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Issue 645 -- 21st - 27th June, 2014
Exclusive Interview With Abderrazaq Noor, The Man Behind Somali Kitchen
By Hamdi Khalif
His accent is an endearing blend of Aussie and East African influences. His cooking is a testament to the many worlds he inhabits. He is Aberrazaq Noor, a soft-spoken writer and food connoisseur, the man behind Somali Kitchen.
The son of a restaurant-owner, Noor developed a taste for good food quite early in his life. However, he took a path different from his father’s—owning a restaurant did not interest him. It would take away some of the valuable time he wished to spend with his children.
Still, food is never far from his mind. With ingredients drawn from India, the Arab world, Italy, and France, his renditions of traditional Somali dishes have multiple cultures simmering in one cauldron.
A former travel writer, he understands well how to use words to transport readers across distant lands. Now he is the captain of yet another vessel—food. His recipes are a story, taking us on a journey through the horn of Africa.
Noor lives in far-off Melbourne. And yet rather than dissuade him, this distance inspires him to spread Somali culture not just in Australia but beyond, across the globe. He does this through his blog, Somali Kitchen.
Warya Post recently caught up with him for a chat.
When did you first start cooking and what was it about cooking that you found appealing?
I started cooking when I was about 8 years old. My father owned a restaurant in the Western Province of Kenya, near the border with Uganda. I often helped out there as a way of spending time with him. I was fortunate enough to be raised by a Somali father who liked to cook.
Why did you feel the need to start Somali Kitchen?
I have always had an interest in cooking. I also like to write; it is the way I earn my income. I have always enjoyed telling stories. For me, Somali Kitchen was the perfect combination of enjoying my writing and capturing something about my culture and community. I also noticed that there was not much written about food from my community. I decided to write about food in a storytelling manner. I don’t just write the story of food. I research deeper and tell the story behind it. In a way, it becomes an archive of our culture. For me, it is a way of giving back to my community.
You mentioned that writing is your career. Can you tell us more about this?
Ah, yes. Many years ago, I trained as a journalist. I work in the public sector. A large part of my work involves writing.
As you have said before, food is a universal language. Do you then use cooking as a way to show the world the Somali culture and way of life?
Absolutely! That was one of my objectives when I started writing the blog. It is a way of sharing something that is ours with the people around us. To my delight, I found that my readers come from far-off. For example, there was an American man who found my blog through Google Plus. He wrote me to say that his daughter worked with Somali refugees in Arizona and that he would to tell her about my blog.
She was about to hold a meeting with 40 Somali women, and was very excited to learn about my blog. She used some of the recipes to make food for the meeting. Once the women walked in and were welcomed with Somali food, they were very impressed. I loved that story. These 40 women felt an instant connection with the man’s daughter because she had shown an interest in their culture.
Is Somali food your favorite cuisine? If so, why?
Yes. In Somali cuisine, I find almost everything I like. I enjoy the different flavors and how they layer around each other. In my opinion, Somali food is the ultimate fusion food. In it, almost everyone can recognize something they are familiar with. This is because Somalis have borrowed a great deal from other cultures. We have altered everything and made it our own.
If you had to live on one dish for the whole year, what would it be?
A vegetable dish. I am vegetarian.
How did you come to be so? What is it like being a Somali vegetarian?
I encounter its strangeness almost every day. I came to be vegetarian at about three or four years of age. I developed an allergy for excessive protein, and the doctor recommended that I stop eating meat. I think that by the time I was able to eat meat again, I just did not like the taste of it. This is something that the Somali community finds hard to understand.
When I was younger, my ayeeyo (grandma) always tried to make maqmuud. She always brought it over and said, “I have made this specially for you—you must eat it because you will go crazy if you do not eat meat for 40 days.”
One time, I visited my eedo (aunt) in Kismaayo for the first time. She said, “He has never eaten meat the way I make it.” She cooked a variety of meat dishes and displayed them before me. Even though she already knew that I was vegetarian, I still had to convince her that I just did not like the taste of meat. She insisted that I try it, but I would not. In the end, she conceded and let me have a cabbage dish.
You have spoken of the three women who were instrumental in influencing your passion for cooking (your grandmother Xaawo, neighbor Hamida and wife Shukri). How do you feel about being a male cook, especially in the Somali context?
It does not bother me. Cooking is something I love and find therapeutic. I often cook after work to relax. Shukri and I love cooking together. My grandmother enjoyed having me help her in the kitchen, and my parents always supported me in doing the things I loved. I had encouragement from a young age.
How were you received by the Somali community as a whole? Did you face any challenges?
No, not really. I just put the blog out there and let it roll organically. The Somalis that interact with me tend to have stumbled upon the blog and liked it. Anyone who visits the blog is there because they want to be there. They enjoy reading the stories. They are either making use of the dishes or are just curious. One great thing is that it is quite difficult to be negative about food.
In which country do your biggest followers reside?
According to my Google analytics, I would say the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Kenya, in that order. One thing that really surprised me is the amount of traffic I receive from Israel and Brazil.
If you had the choice of adding only one spice to your food, what would it be?
Cumin. It brings out an amazing depth of flavour. I use it in nearly every savoury dish.
What is your biggest satisfaction from cooking?
I think it is putting different ingredients together and creating something that is flavoursome and really tasty. It is almost like magic. I think of cooking as magic. When I was younger, I saw people like my ayeeyousing a few simple ingredients to create an incredible taste. I always asked her if she used magic. She would laugh and tell me, “Yes, it is a kind of magic.”
You seem to be a man of many talents. Judging by your blog, a great writer is one of them. Do you do any other form of writing?
Yes. I write for sites such as Africa on the Blog. Often, the topics are politics or culture. At work, I write things speeches, annual reports and newsletters.
Your recipes are full of depth, culture and history. What is the source of your knowledge?
A lot of it comes from my own history. I grew up with my grandparents nearby, and they were a rich source of information. They often told me stories. I had a curious nature and always wanted to know why we did things the way we did them. Because of this, I managed to build a repertory.
I find that when I write, it is easier to draw upon the memories from my youth. My father was a great storyteller, and I picked up a lot from the things he shared with me.
Beyond my upbringing, I draw knowledge from books. I love to read and have a collection of books on Somali culture and people. I also talk to fellow food lovers and we exchange ideas and recipes.
I know you have a wife and 2 sons, a full time job, and the blog. What is your secret to balancing it all?
The secret is that I enjoy what I do. Because of this, I always find the time for it. I enjoy spending time with my wife and children. I enjoy spending time on my blog. It really is about finding things that I value in my life, the things I love most.
Have you ever thought of writing a Somali recipe book?
Definitely! In fact, I once started writing one. However, I found it difficult to put it together. The publishers were not interested in a topic that was not mainstream. Insha’Allah, one day I’ll be able to get a Somali recipe book published.
What else can we expect from you in the near future?
I will continue with my blog, creating my own interpretations of traditional Somali dishes. My recipes will not only provide you with delicious dishes but will transport you back in time, through beloved lands, through history and culture. I hope to trace our history through investigating the food that we eat. I want to remind you of the wealth of our culture, to remind you that our regional differences and influences make us richer and should be celebrated.
You can follow Noor’s stories and recipes on his blog, Somali Kitchen.