Mama Sambusa Kitchen takes Somali cuisine indoors with brick and mortar

After more than a decade serving Somali cuisine in Seattle – and three years of residing in Rainier Valley – food cart Mama Sambusa Kitchen will soon be opening a proper restaurant. Here, a new generation of business wants to elevate Somali cuisine.

Most days of the week, Marian Ahmed, better known as Mama Sambusa, spends the fragile hours of a Pacific Northwest dawn feeding regulars emerging from graveyard quarters or night owls yearning to feed at midnight. Ahmed and his family made sambusas in Africa; her daughter Honey Mohammed has helped since she was able to hold a spoon and stir.

Mohammed originally inspired the trolley’s dusk-to-dawn schedule when she realized, during Ramadan two years ago, how hard it can be to find a shrimp taco in this city at 3 o’clock in the morning. Now, she’ll be taking Mama Sambusa’s expansive menu of 40 Somali street food and moving it indoors. In July, she purchased the space at 8319 Wabash Avenue South. Currently, the cart sits just outside; soon it will become a destination dedicated to Mama’s handmade sambusas, run by Ahmed and his other daughter. Mohammed says the restaurant’s official opening date is December 1.

Dishes like fettuccine alfredo or crispy chicken tacos may not resemble traditional African cuisine. But the pasta, says Mohammed, represents the influence of Italian colonization from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The tacos started as a way to honor the Somali activist’s namesake, Hawo Tako, and then remained a tribute to the food Mohammed loved growing up.

“These are dishes that you can find on the streets of my country, and these are dishes that my mother used to sell on the streets of her country, you know, just to be able to live,” she says. “Now to be able to put it at the price points that we have is kind of crazy.”

The titular sambusas remain a popular dish on an all-halal menu: little golden fried pouches filled with different proteins and a plethora of spices that come in four different flavors at Mama Sambusa Kitchen. Ahmed makes them all by hand.

With the new space comes four new flavors of Mohammed’s signature cheesecakes, including a chai-spiced Somali version called “What’s the Tea”, and a xalwa cheesecake, inspired by a chewy and spicy Somali confectionery. Aside from a few additions, the brick-and-mortar iteration of Mama Sambusa Kitchen will keep the menu largely the same. Once the new cuisine finds its way, a brunch menu that has long been lodged in Mohammed’s brain is set to drop, including a shakshuka breakfast sandwich.

“I wanted to elevate Somali cuisine, right?” said Muhammad. “In all honesty, there are a lot of amazing restaurants that don’t get the light of day.” In short, she wants the comforting, bold flavors of her homeland to get the respect they deserve. “We so deserve to be in these halls and we’re not often presented the way we should be.”

Mohammed designed the space to provide a warm and intimate environment for customers, which isn’t always possible when using the OG food cart in unpredictable cooking conditions and equally incalculable weather in Washington. The results are both dark and inviting, with red and white foliage and emerald palm fronds lining the doorways.

The restaurant’s only seat, however, consists of four stools at the bar; the rest of the dining room is empty. After some deliberation, Mohammed decided to use the space as a place where customers can wait for their food, rather than a proper seating area.

With the restaurant’s official opening date next month, it will retain the cart’s similar overnight hours and remain open for curbside pickup and takeout only until then. Updates on menu items and times can be found on Mama Sambusa Kitchen’s Instagram.

About Norma Wade

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