Nawal (Burnsville, MN)


[This post originally had a very long introduction in which I laid out a short/medium-term shift in the focus of my blog: fewer whisky and fine dining reviews and a greater emphasis on smaller, immigrant-run restaurants and on books and films from the non-Western world. So as to let this review of Nawal stand on its own, I’ve split that stuff into its own post here.]

Nawal is a Somali restaurant in Burnsville, one of the southern suburbs of Minneapolis. Burnsville appears to have a large Somali population (Minnesota, as you may know, has the largest Somali population in the United States). I’ve not looked up census data for Burnsville but there’s a mosque/Islamic Center very close to Nawal, as well as a number of Halal markets and other Somali restaurants in the vicinity. It is a casual and relaxed restaurant; it is a gathering place for local Somalis but it’s also a good place to get an introduction to Somali comfort food. We’d already eaten there a few times in the last month or so (after noticing it en route to the nearby Thai Curry House) and I’d been planning to eventually write it up after we’d tried a big chunk of the menu. But after the events of Saturday we got a large group of friends together to go eat lunch there as a (very) small statement of solidarity and no time seemed better than the present for a review.

Two points may help orient you a little with Somali food, one has to do with geography and the other with colonialism. First there’s Somalia’s Indian Ocean location, on trade routes that have existed for a long time to both the Arab world and to India. If you’ve read any Somali literature you’ve probably noticed the references to Indian food names etc. And these connections will be quite apparent in the food—some of the dishes are very similar to Indian dishes (with, of course, Middle Eastern mediation—as, for example, with sambusas/samosas). The other is the fact that Somalia was an Italian colony for a large chunk of the 20th century. One of the culinary signs of this is the presence of spaghetti as an accompaniment; another, less obvious, but (at first) equally incongruous one is the presentation of bananas with your meal (banana plantations came to Somalia with colonialism).

But the main thing to know is that this is very accessible food: the spicing is mellow and not at all overpowering for the stereotypical Upper Midwestern palate (should you happen to have one), and the food is not particularly rich. And at Nawal you get a lot of food for not very much money; and it’s pretty tasty too. What follows is a slideshow of images taken from the various meals we’ve eaten so far, with description of the dishes in the captions.

I have to say that after not having paid much attention to Somali food for most of my 10 years in Minnesota, I am now quite enjoying it. I will not make very large claims for the food at Nawal: it’s in the genre of cheap, comfort food; but everything we have eaten there has been tasty, prepared fresh and with care by very friendly people. And I have to say that their fried chicken is really very good. If the thought of Somali food is not so appealing but you like fried chicken you should go there just to try their fried chicken (and pick up some sambusas to go).

My next Somali report will likely be of another Burnsville establishment, Tawakal. If there are others that you would recommend, in Burnsville or beyond, please write in below.

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