When you get to this small restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington, you’ll notice a bunch of bananas on every table. On a blackboard, you can read this explanation: “Bananas are one of Somalis’ main exports. Many Somalis consider a meal to be incomplete without a banana. So, for the full Somali experience, ask for a free banana with your order!”
The owner of New Somali Kitchen, Abdo Sean, says you’re welcome to have the banana whenever you want, but you’re meant to eat the fruit together with your meal. “I come from the coast so the main meal I grew up eating was banana and rice,” he tells SBS Food.
Sean left Somalia when the civil war erupted in 1991 and only became interested in cooking during his time in a Kenyan refugee camp. “In my culture, it’s usually women who cook, not men, but they’d ask us young kids to get them tomatoes, and when I’d come back with the tomatoes, they’d ask for coriander and garlic,” he recalls.
After arriving in Australia in 1998, he opened his first restaurant, Hamar Weyne, to bring the food from his home to Melbourne’s African community of Heidelberg. He eventually sold the restaurant and opened New Somali Kitchen in 2015 closer to the CBD to grow the general public’s interest in Somali cuisine.
Over the last four years, the restaurant has built a strong following. “We often get new people who haven’t tried any African food before, and at the end, they say it’s good, they’re happy, and they become regular customers,” says Sean.