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.
"They say it's good, they're happy, and they become regular customers."
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.
A meal at New Somali Kitchen starts with a complimentary cup of spiced lamb broth. The short menu includes Somali classics like bajeya, a type of falafel made from ground black-eyed peas, and sambusa filled with ground beef or fish. Spices and herbs like garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander and chilli find their way into most dishes.
Sean says rice is the main part of a Somali meal: "In Australia, the feature of the meal is often the meat, but for us, it's the other way around. The rice is the central part, and you have a little bit of meat with it. As a child, I used to always try to give my brother my meat to get more of his rice."
The restaurant's signature dish is fragrant rice served with slow-cooked lamb (though Sean suggests switching the lamb for goat). It's here that the bananas come into play.
It's also common to eat bananas with Somali pasta. The spaghetti, a result of Italy's colonisation in the late 19th Century, is served with what looks like a Napoli sauce. But like many Somali dishes, it's packed with spices like cumin, turmeric and ginger.
If you want to try some different dishes, the combo platter promises to "give you a full taste of Somali fare" with rice, lamb, vegetables, sambusa, bajeya and a homemade chilli sauce.
While customers come first for his food, Sean is popular too and is often asked to come over to chat with diners.
"Every day, I feel like I'm winning. People come to see me, eat my food and talk to me. I'm living the Aussie dream, and I'm loving it!" he says.
New Somali Kitchen
284 Racecourse Rd, Flemington
Tue – Sat 12 – 9 pm
Sun 12 – 8 pm