Somali Doughnuts in San Diego

Mandazi is Swahili for a fry bread that is eaten as a snack along the Swahili coast. While usually eaten later in the day, it is not unheard of for breakfast.

At a nondescript San Diego Somali café, hidden in the back of a tiny market-slash-seamstress stall-slash-food joint, they often make mandazi from scratch when you place your order. My wife and I stopped by on a recent outing, thinking that cups of spicy Somali-style coffee, perked up with a heavy dose of ginger, and their version of spiced chai would be a nice break when paired with mandazi, or as the menu says: Somali doughnut.

More than a decade ago, we worked with Somali refugees in Ethiopia to address cooking challenges in the camps, and indoor air pollution associated with cooking. We picked up an appreciation for Somali food culture along the way. Now, living and teaching university classes in San Diego, students whose parents survived the civil war, as well as living in those camps, sit at desks in front of us. Post-class conversations sometimes lead to a jovial sharing of where we eat Somali food around town. That is how I found out about African Spices café, down on University Avenue, not far from the San Diego State University campus.

“You would not expect it to be a place to eat and you will probably drive right by it,” Abdi told me earlier this spring. He was correct on both counts when I went there the first time.

With ample time to wander around the little storefront and consider buying a few spices and a tea kettle, we went back to our seats, only a few more minutes passing before the puffy ball of doughy air was ready to eat. I quickly removed the lids from the tea and coffee cups, letting them cool down a bit. Somewhat, kind of like a lightly sweet doughnut, but traditionally shaped like a triangle and usually more dense, the mandazi, nevertheless, satiated us. It was a treat on an otherwise regular day.

After a few sips of coffee and tea and a couple of bites, we were off, ducking back outside into the bright light. The tea and coffee rested in the cup holders of the car console. Several stop lights later, I took a swig of both drinks. Not as hot, the flavors were more pronounced. The Somali coffee, with all that ginger, warmed my throat with spicy goodness, only to be cooled by the milky chai.

Road Sad Kingdoms


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