By Cindy Deachman
Scribbling away furiously, I ask the owner of Sambuza Village, Mohamed Mohamud Elmi, how he spices his chicken brochettes. They’re so delicious. Even one bite gives an idea: the meat’s deep-fried crispy exterior (no breading) gives way to a pale, juicy tenderness.
“Paprika, right?” I’m sure I’ve identified one. Elmi grins, sitting down genially at the table next to ours, my friends’ and mine. (In this tiny hole-in-the-wall, there’s now only one free table left.) He grins and agrees with me: “When eating, we use our five senses. First, we use our eyes. We see the chicken made red with paprika, yes. We bring a morsel to our lips, we inhale, and its aroma reaches us. Then, we taste the meat.”
So begins our entertaining lecture. (Upon receiving his engineering degree just north of London, England, Elmi taught university in Somalia.) Afterwards, as he takes his leave to fill a late lunch order, I wonder aloud to my friends if my question will ever be answered.
“I don’t think Mohamed intends to,” one replies.
The Place: So why is the Sambuza Village not better known? Frankly, the place is off the beaten track. Head north of the overpass between Walkley Road and South Keys where Bank Street splits off. To reach the tributary, tour around the block, clockwise. That, after you turn east on a small avenue called Kitchener.
The name Sambuza Village comes from the Somali name for samosa, which, as everyone knows, is an Indian turnover filled with savoury goodness. Elmi says his fellow Somalians have simply taken the pastry and perfected it. Well, if these sambuzas are anything to go by, this fellow Elmi must be telling the truth. We’ve never had better.
The Dish: Now we attempt to guess the brochette spices, resorting to history. Prior to the present civil war, Somalians have enjoyed wealth, a cup running over, so to speak. Ancient maritime trade has tied their country to others such as Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, and India. So you’d think coriander seeds and cumin might be safe assumptions, no? Well, perhaps.
Accompanying the skewers is a fresh green chili sauce — atypically made with cabbage. An admirable dip to fire up the chicken. Also, there’s basmati rice and a salad with creamy dressing. The rice, each grain as separate as should be, has been spiced as well. Golden raisins dot the perimeter of the mound, while a dollop of piquant tomato sauce naps the top. Every bite of food tastes very clean.
Afterwards, we stay to indulge in halwa — but not the usual sort. The Somali version is the colour of treacle toffee, sticky, reminiscent of Turkish delight in texture. Rosewater and cardamom flavours predominate. Coffee, too, is made with spices (of course), again cardamom, maybe cinnamon. No need for sugar. As Elmi explains, take a bite of the sweet halwa, then a sip of coffee, another bite of the dessert . . . and so on — you reach quite another realm.
And now, my friends and I, we’re left contemplating. Left pondering these mysteries, the panoply of culinary practices issuing from territorial wheelings and dealings, centuries of them. Mysteries and stories we may never unravel.
The cost: $10.99
Hours: Closed Mondays
Sambuza Village, 103-2019 Bank St., 613-523-4242.