Busketti: A Story of Colonization As Told by Food
For most of my academic career, I believed that an essay outline was key to writing a good essay. So when it was time to get started on the mini-essay for my artifact, I cracked my knuckles and got to work. Yet as I tried to piece together the Perfect Outline™ for this essay, I realized that I wasn’t being asked to write a scientific academic essay in the traditional sense; I was asked to write a story. Suddenly, figuring out the order of this story’s artifact and my relationship with it became much harder to construct. Bear with me, reader.
I’m going to give you my story of busketti, a Somali pasta dish that I chose as my artifact. There are so many questions to tackle here, the biggest one being: Why the heck did I choose a dish from Somalia, of all countries? Others include: How did pasta become a part of an East African cuisine? What about Somalia’s history is relevant to what we’ve been learning in this class? And where did my personal interest in the dish come from? The simple answer to all of these questions is this: colonialism. But to answer them in greater detail, I’m first going to give you an overview to Somalia’s colonial history, then I’ll introduce you to Somali cuisine. Afterwards, I’m going to delve into busketti itself. All the while, I hope to give you my own story of multicultural experiences due to my mixed heritage and history of moving to various areas of the world.
It’s a wild ride, so sit back and enjoy!
Colonial History of Somalia
Before European involvement began in the 19th century, Somalia was an aggregation of various Somali clans in the “Horn of Africa” region (the Eastern area of Africa that juts out sharply into the Indian Ocean). Some of these clans were nomadic, others were not; however, all of them lived lives of agriculture. This “horn” allowed for centuries of trade between the Somali people living on the coast and merchants from India, the Arab region, and Persia. This led to a cultural fusion from those countries in Somalia (as we’ll see later on when we discuss Somali cuisine). Then the European “Scramble for Africa” began in the 1880s, leading to the territorial struggle between France, the UK, and Italy for Somalia. Ethiopia joins in on the land-grabbing attempts a few years later.
As a result, the geography of Somalia becomes divided into three parts: British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, and French Somaliland.
French Somaliland is a fairly small region in the Northern area of Somalia, and it remained under French control until 1977, when it gained independence and became Djibouti. Meanwhile, British Somaliland existed right next to Djibouti as a slightly larger area than its neighbor while Italian Somaliland took up the rest of the area. Italian Somaliland was by far the largest colony between the three, taking up a majority of the Greater Somalia region. Thanks to creation of the Suez Canal, the main feature of Italian rule was a commitment to establishing commercial bases with Somali seaports and thus taking advantage of the new trade route that the Canal provided.
At certain points during its rule, Italy ceded small areas to Ethiopia through war, though Ethiopia’s gains are nullified by Mussolini’s forces when the country was annexed in 1936. Thus, Somalia was largely under Italian rule and colonization up until 1960, when British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence and united together as present-day Somalia.
I must begin this section with an important message: my focus on colonialism in Somalia as a key theme of my artifact is not meant to argue or imply that all of Somalia’s cuisine is purely the product of colonialism. That would be an inaccurate, ahistorical view and incredibly offensive to the people of Somalia. Any country is more than its colonial legacy, even though it faces terrible consequences in colonialism’s aftermath. I gave an overview of Somalia’s colonial history because it’s relevant to some aspects of Somali cuisine, particularly busketti, but certainly not all.
So what makes up Somali cuisine as a whole? Rice, meat, stews, fish, pasta, and vegetables prepared with an incredible fusion of spice and flavors that originate from India and the Middle East. Wait, what?
It’s true: over one thousand years ago, Arab and Persian traders established trading settlements along the coast of Somalia, all the way from the north to the south. The settlements allowed an influx of goods from countries as far as China, and also heavily encouraged the spread of Islamic traditions in Somalia.
These coastal ports allowed for more than just an exchange of goods: the foreign traders who founded these port towns introduced their methods of cooking as well. Arab and Persian traders brought rice along with spices such as garlic, coriander, chilli, cumin, and cloves. Indian traders brought samosas and sabaayad, a type of flatbread, to the area. Altogether, one can truly taste these three cultures in Somali food.
Or at least, I did when I went to Safari Restaurant in Harlem on March 21st.
This lady is Mona Birjeeb, owner of the restaurant and super friendly!
Some background information: Safari Restaurant is the only Somali restaurant in New York. It’s a small establishment that doesn’t particularly stand out on West 116th Street in an area commonly known as “Le Petit Sénégal”, or “Little Senegal.” Named after the large influx of immigrants from West African countries such as Senegal and Ghana, I found it interesting how a distinctly East African-style restaurant decided to establish itself in the area. The owner, Mona Birjeeb, told me, “I get people coming in here asking for food from the West, and I tell them ‘You can go walk down the street for 10 seconds and find all the Senegalese restaurants you want, this is all Somali!” She laughed.
Before I tried the busketti, I wanted to try something completely new for my first “eating the other” experience at this restaurant. Completely out of my depth, I asked Mona what she recommended, and she suggested the Kismayo chicken suqqar. The menu described the dish as “Traditional southern Somalia dish, spicy chicken stew with aromatic house spice best served with Basmati rice or chapatti bread.” The word “traditional” immediately caught my interest, so I ordered the dish.
My photo of the meal. That drink you see there is called fiimto (berry and hibiscus juice) and let me tell you, it was the most sugary drink I’ve ever had. Like, sweet enough that I could believe it was actually a liquified candy apple. Luckily for me, I have a major sweet tooth and I’m also from the South.
This was my first Somali dish, which opened my eyes (or tastebuds) to this completely different culture that I’d never been exposed to before. The “unknown” element of Somali culture and the familiar spices of cumin and cardamom I’d tasted in my mother’s cooking cemented my decision to use a pasta-based Somali dish as my artifact.
Which brings me to the next chapter of the story: Why Somali food?
Why A Finnish/Latina Woman Chose Somali Food
I wrote “Finnish/Latina” as a joke section title that indicated how culturally distant I am from Somalia, but then I realized that my Finnish and Salvadoran heritage actually did play a role in my decision to explore Somali cuisine.
You see, having family lineage from two wildly different countries means that family dinners were never centered around any one cultural theme. My Finnish mother did most of the cooking, but she was always mindful of my dad’s Salvadoran background and sometimes cooked refried beans and rice, complete with fried platanos. When she was feeling a little more nostalgic, my mother would bake salmon with a heavy cream sauce with a side of potatoes, a classic Finnish meal. My friends would say that their standard fare was peas and meatloaf. Me? I never knew what to expect going home after school. My mixed heritage alone allowed for a broader understanding of what “food” entailed than most other kids.
Besides the two races in the household bringing their own unique flavors in the kitchen, my parents also lived in Austria before I was born (my mother went to college there; my father grew up there while my grandfather worked for the UN). So sometimes dinner was schnitzel. My father, brother, and I spent Christmas Eve making vanillekipferl, Austrian vanilla crescent cookies made of almond meal and powdered sugar.
Yes, my little brother’s way taller than me
My dad’s job as an engineer at an international company meant moving around several times during my childhood. Romania was one of the countries we moved to, although I was incredibly young and barely remember any of it. The most significant move was to Shanghai, where I lived from ages 7 to 10.
Those three years of living in Shanghai culminated in arguably the most influential period of my life on a cultural level. My family had the opportunity to explore many areas of China, such as Xi’an and GuaDong. We also traveled to different countries in the East Asian region, like Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. One of my favorite childhood memories was visiting Singapore, where I swear I ate 10 slices of Singaporean-style naan bread a day.
Relocating to China and traveling to so many different places expanded my mother’s culinary prowess, leading her to start cooking meals from China, the Philippines, Thailand, and India. After living in China, I could never identify the taste of “home” to any one culture, which is what made building our “taste” profile at the beginning of the semester so difficult. After growing up eating curry, adobo, rice, mashed potatoes, refried beans, and meatballs, how could I possibly whittle down my taste profile to any one thing? My profile can only be defined by what I don’t eat: extremely spicy things, blue cheese, and fennel seeds. Anything else is fair game because my experiences have taught me to never say no to something new and different. That’s one of the two main reasons why I chose Somali cuisine as a baseline for my artifact, knowing beforehand that Somali food involved noodles and would therefore a perfect choice for this noodles class.
What was the second reason, you ask? Colonialism.
I hadn’t had a clue what Somali cuisine entailed until last semester, when I had to bring food for a final project. My project was on free speech laws in Somalia, so I did some basic research and found out that pasta was one of Somalia’s staple foods. “Huh, that’s interesting,” I thought to myself. “Somalia’s one of the last places I thought I’d find pasta.” I scrolled down a little further on the Wikipedia page and boom, I had my answer: Italy had colonized most of Somalia for about 80 years.
As someone who’s concentrating on politics in Gallatin, I’ve learned plenty about colonialism and its ramifications on the civilizations it controlled and exploited. Part of my concentration, “Journalism as a Road to Democracy,” means learning about historical oppression and brutality that resulted in much of the social and economic inequality we see today. Thus having the chance to learn about colonialism’s legacy through the lense of cuisine in this class was incredibly exciting to me, which is why I chose busketti as my artifact.
Busketti, as described on Mona’s menu, is “Thinly sliced flank steak marinated in house garlic and ginger sauce served best with Pasta Saldata or the famous Federation combo.” The New York Times review of the place that I read before I’d arrived said that the Federation combo was pasta and rice, so I chose the combo in order to taste Somali pasta. I asked Mona why it was called the “Federation” combo. Her response was a shrug and “Not sure, really. That’s just the name I came up with.”
I ordered the busketti to go after eating the suqqar, and I lacked the foresight to take a photo of the busketti when I ate it at home later that day (my hunger was too strong to think about anything other than diving straight into the food), so just imagine this: a freshly grilled steak sizzling on top of a nice big pile of buttered linguini, accompanied by a mound of surbiyaan (rice mixed with cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and cloves artfully topped with raisins) and red bell peppers and onions on the side equally coated in spices (the peppers were identical to those served with the chicken suqqar). A small container of basbaas (Somali hot sauce made of cilantro and green hot chili peppers) stood sat next to the rice.
The steak wasn’t too memorable, in my opinion. It was pretty much your standard cooked steak, although I did appreciate it for adding meat to the overall dish (I’m something of a carnivore). The flavor was fine, but it was the other foods on the plate that stole the show. The surbiyaan and red bell pepper/onions on the side really stood out to me with their extreme flavors (I did make sure to request that nothing be too spicy, which Mona graciously honored).
Interestingly enough, the spices in the surbiyaan tasted incredibly familiar to me even though I had no idea what the exact spices were while I was eating it. It wasn’t so much that the entire combination of spices with the rice was familiar; somehow I could discern the individual spices of cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon and taste them in the way my mother used to prepare her dishes from South Asia. In that bizarre sense, this dish that I’d never had before actually tasted familiar to me.
The pasta, while buttery and satisfying, was a mere side note to the dish. No spices were mixed with it; its presence was almost like an afterthought. It’s almost as though Italian influence was never truly ingrained and mixed into in the dish, only an additional piece of it, and I think that speaks to a larger narrative of Somalia and colonialism. The Somali people suffered under decades of rule under the Italians, yet they emerged from their oppression with their own identity very much intact. Somalis have retained their own language (the official languages are Somali and Arabic) and many are multilingual (English and Swahili are popular to learn); Italian is sometimes spoken in the Southern region but it is not a majority language. Nor has Catholicism, Italy’s main religion, become Somalia’s religion. Busketti, with its simple pasta, shows how colonized people can withstand European cultural hegemony and instead take a piece of the European culture that the people enjoyed. On their terms.