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Daru Ssalam Halal: Somali excursion 

The food of Africa's eastern horn

Wayne was happy. Happy, happy, happy! He was in the full throes of what I call his "postcard complex." It's a disorder, related to Hallmark Syndrome, that requires the sufferer to reduce experience to an often sentimental idealization that makes any criticism impossible.

I first noticed his illness while traveling in Europe. Train windows became like flashing postcards for him. I suppose it's a good thing, overall, but it becomes annoying when I am eating something I don't like and he's rhapsodizing over it simply because it's exotic.

We were at Daru Ssalam Halal (4746 Memorial Drive, 404-298-3440), a strange little no-frills restaurant that features the food of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya – all neighbors in Africa's eastern horn. Weirdly, half the menu is American dishes – cheeseburgers, Philly cheesesteaks. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I confess I felt a bit odd eating in a restaurant connected to Somalia, which is one of the nations worst hit by the global food crisis. There was rioting there over the price of food back in May, and the situation has only grown worse since then.

Daru Ssalam Halal means "market of peace" in ... well, I'm not sure exactly what language is spoken in Somalia. But Wayne, being obsessed with linguistics, noted that the restaurant name, "Jerusalem" and Dar es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania) all share the same etymological root and, by the way, did you notice that "Swahili" seems related to "Somali," too?

The chef and owner of the restaurant, Mohamed S. Ali, tolerated our many questions, but we were nonetheless left pretty confused. A longtime banquet chef for Marriott Hotels here in Atlanta, he bought the restaurant about a year ago. Although he's Ethiopian himself, he decided to retain its Somali identity and include the American-style dishes, too.

The restaurant is located in an easy-to-miss strip shopping center, next to a store that sells groceries and Chinese rugs. Look for the Dunkin Donuts next to the shopping center. If you have difficulty getting inside the restaurant, there is a sign with an arrow that says "DOOR."

The interior is a rectangular, mainly undecorated space with green walls. A service area, including a sink where you're urged to wash your hands, is in the rear. A kitchen with a huge brick grill is to the right. Ali told me he may start using it. Meanwhile, it houses other kitchen equipment.

We had no idea about the size of plates we were ordering and in at least one case, Ali, who is a wonderful host, improvised something for us. We ordered four dishes and ended up taking half the food home. I might add that the food is inexpensive and our bill was rounded off to $40 without explanation – probably because of the improvisation.

The Ethiopian fare will look most familiar, especially the dish that includes injera bread. But others do not feature the bread. So we were unsure how to eat some of the food. "It depends on where you are from," Ali said. "You can use the injera, eat with your hand or use a fork. It's up to where you come from."

The injera dish is, typically, a big circular plate lined with the bread. The center held the delicious chicken stew, doro wet, and the periphery included lentils, spinach and salad. The spinach, according to Ali, is a Somali touch. Ethiopians prefer collards and so do I. This tasted like canned spinach to me.

Ugali was probably the strangest dish we ordered. It's popular throughout east Africa. It's cornmeal that has the taste and texture of dry grits that have been shaped into cubes. We had utterly no idea how to eat it. It was served with more of the spinach and some kidney beans (which also tasted canned). On the side was a plate of roasted goat. I liked the ugali straight up but started breaking the stuff into pieces and eating it with a bit of the spinach or beans. I later read that in Africa, diners often press their thumb into ugali to form an indentation in which they put one of the side ingredients.

Somalia was occupied by Italy from the late 1800s until the early 1940s. So, oddly, they eat a lot of spaghetti. We didn't try any of the straightforward pasta dishes but I did order a pastalike dish called keke, which was my favorite during our meal. Keke is roasted chicken pulled from the bone and tossed with a light sauce and broad "noodles" made out of tortilla flour.

Our final dish was a plate of more roasted goat meat over basmati rice. Honestly, I'm not that fond of goat meat's gamy taste. Wayne, of course, loved it, probably just because I didn't. Besides the gamy flavor, I didn't care for its dryness. Actually, with most dishes that include meat, you can choose chicken or beef to substitute for goat, but Ali assured me that most people prefer the goat.

You will also find your meal accompanied by a little container of green sauce. We wondered why it was such a small portion until we tasted it and both instantly burst into tears. Eat it with caution.

Somalia and the rest of the eastern horn of Africa are on the Indian Ocean, so the cooking of India is also influential. You'll find appetizer sambusas on the menu (along with chicken hot wings and Caesar salad).

Breakfast offerings, which I have not tried, include chicken or beef cooked "sukar"-style. I have no idea. Please try the other dish, madumus, and let me know. Of course, you can have pancakes, eggs and turkey sausage if you prefer.

Daru Ssalam Halal is a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Let me hear your own experiences.

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