Wednesday March 8, 2023
By Jackie Varriano
WHEN HONEY MOHAMMED was 4 years old, she thought her mom, Marian Ahmed, was like Beyoncé.
“You’d see her for five minutes, and then she’s off again. Who is this woman? What is her superpower? Where is she going?” says Mohammed, who owns the Rainier Beach restaurant Mama Sambusa Kitchen with her mother.
One day, Mohammed finally got to go with her mom. They went to pick up items at a restaurant supply store, where everyone knew her mom by name. She whirled through the aisles “freestyling” (shopping with no list). Her superpower? She made sambusa — a puffy, fried savory meat pastry popular in her homeland of Somalia. Ahmed ran a small food truck called Taste of East African Cuisine, parked outside a strip club in Columbus, Ohio, and Mohammed was in awe.
Mohammed begged her mom to take her to work at the truck, and Ahmed finally relented. Mohammed knew she had to make herself indispensable so she would be asked back. She didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity.
“I see my mom getting overwhelmed, and I couldn’t fry sambusas, but I could bag them,” Mohammed says. “I was this little floating hand (under the counter) bagging them up.”
A man was waiting for food and called Ahmed “Mama Sambusa.” When pressed, he said she was a mama selling sambusa. The name stuck, and soon dancers from the club were calling her Mama as well.n
The family moved to Seattle from Ohio in 2008, when Mohammed was 11 years old. The first year and a half was tough on the family — which included Mohammed, her sister and a baby brother. They were homeless, and the food business was put on hold in favor of stability.
As soon as housing was secured and the kids were established with child care and school, Ahmed turned back to her business. It’s what Mohammed calls her mother’s first love.
“I knew early on I’d have to share my mom with the business. It’s her identity,” Mohammed says.
Over the years, Ahmed served as Mama Sambusa in a multitude of ways. There was a cafe in Burien for a few years, another space in the Central District, a food cart. The Rainier Beach restaurant opened in January.
Mohammed didn’t always work with her mom. After high school, she worked as an interior designer, a food and beverage manager at an upscale hotel, and a pastry chef. When COVID hit, Ahmed was working as a cleaning woman at a tech company while also running the Mama Sambusa food cart, and Mohammed was lured back.
For nearly three years, the two worked side by side at the cart, selling sambusas and a long list of additional items that meld their Somali culture with their lived American experience: a burger, because it was the first meal Ahmed ate when she immigrated to the United States in 1996. Pastas, because Somalia was colonized by Italy; “Barilla had one of its largest factories in Somalia,” Mohammed says. Cheesecake, because people (Mohammed included) love cheesecake.
They served from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. — the same schedule they keep now.
“After 10 p.m., you’re literally forced to eat subpar genetically modified nonsense,” Mohammed says. “We wanted to make sure no matter how late you work, you’re going to get a hot meal.”
Their customers were — and are — cops and firefighters, bus drivers, health care workers, pregnant people looking to satiate cravings, dancers and college students.
“There are so many people who are a part of the night life. I grew up working third shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. my whole teenage adult life,” Mohammed says. “My mother worked overnights, as well. We have a love and appreciation for the third shift.”
Ahmed would have been content to keep the cart, but Mohammed was ready to cook indoors. They signed the lease on the space in Rainier Beach in August and took the rest of 2022 to clean and get it ready to become Mama Sambusa Kitchen.
The space is open just for takeout and serves the same 40-item menu the cart did. The menu can be read on your phone — or you can ask Mohammed or Ahmed what they’ve got. Sambusas are the cornerstone, a dearly held recipe that Ahmed trusts with no one. Because of that, the availability of the triangular, perfectly puffed and fried savory pastries depends on Ahmed.
“I tell my mother, ‘Make whatever your heart desires. Do whatever doesn’t put tension on your body.’ I don’t ever want to risk my mom’s happiness for a puff pastry,” Mohammed says.
The sambusas are imbued with love. Tender shredded chicken, minced beef, salmon or lentils; mixed with onions, garlic and Ahmed’s secret blend of spices; rolled in delicate dough and fried crisp. They are fabulous, and it’s impossible to eat just one.
More than 20 years after Ahmed first was dubbed Mama Sambusa, her superpower still holds strong, with Mohammed still by her side.
“What I prepare and what my mother prepares — the plating is different. It’s a little different,” Mohammed says. “But one thing that’s mainline is there’s love in it. We hope it nourishes you.”