(STN-MUQDISHO):_Family reunification was the driving force behind Iby, the Dallas area’s newest Somali restaurant and the first to be opened in the heart of east Richardson.
Owner Abdulkadir Egal says it was the only way to tempt the chief chef, his mother-in-law Khadija Farah, to leave Puntland, her own hugely successful restaurant in Canada named after a region in Somalia.
“Mom has been in the food business for 30 years, and she was very well settled in Toronto,” Egal says. “But my wife had no family in Dallas, and we knew the only way to get her to come to live with us and our five children was to let her continue her passion, and the trick worked!” he says with a laugh.
Regional and colonial influences
Iby, the nickname of Egal’s son, 4-year-old Ibrahim, is situated among a host of competing Mediterranean and South Asian eateries, and manages to be a fusion of myriad cuisines.
“We have flavors from Italy, Turkey, Arabia, India and of course East Africa,” says Egal, 49. “Our food is healthy, we don’t use a lot of oil, and we use light spices like turmeric, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, as well as herbs like cilantro and parsley.”
Anyone who knows the history of Somalia, the small Horn of Africa coastline country with a population of under 15 million (compared to neighboring Ethiopia’s 100 million), will appreciate these culinary traditions stemming from its 19th-century colonial legacy. The Italians, French and British left their marks, as did bordering countries like Kenya with its Indian influence. But Somalia’s own overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population also has strong links with Yemen and Saudi Arabia across the nearby gulf, and the official languages of the country are Somali and Arabic.
Egal, who is actually an electrical engineer by trade, says goat and camel (which he says is lean and slightly tough) were the staple meats back home. Unfortunately, the lack of readily available camel in the D-FW area means that the less exalted chicken became a necessary substitute.
The “spiciness” of Somali food is optional, he adds. At Iby, patrons are welcome to add hot spices and green chilies, but it’s not naturally imbued in the cooked food. Flavors tend to be more subtle — halfway between Mediterranean fare and racier South Asian dishes.
Farah and her team of sous chefs have perfected traditional Somali recipes such as canjeero, a crepe-like breakfast dish served back home with oodkac — dried and fried small cubes of beef (think jerky). Lunch and evening meals consist of spaghetti or aromatic rice served with tender marinated and skewered chicken or beef, and popular stewed goat and chicken with a tomato-based sauce called suqaar, laced with more of an Indian edge.
A Texas adventure
Egal’s backstory is testament to a relentless work ethic and a pinch of old-fashioned ambition. At the age of 12, he and his family were granted asylum in Canada. His father had been a judge in Somalia, where their ancestral tribe was being targeted by the government. Egal studied engineering and worked seven days a week to pay off his student loans in just two months.
He landed a job with telecommunications giant Nortel in 1996, but left Toronto after a year for San Jose, Calif., and a coveted job with Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley. Eighteen years later, he achieved the distinction of becoming the first Somali to be a director of engineering.
But by 2016 it was time for a change, and Texas had long been an attraction. The family bought a 2-acre homestead in Parker and began scouting the perfect location for Egal’s next big adventure — becoming a restaurateur. Two years later, a Somali family friend noticed that a newly built Mediterranean restaurant, just a stone’s throw from the reincarnated Afrah restaurant, was closing down. Within months, Iby had taken over that location and was open for business.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has meant a steady stream of catering orders (the largest from a Flower Mound mosque was for 275 people), and the restaurant has been regularly booked for Iftar parties, which is when fasting ends at sunset.
“One of our most popular dishes during Ramadan is sambusas,” Egal says. “These are like the Pakistani or Indian samosas. The pastry is freshly made and soft and flaky even after being fried. The chicken, beef or vegetables fillings are all very delicately spiced, and people really love them.”
Egal, who is both a U.S. and Canadian citizen, says he and his family feel very much at home here.
“People said, ‘Why are you opening a Somali restaurant in Texas?’ They said it will never be successful. But no, we love it here. Locals are so nice and friendly. And business is doing just great.”