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Somalia native cooks homeland favorites

Thursday, December 26, 2013

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Watching Maryan Yusuf finely mince onion, cilantro and hot chiles while simultaneously translating a conversation, overseeing a batch of bread and occasionally rescuing a climbing toddler, one can’t help but think the busy mom would hold her own in any restaurant kitchen. And that’s without her seven other children around.

Yusuf started cooking at age 10 in Somalia, and even after two decades in her adopted country, American dishes haven’t replaced those from her home. “Most of the time we cook traditional food,” she said, for everyday meals as well as special religious holidays like Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting.

Most ingredients are easy to find, thanks to stores such as Global Foods Market. And while Yusuf can purchase meat at local shops too, she prefers traveling with family members to a farm an hour’s drive from the city, where they choose goats and lambs on the hoof and ensure the meat will be halal (butchered in a specific manner according to Islamic dietary guidelines).

Despite her own preferences, Yusuf is well aware she’s raising American kids, and she’s good-natured about generational differences. Her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Hodan Abdullahi, can cook Somali dishes as well, but instead of adding handfuls of this and coffee cups of that, she “acts like an American,” Yusuf joked. “She measures ingredients and counts calories.”

Maryan Yusuf
Amy De La Hunt - Maryan Yusuf of Sunset Hills makes Somali Madhasi, a sweet fried bread flavored with cardamom. photo by Amy De La Hunt

Mother and daughter both picked up their kitchen skills from Yusuf’s mother, Maryan Abdullah Yusuf, who lives with the family. She’s a self-described advocate for African food in general, especially Somali and Ethiopian dishes, and she’s happy to demonstrate for anyone who’s interested.

Thanks to years of practice cooking side by side, Yusuf and her mother make lunch preparations look effortless. They graciously stir up a “small” batch — 48 pieces — of cardamom-scented madhasi (sweet fried bread) and patiently explain every step along the way. Meanwhile, Yusuf whips up spicy tuna-filled samosas, promising a future lesson in perfectly wrapping and frying the crispy triangles. After tasting one, it’s hard to imagine saying no.

Maryan Yusuf

Age • 38

Neighborhood • Sunset Hills

Occupation • Stay-at-home mom

Family • Husband Mohamed Hussein and children Hodan, 18, Abdullahi, 14, Abdalla, 12, Abdirahman, 10, Iqra, 7, Hussein, 6, Faysa, 3, and Aisha, 1

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