African cuisine gains consumer appeal

 
Dec. 1, 2011 | by Valerie Killifer

Shakespeare once said that everything is in a name. But everything also is in the journey.

For three brothers, the journey of their lives have come together in Safari and Safari Express, the two restaurants they own in Minneapolis, Minn.

Safari means "journey" in the brothers' native language of Swahilli -- and it was one long journey that led Sade, Jamal and Jabril Hashi to the restaurants they now own.

Jamal Hashi and his family were living in Somalia when the civil war started in 1991. He was at school with his brother Sade (the two were 9 and 12 years old, respectively) at the time. Unable to make it back to their house and family, Sade and Jamal headed for the Somalian coast and spent 11 days on a boat carrying refugees to safety. They would spend the next two years in camps, separated from their parents and the rest of their family.

Through the extensive African tribal network, Sade and Jamal were reunited with their parents in 1993 and in November of that year immigrated to the United States. In 1997, Sade launched Safari and Jamal joined him in business five years later. They then opened Safari Express in 2006 and their younger brother Jabril joined the venture in 2007.

"For me and my brothers, in a way, our journey came together here," Jamal said in reference to both restaurants.

The restaurants have not only captured the essence of home for the brothers, they also have been used to aid in the culinary education of American diners.

"People in the Twin Cities have adventurous palates. There is a lot of Scandinavian influence and in the Twin Cities there is a lot of culturally diverse community growth," Jamal said.

When Safari first opened, sales were stagnant for the first several years; however, with a menu change from its original offering of burgers and chicken wings to more East African flavors, the restaurant drew in both customers and the media. Safari was featured in the New York Daily Post as a restaurant to visit for travelers to Minneapolis and received a full-page write-up in the Minneapolis StarTribune.

After the menu change and media attention, "we focused just on East African foods and remained focused on providing exceptional services and experiences to all of our guests, which eventually translated into great numbers," Jamal said.

Safari employees wear traditional East African attire and are encouraged to discuss the region and their experiences there with guests. Music on the weekends also is reflective of East African beats.

Historical roots provide menu lift

Based on Safari's success, the brothers opened Safari Express, a move that has proven to be beneficial.

Jamal said that while the restaurants' menu have proven popular with guests, cuisine to different African regions has not yet been widely received, a sentiment echoed by Suzy Badaracco, a registered dietician and chef.

"It's definitely one of the most fringe flavors coming in … but it's one of those trends that is long overdue," she said. "It hasn't come forward because our history with African Americans is so damaged … but with the rise of soul food coming up from the south, that's helping to propel it."

Another boost to the trend is the amount of travel Americans are embarking on to African nations.

Badaracco said the top three African travel destinations are Egypt, Morocco and Kenya, which are supporting the flavor trend in the States and the trend of travel to other African countries.

"Since the travel to these countries is more focused and directed, and now with soul food moving forward, African flavors have a good chance to come into (American menus) and be supported. It's the perfect timing for it, too. As consumers are desperately trying to go into the economic recovery they want to try new things," Badaracco said.

While consumers are feeling adventuresome once again, it's important for these new flavors to be as authentic as possible and tied to the historical roots of a region, Badaracco added.

The menu at Safari features items and flavors reflecting the brothers' native East African heritage. Some of the recipes have come from their mother, who was born in Northern Kenya, and include spice blends such as berbere, a mixture of chile peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima (African cardamom) and white and black pepper, and mitmita, a mixture of African birdseye, chili peppers, cardamom seed, cloves and salt. Both mixtures are key ingredients in Ethiopian dishes.

Dishes on the menus also include roasted goat and lamb, and camel burgers. Menu items vary by restaurant – Safari is fullservice while Safari Express is fast casual – but the restaurants' appeal has been growing.

Jamal said the spices and ingredients used are mixed from their raw form – meaning nothing is used pre-ground.

"There are no shortcuts in the food, which keeps the authenticity and flavor," he said.

To remain as authentic as possible, Jamal also put camel on the menu at Safari Express and launched the menu item at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair. He ordered 2 tons of camel meat from Australia and the item was so well received it sold out in four days (the state fair lasted 12 days).

Today, Safari Express still features camel burgers on its menu. They also serve Chapati bread, an unleavened bread found in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and use it for their lamb, beef and chicken wraps.

While the brothers have experienced a high-level of success with Safari and Safari Express, Jamal said they are taking a slow and steady approach to growth.

"Our concept has never been done before. The growth possibilities are there, but we'd like to take our time and grow with it," he said.

Read more about cuisine trends.


Topics: Ethnic , Food & Beverage , Trends / Statistics


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