Just as 1+1=2 the simple fact is that Ethnic food + Ethnic customers = one damn good dinner.
For me it’s an undeniable truth that when dining at any ethnic food location in a place where cuisine of this type is considered to be exotic and the place is full of diners of the same background as the food you’re going to get the real thing and it’s probably going to be very good.
This has been proven to me yet again after dining at Imaan East African Restaurant recently.
Imaan is a small family run store located along 17th Ave. SW. It can be found in one of the nondescript strip malls that one will see in every part of the city. I’ve come to believe that these little centres are fertile ground for finding some of the most authentic and tasty meals of many different regional types, a belief that was reinforced by this meal.
We found ourselves at Imaan as a result of my having a desire to take part in something I have done in the past and enjoyed very much- joining a group of foodies at a place none had been and trying a new type of food. This is an activity that I used to engage in with friends and acquaintances years ago and have wanted to do again, so I posted a message on UrbanSpoon to gage interest in just such an event. While the response was good, in the end there were just 4 of us due to the typical problems associated with coordinating many lives. So it was just myself and Nancy with fellow Spoonie K C Foore and her significant other who ventured into this little restaurant to sample the flavours of East Africa.
When we first arrived I was very happy to see that all the other diners seemed to be of African descent and were happily eating and talking to the staff in a language other than English. As I’ve said before this goes a long way to adding credibility to a restaurant in my personal view.
When our dining companions arrived we’d already had time to speak with some of the other diners about the food, they were very friendly and quite happy to describe the items on the menu and make recommendations as to what we should try. Having read the review of Imaan posted on Foodosophy I had an idea that the Firdhis combo plate would be a good place to begin as it showcased many of the items listed separately on the menu. When K C arrived the fellow at the next table even brought his platter over to show all of us what it looked like and point out the different components. In the end we ordered two of these.
Prior to the arrival of our dining companions we’d ordered a few of the appies that were on the menu. We’d noticed something called “Soomaali Style Sambosa” and wondered if it would resemble Indian samosa so we ordered some. In addition to the sambosa we also tried the Bajiya which is a bean and pepper fritter.
Before the appetisers arrived the server brought bowls of a light green soup to the table. This very tasty dish appeared to contain beans and finely chopped vegetables in what may have been a goat broth. The flavour was mild and pleasant with only slight hints of any spices. This was a great beginning to the meal and was liked by all of us, it certainly made me more anxious to try the rest of the food as I liked it a great deal.
The sambosa did indeed resemble a somosa and the influence of Indian culture on countries such as Kenya was obvious in the flavour as well which had hints of curry along with the African spices. These were tasty if not a spicy as expected, and we liked them. The Bajiya fritters were more of a spit decision. I liked them but Nancy and our companions were somewhat less enthusiastic. The bajiya had a doughy consistency but were not crisp on the outside and as pointed out by K C Foore they seemed to cry out for some sort of dip, which of course was just our take on things and I’m sure if a dip were normal it would have been offered.
The Firdhis plate is a combination of Suqaar (a stew of beef and chicken), roasted chicken and goat on a bed of spiced rice with a spaghetini like pasta in a nice tomato based sauce. This came accompanied by two small cups of hot pepper sauce which I’m guessing would normally be covering the food but were separate for our benefit as we were newbies to this type of meal. I did expect more heat in the food but again I’m betting that we could have requested it be at the level regulars would have. Joining the platters was a light salad with a mild dressing, I should have asked if this dressing was homemade but never did so. I’ll try to discover more about this and other items next time I visit.
I found the food had a good flavour on the whole but again was surprised at the lack of heat in the dishes we sampled, when I visit again I’ll ask for the food to be prepared like the cook would make it for himself and see what the outcome is.
I would call this meal very good value given the quantity of food we received and given how much we enjoyed it the value is even greater. While many ethnic foods which have become trendy have the tendency to be overpriced or end up being westernised to the point of un-recognizability, simple honest meals like the one we had at Imaan remind us what good food should be and let us experience what otherwise would be missed.
Imaan is one of those places that I tend to evangelise due to my belief that everyone should try new and different foods. I’ll try to restrain myself despite the fact the food is worth it and I think you need to go at least once for the experience of not just the food but the sense of community these places provide if you are willing to break the ice.
As mentioned above we were not alone on this foray into East African dining, Cookbook author, foodie and fellow UrbanSpoon prime K C Foore joined us with her other half. Below is her account of this evening. We at ChowTown are very glad to post this review by our first guest author and hope to have more in the future.
From K C Foore:
Dinner at Imaan was like a little visit to East Africa, Somalia in particular. No passport required. Our fellow travelers on this foodie expedition were our new friends from ChowTown.
The décor is plain and simple. Tables. Chairs. Posters on the wall depicting various types of African cuisines. A display case with a limited supply of ready-made items to take away. That’s about it.
I got a real sense of community and family. Some people seem to be here mostly for a visit, the food is a bonus. A few friendly fellow diners were more than happy to show us what they had ordered and provide a bit of a lesson on the ingredients and pronunciations. Awesome.
Before we ordered anything, bowls of a green soup with a lime wedge on the side were placed in front of us. It must be standard fare with any meal. It was actually rather flavorful and probably a concoction of whatever was currently in the kitchen. It appeared to me to be a blended mixture of beans, green lentils, brocolli, peppers, chicken/goat broth and garlic. There wasn’t any hot spicy kick to it at all.
We ordered the Bajiya (Bean Fritters & Pepper) and Beef Sambosa appetizers. Yes, I spelled Sambosa correctly. The sambosas were like samosas in the fact that they were triangle shaped pastry packets…and there seemed to be a bit of a curry influence to the spices, including anise. Again, not spicy hot.
The Bajiya were a bit of a disappointment to me. While interestingly orange in color, they were rubbery in texture and a bit bland. I really felt they needed to be dipped in a sauce or something. However, no sauce came with them. This cuisine being rather new to me, I’m not sure whether that was an oversight or intentional. In any event, one was more than enough for me.
One of our friendly fellow diners showed off his Firdis Sampler Combo containing rice, chicken, Suqaar (braised beef), spaghetti and goat meat with a few onions and peppers thrown in. It looked and smelled wonderful. That was enough to encourage all of us to order that. The double plates are actually platters and are suitable for 2 people to share.
These platters came with little side salads, which were fresh and had a very nice, light and creamy dressing on them.
The food was all very tasty, and again not spicy (except for the pepper sauce that was served on the side) and that surprised me. Perhaps because we didn’t appear to be regulars, our dishes were kicked down a notch heat wise. I’ll ask next time.
I was puzzled by the inclusion of spaghetti with almost every dish. How did spaghetti get to be a staple in the Somali diet? I’ll have to do some research on that. The sauce on the spaghetti was tomato based, but very different than an Italian style sauce. It was quite enjoyable.
Another puzzle was the lack of a knife amongst our given cutlery. How were we to cut the saucy, bone-in chicken breast apart? Maybe we were supposed to eat it with our hands? By the time we got to the chicken, our friendly and informative fellow diners were gone so I could not ask.
The goat pieces, while tasty were very tough and a bit gristley. The beef and chicken were both tender and tasty. The large portion of rice was also very flavorful and may have been the best part of the meal for me.
We’ll be back to try it again.