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From Sudan to Somalia
Coastal Maine meets Coastal Africa
BY ANDY KING

Safari African Restaurant

Safari African Restaurant
51 Oak St., Portland, (207) 879-2805.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Credit cards accepted.
No bar.

About three months after I reviewed the Red Sea Room, the Somali restaurant in Lewiston, my email inbox began to fill with hate mail from an anti-immigrant campaign called the Emigration Party of America. At their Web site, www.sendemback.org, you can read all sorts of fun accusations aimed at immigrants (they say they’re only targeting illegals, you judge for yourself), suggesting that they are primarily responsible for problems ranging from increased highway traffic to general overpopulation.

It seems that some misguided, Connecticut-based member of that organization had been combing the Internet for mentions of Somalis in the news, and had happened across my column suggesting that folks try out African food just to get a taste of something they might never get a chance to experience otherwise. I then began to receive personal letters, and updates (some from their esteemed Maine-based members . . . ahem) on how I was pretty much a part of a very big problem. "You’re a Jew, aren’t you?" one man wrote, "Happy Passover, you pathological kike."

Their primary worry? According to their Web site, it’s "A sickly green environment with oceans black."

Here’s hoping they read this one, too.

While the folks out there in Nevada were trying to curb the pressing problem of our terrifying future with a "green environment," I made my way to Portland’s newest African restaurant, the Somali-owned and East African–themed Safari African Restaurant. I had a bit of a rough experience with the Red Sea Room, which was in a state of disarray, and I was interested in experiencing what I hadn’t quite before.

Safari African has chosen to occupy the spaced formerly filled by the Sudanese restaurant Ezo, physically and culturally, and they will be hard-pressed to match the popularity of the former. After opening, Ezo immediately became a spot for MECA students faculty and residents alike due to a simplified menu and owner Florence Olebe’s accent on cultural acceptance through the unifying medium of food.

Safari African has made some slight changes, and they’re not all for the better. Framed pictures have been removed in favor of animal sculptures and woodcarvings, like the jade elephants in Thai-American restaurants. The earth tones, oranges and reds, of the walls and ceilings have been replaced by mauve and purple. It’s altogether a little more haggard-looking.

The hospitality of the staff, however, has not flagged one bit. I was greeted for lunch the other day with a happy "You are the only one in here! Sit everywhere!" and offered a free banana after my meal. When trying to decide between the Vegetable Sambusa and the Beef Sambusa, the cook offered his opinion from the corner: "Beef! The vegetable today is . . . ehhhhhhh . . ." They even joshed my dining partner, friend Olan (wife Jackie was away for the evening), for being late: "And here is your tea," our server exhaled while placing the cloyingly sweet beverage down, as if he too had been holding his breath for the past 15 minutes.

We ate Sambusa, deep-fried pockets of beef and onion flavored with cumin and cardamom. They’re a Somali specialty, as are the Bajiyo, boiled, drained, and deep-fried mung beans served with a spicy dipping sauce. Just to the southeast of Somalia lies Kenya and Safari African also features its national dish of Ugali, a cornmeal porridge made by boiling cornmeal in water, allowing it to set, and cutting it into pieces to be laid under cooked vegetables or stew. Westerners will recognize it as firm polenta.

I had my Ugali served under Beef Sugaar, a thick, cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced stew — my apologies if I can’t get a hold on all the flavors, as many African spice mixes contain as many as 27 ingredients. All I can tell you is that on the range in the kitchen sat these items: basil, cinnamon, tomato sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice, beef broth, and plastic jars of powdered spices. This represents not only the complex flavors of the meal, but also the culinary diversity of a country that has been a center of trade and foreign occupation since the seventh century. The Sugaar, in the end, was piping hot and intriguing, but the sauce covered any flavor of the vegetables and beef.

The vegetarian special was a plate of varied vegetables cooked in tomato sauce and spices, and had little more to offer than a lack of meat and a little heat. We enjoyed both dishes a bit more when we folded them into a piece of Chapati, Indian flatbread, as we did with the Halib Ari, braised goat meat. Goat meat, for all of you who might seem averse to the idea, tastes basically like lamb, and is no stranger to eat than any other form of meat we dine on (one of my detractors in Nevada taunted that perhaps I’ll develop a taste for this dish. Actually, it’s rather tasty, thank you). And if you’ve ever seen a pig in its pen at a farm, than you’ll think goats are positively sparkling, comparatively speaking.

But the menu should know when to stop, taking a cue from Ezo’s list of six well prepared items; don’t try and please all of your diners all of the time because those Mainers that wander in probably want an authentic experience. They want to feel lost in a foreign place. There’s no way they’re going to get the Lasagna, or enjoy the iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing presented as salad. It is only when Safari African sticks to the food of Africa that it borders on successful.

Andy King can be reached at dinnerwithandy@yahoo.com


Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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