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Somali chef and writer Ifrah F. Ahmed shares her culinary tradition through pop-ups


Saturday February 25, 2023

by Nura Ahmed



Somali chef and writer Ifrah F. Ahmed grew up cooking with her mother, knowing the recipes like the back of her hand. Cooking became her first love, and she continued doing it well into her adult years. As she went on, the memories of cooking alongside her mother, sharing recipes, and learning more about her Somali culture became incredibly important to her, thus the beginning of her traveling pop-up MILK & MYRRH was born. The name MILK & MYRRH was inspired by a vintage Somali cookbook Ahmed found that contained the names that Somalia was once called, which included “The Land of Milk and Myrrh.” Rooted in her Somaliness, the name called out to her and became not just an ode to her motherland but to her upbringing and all the memories she had of sharing her love for her Somali culinary tradition with the ones around her. 

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Ahmed was born in Somalia and migrated to Seattle when she was 6 years old. Growing up in the middle of Seattle’s growing Somali community, she learned quickly about the beauty of Somali culture from a young age and was trained in the art of Somali cuisine by her mother when she was around 7 or 8 years old. Ahmed continued experimenting with food as a creative outlet, and her passion for cooking only grew.

“I wanted to share my culture and my culinary traditions with people because I’m very proud of it. I believe the whole world should know more about us,” Ahmed said. Throughout her life, Ahmed has shared the beauty of Somali food with the people she meets. By sharing her meals with her law school friends, her community in Brooklyn, and her community here in Seattle, Ahmed continues this culinary and cultural enrichment through the meals that she makes.

“Anytime that it was, like Somali Independence Day, even if I was just getting to know people or attending an event like a block party in my neighborhood,” she continued, “I would always bring some sumbuus and hot sauce.”


An anjero burrito from MILK & MYRRH. (Photo: Nura Ahmed)
 
Many Somalis choose traditional careers as immigrants. Similarly, Ahmed decided to go to law school to become an international human rights lawyer before determining that a creative career was more suited for her, and because of this realization, she transitioned into the food and written world.

“I don’t know if you know, but if you come from a kind of immigrant or refugee family it’s hard to get into creative work. Because, you know, oftentimes our communities prioritize becoming doctors, lawyers, and engineers.” Ahmed said. “I knew I wanted to do something creative. I just didn’t really know what that was going to be, but I knew I wanted it to be food.”

She knew couldn’t pass up something she has loved doing since she was a little kid, something that continues to call out to her through the people around her who saw that in her and realized how consistent food was for her.

“Food never left the picture for me,” Ahmed stated.

As a result, in 2019, MILK & MYRRH was born. It became an outlet for Ahmed to share her culinary traditions. She does this by curating menus for the communities where she has hosted her pop-up, which include Seattle, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles — all communities that she has her heart in. She makes Somali food informed from what is available in each area, what season they are in, and what the dietary needs are of her guest.  Ahmed also provides vegetarian and vegan options not just for her anjero burritos but the menu she curates as well.

In 2021, Ahmed hosted a MILK & MYRRH pop-up in Seattle, where she curated a seafood dinner that celebrated Somalia’s reputation for having the longest coastline in mainland Africa and Seattle’s abundance of seafood. “I wanted to do an interpretation of Somali cuisine, from the geographical location that we are in and like, what resources are abundant in this location,” Ahmed stated. “I don’t see MILK & MYRRH as a fixed thing for like one city. It’s more of an experience. Everything single one of my menus has been different.”


Chef Ifrah F. Ahmed (left) with sous chef Hanan Hassan (right). (Photo: Nura Ahmed)

In 2022, Ahmed started selling anjero burritos, a breakfast burrito that is Somali cuisine reimagined, served with classic Somali spices all wrapped in a Somali-styled flatbread. Ahmed first conceptualized them in 2012; she first started making and selling them in Los Angeles but immediately expanded to other cities such as Seattle and Brooklyn, where the demand existed. Similarly, the anjero burritos were written about by a New York Times restaurant critic and received a great review. Ahmed hopes to expand to other cities in the future.

“The anjero burritos are just like the most popular thing because it’s like something that people haven’t had before and it’s a new interpretation of Somali cuisine,’’ she said.

Ahmed understands the work that goes into curating a menu because Somalis are a very oral people. “I don’t really have a lot of written resources to work off of because we’re an oral cooking culture. And so all of our knowledge, our poetry, our songs, everything is passed on orally,” Ahmed states. 

Food doesn’t just have the power to connect different communities, but it also has the power to show the beauty in each culinary dish and where it originated from. Somali cuisine is something many people don’t know widely. Ahmed saw this and used it as an opportunity to not share the beauty of being Somali but also to teach folks about the richness of Somali history. With Ahmed’s upbringing in growing up in Seattle’s Somali community while spending her childhood learning about the richness of Somali cuisine, she took this as a chance to not just use food as a means of sharing her culinary traditions with the communities around her but as a chance to share what is so powerful about being unapologetically Somali. 

Ifrah F. Ahmed is hosting a MILK & MYRRH pop-up right now in Seattle at Karachi Cowboys in Capitol Hill every other Sunday until March 19. Sign up for the pop-up or follow her on Instagram.



 





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