Bringing Peace to Somalia, One Plate at a Time

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Bringing Peace to Somalia, One Plate at a Time
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Bringing Peace to Somalia, One Plate at a Time

In a show of solidarity with the Somali people, London chef Ahmed Jama returned to his war-torn home country several years ago to open branches of his successful restaurant, The Village. Read on to discover more details about his inspiring story.

Image Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh, AP

Ahmed found solace in the kitchen in the days following the suicide bombing attack on his restaurant in central Mogadishu last September. "[In the] following days of the explosion, I went into the kitchen, in the kitchen cooking," he tells NPR.

Image Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh, AP

One of the reasons why Ahmed quickly re-opened his restaurant after the attack was the responsibility he felt over his staff. He lost five workers in the explosion, but his surviving employees reported for work the following day, according to UK broadcaster Channel 4.

Image Credit: Facebook

Ahmed chose to build in Mogadishu because he was "surprised" that there was nowhere his people could go out to eat, demonstrating the toll war had taken on the city's infrastructure. In a TEDxMogadishu talk last year, he explains, "This is your place. You have to teach your people. We have to go out to eat. We have to enjoy."

Image Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh, AP

After opening his first restaurant in downtown Mogadishu, Ahmed set his sights on beachfront property. In 2012, he opened a hotel and restaurant at Jazeera Beach, where guests can stay for $100 a night and dine al fresco by sandy white beaches and blue waters, in the hope of promoting tourism in his country.

Image Credit: Facebook

Ahmed names all his properties The Village after his first restaurant at Hammersmith, West London. In an article from The Guardian, he says he likes the name because "Somalia has been divided as a nation but the village is where they all come from. It's a welcome for everyone."

Image Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh, AP

In his TEDxMogadishu talk last year, Ahmed describes his decision to enter the culinary arts as an usual choice. "I was a curiosity," he reveals, as not many people knew about Somali cuisine. He asked himself, "Why not be one of Somalia's cooks, and [let] everyone see the cooking?" The lack of presence of Somali food in London's dining scene led him to open his first restaurant.

Image Credit: Facebook

What do the Somali people eat? "Lots of pasta, lots of spicy, nice rice," he says in a CNN video interview. Ahmed describes Somali cuisine as Mediterranean, the result of being a melting pot of many cultures such as East Africa, India and Arabia. European countries like France, Britain and Italy have colonized Somalia and left behind culinary influences like pasta and pudding.

Image Credit: Adam Gault

Interestingly, most Somalis don't eat seafood despite the country's coastline access to waters teeming with lobster, shrimp and fish. Ahmed has added lobster to his menu in an effort to widen Somali culinary palates.

Image Credit: Emily Duchesne

Ahmed's dishes bring flair to traditional Somali cuisine, and NPR's John Burnett describes a particularly mouth-watering meal at The Village in Mogadishu. A starter shrimp salad with "mango, lime, and strips of chapatti bread" precedes a main dish of charcoal-grilled kingfish, caught that very morning. Carrots and raisins garnish a side of rice spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cumin.

Image Credit: Chris Gramly

Most of Ahmed's clientele are European or from Somalia's diaspora, reports the Associated Press. Menu prices range from $3 for pasta to $20 for a lobster dish, which are not too expensive but still more than most Somalis can afford.

Image Credit: Andre Baranowski

What's on Ahmed's plate this year? The Village Restaurants Mogadishu's Facebook page unveils photos of a new hotel and restaurant complex in Mogadishu that has a large multi-purpose room and an outdoor entertaining area. Take a peek in this Vine video!

Image Credit: Facebook

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After surviving a deadly suicide bomb attack that killed 14 people at his restaurant in Somalia's capital Mogadishu last September, BBC reports that chef Ahmed Jama Mohamed had this to say: "I will open the restaurant again — I will try and I'm not going to give up."

Within weeks, the restaurant was up and running, amid death threats and a second failed bombing attempt a month and a half later.

Ahmed had been living in the U.K. since 1989, where he trained to become a chef near Birmingham and worked at several restaurants in London. He opened the well-received The Village in West London that put Somali cuisine on the map. But in 2008, he left behind his comfortable life and his wife and children to help rebuild his war-ravaged homeland.

In a CNN article, Ahmed explains that he wanted to restore a sense of community and normalcy to his countrymen. "Basically, what I am looking for is to show them, 'yes , you can laugh when you finish work, university, office work, wherever you are, you have somewhere to go,'" he shares. This seems simple enough, if not for the fact that parts of the country are starting to recover from more than two decades of civil war and years of rule under the terrorist group Al-Shabaab that is linked to al Qaeda. Last year's attack on one of Ahmed's restaurants is an example of the dangers the Somali people face every day.

A risk-taker by nature, Ahmed opened his first branch of The Village in one of the most dangerous areas of the city in 2008 and has since opened four more properties. His restaurants have become the city's must-eat destinations, where patrons can enjoy traditional Somali food like soor, a sorghum mash, canjello, a Somali pancake and camel meat, as well as treat themselves to luxuries like ice cream and cappuccinos.

He has even introduced lobster to his menu in the hopes of widening the culinary palate in Somalia. Ahmed says most Somalis do not eat seafood, even though the country has a long coastline and access to water rich with lobster, shrimp and fish.

He also gives back to the community by providing jobs to locals, especially those who need it most like women who lost their husbands during the war. "That's what makes me keep moving," he shares in a recent CNN interview.

His dream is to transform Mogadishu into a tourist destination. "A mix of people — white, black — everyone coming on holiday," he tells CNN.

Check out the slideshow above for more about Chef Ahmed Jama's story.

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