Friday February 14, 2020
Mahamed Elmi is the owner of Istar Restaurant. (Suresh Doss/CBC)
Istar Restaurant is located at 235 Dixon Rd. in Etobicoke
Toronto chef and food activist Bashir Munye introduced me to Istar Restaurant.
A few years ago, I asked to be educated on Somali food and requested a tour through the Rexdale neighbourhood of Etobicoke, an enclave that is home to a large Somali-Canadian community. For the past three decades, Somalians fleeing the civil war have replanted their new homes across the GTA, many of them near the airport.
If you want to eat Somali food head to these main roads in Etobicoke: Weston Road, Rexdale Boulevard, and Dixon Road.
"I can't tell you exactly why there are so many Somali Canadians that live near the airport. I think it's because you feel close to others." Mahamed Elmi said.
Elmi is the owner and operator of Istar Restaurant, located in the Westown Plaza complex near Rexdale, a 24-hour diner that quickly became a cornerstone in the community when his mom opened it in 1999.
Istar Restaurant serves up three types of samosas: mild beef, hot beef, and fish. 0:58
Generally speaking, the cornerstone of a neighbourhood that is home to a sizeable group of people from a certain part of the world is usually a convenience store, or a bakery or butcher shop.
It is the cultural first stone laid with the purpose of providing a rudimentary service or product to the local community, and it quickly evolves beyond that singular purpose to become a place of gathering.
Istar is exactly that for the Somali-Canadian community. The 24-hour café is a revolving door day and night.
"We are near the airport, so we serve a variety of people here."
You will see taxi drivers break bread with cups of Somali tea, families feasting after church, and regulars pulling in to pick up bags of samosas.
"The samosas are a big hit here," Elmi said. "It's my mother's recipe. It has Indian elements but also the spice of Somalia."
Dressed in a glass case near the entrance, the samosas are worth a quick stop. Elmi and his team of cooks prepare them daily using a housemade xawaash — a Somali spice mix made with cumin, coriander, chile powder, black pepper and a few other "secret things."
There are three options: mild beef, hot beef, and fish.
The meat is seasoned with xawaash, tossed with some vegetables and tightly folded into wonton wrappers, which are then flash fried. There's no filler, a thin crisp shell and those spikes of spice from the seasoning.
The fish samosa is particularly good; Elmi uses tuna and adds salmon for "fat and flavour."
Xawaash is a Somali spice mix made with cumin, coriander, chile powder, black pepper and a few other 'secret things,' according to Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss. (Suresh Doss/CBC)
When you order them, make sure you get a serving of basbaas, a bright green dip that is reminiscent of Indian green chilli chutney.
"It is very spicy and fresh. It is a traditional dip you have to have with the samosas." Elmi said.
Go easy on the basbaas; the heat is sharp and long. Elmi also recommends a side order of mandazi to go with the samosas. They are fluffy Somali doughnuts made with flour, egg, ghee and sugar.
"We love to sandwich with the samosa and the mandazi together. Then dip it in the basbaas. You get the spice, the sweetness all in one bite."
The counter service menu at the restaurant is expansive, reflecting Elmi's desire to not only show the amalgam of influences that make up the culinary identity of today's Somalia.
His mother handed the reins to the restaurant over to him a few years ago, Elmi has used the opportunity to further explore the various influences in Somali cuisine.
"Centuries of trade and occupation has given us Indian food, Italian food, even Turkish and Persian." Elmi said.
All of this is reflected on the menu. You will see diners enjoying heaping plates of baasto (pasta) served with a filet of fried fish and some stirfry vegetables.
One of the most popular dishes at Istar, and a personal favourite, is a roast goat dish served with rice called hilib ari with biris. If there's only one plate in your future, this is the one to get.
Mandazi served at Istar restaurant. (Suresh Doss/CBC)
Another unique plate is the soor, soft cornmeal resembling Italian polenta, which is served with a meat or vegetable stew. When you mix spoonfuls of the polenta with the meat and jus, it is hearty and sublime.
To finish, grab a beignet to go. You'll notice balls of fried dough sitting in a glass counter near the cash register.
"I feel every culture has its version of sweet fried dough. This is very popular in our culture," Elmi said.