FREE SPEECH ZONE | A True Taste of Africa, Right Around the Corner

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From its centrally-located building to its almost always-full parking lot on Franklin Avenue, Shabelle Grocery & Restaurant (2425 E Franklin Ave) may look like your everyday, one-stop Ethiopian and East-African grocery store. However, if you’ve entered the doors of this neighborhood market recently, you may have noticed the enticing aromas of chilies, garlic, and ginger that flood the air. With the latest addition of their delicious and affordable buffet and restaurant, owners Abdurrezak Omer Hassen Ismaiel and Mahdi Omar hope to draw in more customers and engage the community in a dialog of mutual cultural understanding.

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Ten years ago, Abdur and Mahdi opened Shabelle Grocery with the mission of bringing the traditional foods, spices, and coffees of their multicultural country (Ethiopia) to customers in the Seward neighborhood. According to the owners, the Harar region of Ethiopia is distinctive for its rich history and the community’s sense of togetherness; Shabelle Grocery & Restaurant continues to intentionally represent those principles in their friendly attitudes and welcoming environment.

The grocery store derives its name from “Webi Shabelle” a Somali phrase which translates to the “Leopard/Tiger River.” Just as this river carries life-giving waters to many different cultures, so does this grocery store intend to bring vibrancy to Franklin Avenue with their seemingly endless list of unique spices and grains. Some of the offerings of the grocery store include Fenugreek (a medicinal spice that can be used to treat diabetes and aid in the production of clarified butter), Grains of Paradise (seeds that can be eaten raw or used as an alternative to pepper), and Gesho (a plant that is used in a similar manner to hops).

With an abundance of these traditional spices, it’s no wonder that Abdur and Mahdi decided to open a deli in their already successful grocery store. Since the restaurant’s opening a few weeks ago, Abdur reported that there has been a steady stream of customers who come for their authentic Ethiopian dishes. In addition to their specialty of Ethiopian cuisine, Shabelle Grocery & Restaurant is also host to dishes from other regions of East Africa as well as the Mediterranean.

With food that is specialized to remain as faithful as possible to the culture’s original preparation methods, Abdur said that Shabelle’s restaurant division is unique when compared to different restaurants that claim to be authentic. “The food we make here is home style,” Abdur said. “The food is not meant to be commercial.”

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying Ethiopian cuisine, you may consider leaving your silverware at home. The “hot and healthy” meals at Shabelle usually consist of a variety of thick stews (known as wat or wot) that are placed on top of a large, teff-based, sourdough flatbread (known as injera). These stews are varied in preparation as some call for the use of delicious clarified butter (niter kibbeh) and others call for specialized oils made from sesame or safflower. Though they may vary in thickening preparation, almost all of the stews contain a delicious spice blend known as berbere. As an alternative to dishes that are prepared as stews, Shabelle also offers dishes that consist of tibs (special blends of meat and/or vegetables that are sautéed and served on a hot dish).

When your meal is served, simply tear off a piece of the injera with your right hand and collect your choice of dish with the spongy bread. Vegetarians are very welcome at Shabelle as many of the dishes observe the act of fasting from meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during specific religious seasons. However, the most popular dish, Abdur reported, is the Shabelle Special which is a combination of chicken, beef, lentils, and collard greens.

“Once you try this dish, we’re very sure you’ll come back,” Abdur laughed.

While many people are quick to thank him for the delicious meals that are served at Shabelle, Abdur reported that it is he who feels very grateful to be a part of the Seward community. As he is attempting to be a more established presence on Franklin Avenue, he said that he wants to be “part of the fabric” that makes the neighborhood unique.

“I just want to say thank you to the Seward neighborhood,” he said. “We’re excited to share our culture from the past and to be one with the host culture.”