Article written

  • on 30.09.2014
  • at 12:30 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Women for Expo – Cristina Ali Farah: Remembering spaghetti and camel’s milk 1

Author of the critically acclaimed novel Little Mother (Madre Piccola, Frassinelli, 2007) and the recently published Il comandante del fiume (66thand2nd, 2014), Cristina Ali Farah speaks to about growing up between Italy and Somalia, two fundamentally different cultures bearing surprising similarities. ‘Somali culture has absorbed words and habits from its former colony, reworking them with new flavours and aromas’, she says in this interview for Women for Expo, a project promoted by Expo Milano 2015.

With an Italian mother and a Somali father, you were raised in two countries and their different culinary traditions. How did this influence your family life, particularly around the dinner table?

I lived in Somalia until the civil war broke out, so my coming of age was permeated by both linguistic and culinary duality. At home we spoke Italian and ate homemade pasta, veal escalope and fresh fruit, whereas my aunts would feed my cousins and I with a cornucopia of rice, lamb, roti, and lemon juice. Not only were the dishes different, the idea of how a meal should be consumed was too. My Italian mother made a big deal of eating all together three times a day: we would sit at the table and wait until everyone had finished. In extended Somali families, you must sit with people your age and sometimes of the same sex. The food is served in one big bowl and everyone dips in.

When it comes to cooking and feeding, women around the world take the lead, handing down a multitude of skills and recipes over generations. Was this the case in your family?

My mother is not very keen on cooking, but I was lucky to learn from my aunties and my Italian grandmother. It is very interesting, because Somalia is a former Italian colony and many dishes and words in Somali cuisine reflect the contact between the two countries. I used to work with a group of young Somali refugees who attended a language school in Rome. During a workshop, I realized these women were using Italian words such as spaghetti, sugo and forchetta without realizing it. Somali culture has absorbed words and habits from its former colony, reworking them with new flavours and aromas.

Do you have any particularly powerful memories of rural Africa?

When school was closed, my father would take us out into the bush a few miles from Mogadishu, where we would stop to drink camel’s milk in the shade. I was a little girl and my stomach was not strong enough to handle such a nutritious beverage. My father would tell me that camel’s milk is a fundamental part of a nomad’s diet, while meat is a luxury only eaten at a feast or during the dry season. The memory of that smokey, sweet, thick milk is very dear to me.

Is there a dish or ingredient that is particularly significant for you and why? Would you share the recipe with us?  

Sambus for two reasons. First, it is a traditional dish in East Africa but also in India and several other countries around the Indian Ocean. To me this makes it a successful example of informal contact and cosmopolitanism. The second reason is more personal. Six year after the civil war broke out, I was visiting an older cousin in Holland and she promised to teach me how to make sambus before I left. We spent the last night together making them. I have never been back to Mogadishu. Somehow, that first journey to Holland within the Somali diaspora was my homecoming.

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: Valeria Vernizzi/IIF productions

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  1. Ali Farah says:

    well done. I’ts good intervew

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