Cups of milky chai, crispy beef-filled samosas, a plate of hummus and a side of spaghetti. To the uninitiated eater like me, this might seem like a bunch of disparate dishes fused together on a menu but I soon learned that this is very much Somali cuisine shaped by centuries of trade and colonialism. Every bite was like getting a history lesson.
But first, I need breakfast to get the brain going. I’m with Hodan Nalayeh, host of Integration on Omni 2 and my food guide for the day. She tells me Somalis have historically been nomadic people, so they tend to eat their biggest meal in the morning to prepare for a long day of travelling.
And so here we’re at Salaama Hut in Rexdale on a fall morning feasting on plates of suqaar — little cubes of tender and juicy caramelized beef, as well as beef liver and kidneys spiced with cumin and served with a stack of spongy, sourdough crepes calledanjero.
It’s a heavy start to this food tour that Nalayeh is filming for her show — but it’s hard to resist tearing off another piece of anjero and using it to pick up another piece of kidney. It’s delicious and addictive and I know I already blew my strategy of pacing myself on this mini food tour of her favourite four places to eat in Rexdale.
When it comes to the suburbs, the food-obsessed already know Markham, Brampton, Scarborough and Richmond Hill for Chinese, West Indian and South Asian eats, but seldom does Rexdale come up in food media, save a few jabs about Steak Queen, the infamous burger and souvlaki diner where the late mayor Rob Ford was filmed rambling two years ago.
Nalayeh is trying to change that with her new talk show, Integration, airing Saturdays at 8 a.m. on Omni 2. The English-language show focuses on what she says are communities that are neglected in the media, in particular Toronto’s Somali community, which largely resides in Rexdale in the northwest end of the city.
“It’s about sharing the Somali narrative with other narratives,” she says. “What happens with the Canadian cultural programming is that everyone focuses on their own culture in their own language. Nobody learns from each other, so what I want to do is bring different communities together.”
The young mother of two grew up in Edmonton after her family came to Canada in 1984 from the city of Las Anod as refugees after the Somali government collapsed in 1981. After studying broadcast journalism in 2013, Nalayeh found it hard to find an outlet that showed quality programming aimed at the city’s immigrant population, in particular the English-speaking, second-generation youths.
“I wanted to see more young Somalis in media empowering their voices and sharing their stories,” she says. “I was tired of not seeing any role models, so I thought they could be their own.”
So two years ago she took it upon herself to start her own show, Integration. She created a YouTube channel that currently has 3.2 million subscribers, and sold ads on the show to raise the $40,000 needed to buy six months’ worth of weekly airtime on City TV. Omni 2 later picked up the show, which debuted last month.
Nalayeh converted her basement at her Vaughan home into a studio, discussing current events through a Somali lens. She had Premier Kathleen Wynne talk about changes to the province’s sex-education curriculum and profiled a mom raising awareness of autism in Minnesota’s Somali community. There are also lighthearted segments in which guest hosts talk about skin care, fashion and generational clashes on relationships and religion from the perspective of young Somali urbanites.
For her latest episode, we’re exploring the Rexdale as the hub of Somali cuisine in Toronto. After plates of suqaar and cups of milky chai at Salaama (1987 Kipling Ave.), we’re a five-minute drive away, from the next stop, Xawaash (130 Queens Plate Dr #1), owned by husband-and-wife Abdullahi Kassim and Leila Adde, who ran a cooking blog before opening the restaurant with the same name.
This entrepreneurship reminds me of Nalayeh, whose online presence resulted in an actual television show over the years, proving that there’s a large but underserved audience within the city’s Somali community, which Nalayeh estimates to be around 100,000 in Toronto and 200,000 in Canada.
“We’re just as valuable; consumers that buy cars and homes, we’re a marketable audience,” she says.
At Xawaash, we nibble from a takeout container that has a bit of everything: juicy chickensuquaat, spinach stew, rice, as well as velvety hummus. The menu heavily touches on Middle Eastern cooking thanks to Somalia’s centuries of trading with the region. India is also a major trade partner, which is why chai and samosas (or sambusas, as Somalis call them) are part of the cuisine. Xawaash also has spaghetti with Alfredo sauce, since Somalia was an Italian colony from the 19th century up until the 1940s.
While I continue to eat in between takes, Nalayeh juggles her two phones, updating Snapchat and doing quick Facebook livestreams for her followers. She’s bubbly with an infectious smile that’s ripe for the morning TV, even if we’ve already eaten twice before 11 a.m.
She’s still eating when we stop at her favourite place, Bilal Restaurant (321 Rexdale Blvd.), for juicy roasted goat shoulder with rice and garnishes of giant onion rings. It’s the place she says is the closest to the kind of cooking she’s accustomed to when visiting family in Somalia: slow roasted meat, simple spice blends and family-style portions.
The last stop is appropriately a dessert place called Al Aruba (383 Albion Rd.), which has been around for 16 years and is named after a famous hotel in Somalia. As we park, a couple of teens on their lunch break recognize Nalayeh from her show and wave hello. Inside, Al Aruba owner Nuradin Ali sets out plates of sambusas, bajiya (Somali falafels, essentially) and halwa, a jellylike treat made from boiled down butter, sugar and spices. It’s like warm cardamom Jell-O with a bit of a fruity undertone.
“In the first year it was mostly Somalis that came here, but now I’d say 40 per cent of the people who come here are different nationalities,” says Ali. “Since we’re close to the airport, we get a lot of Somali people who stop here to buy halwa for family outside Canada.”
As we wound down the tour, I asked Nalayeh what’s the take-away from her experience running her show. Integration was started when she couldn’t find on-camera work at the larger stations (she jokes that you’re not going to see a segment on fashionable hijabs on daytime TV anytime soon) but as it gains traction, does she see this as the start of a media empire?
“If I can just do this I’d be happy. I’m not trying to be wealthy. I just want to take care of my kids, have a good life and put something good in the world,” she says, pulling out of the parking lot in her car.
“When I did this on my own, I realized I don’t need to be on mainstream media. I have a market share and it’s what media companies want. I have the audience.”
These are the places Nalayeh took me to for the morning of eating in Rexdale. They are all within a short drive and range from breakfast to lunch, to dinner and dessert so a full day of eats here.
1987 Kipling Ave., 416-744-7413
This takeout breakfast and lunch spot is particularly popular with cab drivers and also serves as a neighbourhood hangout. Suqaar is the highlight here: juicy plates of tender, cumin-spiced beef with a side of chewy anjero, a Somali crepe.
130 Queens Plate Dr. #1, 416-747-7222
Somali’s Middle Eastern and Italian culinary influences are highlighted here at this counter service restaurant that started out as a Somali cooking blog by a local husband-and-wife team. On the menu are shawarma platters, kebabs, koftas and even a few pasta dishes to reflect Somalia’s colonial past with Italy.
321 Rexdale Blvd., 416-745-9963
The roasted goat dinner is Nalayeh’s favourite dish to get at this restaurant that’s been around for 10 years. From the outside it doesn’t look like much, but inside it’s a warm, cozy spot for family-style dining.
383 Albion Rd., 416-746-4089
Desserts and snacks are specialty at this 16-year-old takeout spot named after one of Somalia’s most glamorous hotels (it currently lies in ruins due to civil war). Owner Nuradin Ali makes his specialty, halwa, a sweet and fruity jellylike dessert.