A mix of Indian, African, and Italian, Somalian cuisine at Wiff is a revelation.
Growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia, Asha Ahmed frequently battled with her mother over whether a woman’s place was in the kitchen. “I hated cooking,” says Ahmed, dressed in a brightly tie-dyed robe and a headscarf that she twists into different shapes as she speaks. “When my mother screamed at me that I had to learn to cook, I threatened to join the army.”
Thankfully for Toronto diners, she ended up working in the tax department, where boredom eventually drove her into the restaurant business. For a decade prior to 1987, when she moved here, Ahmed ran an Italian-Somali restaurant on Mogadishu’s then bustling beachfront, frequented by intellectuals and international tourists. “It was paradise,” she says, and yes, she got over her aversion to cooking.
But Ahmed’s paradise unravelled along with Somalia as a nation state. Political strife split society along tribal lines, leading to the persecution of her family. Her father was arrested numerous times, until he finally disappeared, and the family fled to Canada. Shortly thereafter, Somalia’s civil war began, plunging the country into a series of disasters and conflicts that continue to plague it today. The strife drove tens of thousands of Somali refugees to Toronto.
Two summers ago, after jobs at Meals on Wheels and an Italian newspaper (she’s fluent in the language), Ahmed decided to rebuild a little slice of her former paradise in the form of Wiff, her Somali-Italian restaurant on Weston Road, south of Lawrence, the traditional heart of the 80,000-strong Somali community in the GTA. Her niece and nephew are partners in the business. Inside, the brightly coloured, welcoming space echoes Ahmed’s personality, which radiates an infectious passion for her food and culture that she longs to share with the rest of the city.
Somali cooking is influenced by the Indians who traded along its coast; the Arabs who brought religion and commerce; and Italians who colonized the country from the 1880s until the 1930s. “In the same dish, you can find so many variations,” says Ahmed, displaying the sundried tomatoes she brines in jars with spices like curry leaves, cloves, and other Indian aromatics. Her menu includes lasagna (spiced with nutmeg and cumin), polenta (topped with roast goat and shidney, a spicy tamarind, date, and cumin paste), and pasta, which she says Somalis eat daily. You even taste the Italian influence in traditional east African dishes, like a stew of cubed beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, and green peppers, scented with oregano.
There are unexpected surprises with each dish, from a spiced black tea that’s powerfully sweet, to the introduction of banana as a condiment, which Ahmed suggests should be sliced atop saffron-infused basmati rice and polenta, or eaten with lasagna, along with hot sauce and shidney. “If you invite a Somali to eat and don’t include a banana, all the food in the world won’t make a difference.” Somehow it all works, the cool sweetness of the banana folding in with the zing of the sauces, backed up by the fragrant rice.
Ahmed has poured her hopes and dreams into Wiff, and for it to succeed, she believes she’ll have to push Somali food out of the confines of its community and into the wider public consciousness. “We don’t just want this to be Somalis,” she says. “We want to be what’s good in Canada, which is multiculturalism…people solving problems by eating together.” She says there’s a common expression in Somalia: How is it possible to wrong someone you have shared a meal with?
In the past few months, Ahmed has made concerted efforts to gain a wider audience for her cooking. In June, she invited local politicians, reporters, and residents into her restaurant for Feast of Somalia, an event featuring a buffet of foods typical to the restaurant and the country. She also opened a stall at the nearby Weston farmer’s market, where she sells Somali samosas, called sambusi, each Saturday. Wrapped in crisp, bubbly dough, the fried triangular pockets are stuffed with tender ground beef, finely minced onions, garlic, celery, and other vegetables. They’re less assertively fiery than an Indian samosa, and lighter too, strikingly familiar to South American empanadas. They’re a total flavour bomb, and are alone worth the trip to Wiff.
Still, it’s a matter of getting the word out, which Ahmed has no problem doing, even if it requires hawking from a soapbox at the farmer’s market. Recently, she was there, calling out to passersby to try her sambusi. She cut one in three, and offered samples, but people turned up their noses. Finally she harangued a man nearby. He said he wasn’t interested. She insisted. He put it in his mouth and she said, “Hey, don’t make a face!” Instead, he lit up in a smile, and bought one. Ten minutes later, he returned and purchased another. A few minutes later, Ahmed was working on another potential customer, when the man appeared a third time. “Trust me,” he told the skeptical eater, as he bought his third sambusi of the day. “These are good.”
Wiff, 1804 Weston Rd., #YRK 416-240-9433.