothy and hot, pour the concoction over the stack of crêpes. This mushy comfort food takes me all the way home, back to when I hid behind curtains and chatted to the pet goat in our yard and was surrounded by the voices and laughter of my family.
Nadifa Mohamed is the author of The Orchard of Lost Souls and Black Mamba Boy.