Eating Somali food? Don’t forget the banana, or you might get humiliated online

A Somali plate of lamb and basmati rice, with a banana.
(Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

Here's the story of the biggest mistake I ever made with a banana.

While on assignment in Minneapolis earlier this month, I stopped by Maashaa'allah Restaurant in Cedar-Riverside for my first-ever traditional Somali meal: an enormous $14 rice and lamb plate.

The server brought it out. And then a banana.

A banana?

I tweeted a photo of the enormous platter, with the banana in the corner of the frame. The banana, I added in another tweet, was "brought as an appetizer."

Little did I know, this would set off an Internet uproar that circled the world. If you are Somali: I am so sorry. I come in peace.

Let me be clear about something upfront: Unlike my acclaimed colleague Jonathan Gold, our resident food critic, who meticulously researches cuisines before writing about them, I am a food idiot.

I like food. But I often know little about what I'm eating. I barely cook, and when I'm on the road, I often file stories from McDonald's with a side of fries. It's a weakness, and I am not proud, in the sense that a human Dumpster who will eat anything can't be proud.

My friends: The food was fantastic. But I made a crucial error. The banana was not brought as an appetizer. You're supposed to slice it up and eat it with the rice.

The banana is "a thing that comes with all dishes — rice, spaghetti, there’s really no rule," said Yasin Mohamud, a 28-year-old freelance writer in Minneapolis who immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia when he was 7, and who has written about Minneapolis' Somali restaurants. "Traditionally if you’re eating a pasta, you take a slice out of it, and eat bites with the meal." The same goes for rice dishes.

It's like if I had walked into a burger joint, tweeted a photo of a ketchup bottle and said the server had brought me a fancy drink. Or so I gathered from Twitter.

I also got sent this video:

Somali millennials around the world were laughing at me (definitely not with me) for failing Somali Cuisine 101. I received a steady stream of replies about the banana for the next couple of days. Humbling as it was, it taught me about how food — and the Internet — bring people in the Somali diaspora together.

The people in my mentions were from Minnesota, Canada, Great Britain and beyond. And here they were, together, talking about the idiot who didn't know what to do with the banana. 

Their families were among the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Somalia's civil war. As is the case for many first- and second-generation immigrants, the idea of home can be complicated.

"As Somalis settled in foreign cities and grappled with the possibility of losing their sense of identity and culture, social media was like an extension of the motherland, connecting millions of Somalis to one another," Najma Sharif wrote in a recent essay for Vice, adding: "The place I've always felt the most at home, surrounded by other Somalis, isn't really a place at all — it's the internet."

Food, like the Internet, is a major point of connection. In the U.S., Mohamud said, his mother cooked traditional Somali meals at home and required everyone to speak Somali in her household so she could preserve her family's culture.

“She wasn’t anti-American," Mohamud said. "But she made sure that we basically be Somali first and then American second, and know that we come from a very rich background and we shouldn’t lose that just because we’re here."

Beyond the controlled environment of the home, it can be hard to find ways to preserve a culture. Many younger Somalis do it by connecting over Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Hence why a stranger's food tweet can become an international point of conversation.

And if you're not Somali, now you know: You eat the banana with the rice.


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