If you’re cringing at the bone-chilling temperatures of December, think of how people from Somalia who’ve become Edmonton residents must feel. It might not be front of mind as a tropical getaway, but the east African nation is a lot closer to the equator than Canada and it’s easy to see how the joy at one’s first experience of snow might be dimmed by having it driven into your face like nails by a -40 C windchill. Such thoughts played through my head as I nearly died of exposure walking the half-block from my car to Maye Restaurant, one of a few purveyors of Somali cuisine on or near Alberta Avenue.
The great thing about Somali food is that you always pretty much know what to expect from the menu—stewed/roasted/grilled meats and mounds of carbs: rice, pasta, breads. And always a banana chaser for each diner. It’s likewise inevitable that the meal will be almost bafflingly cheap.
Maye Restaurant is no one’s idea of fancy, a legacy space with leftover bistro watercolours for art, white and brown paint, original flooring, and a big central flatscreen dominating a clean but well-used dining room. Some dark mesh curtains and ad hoc booths with high dividers made us feel like we had the place to ourselves, even though a handful of Somali men hunkered down over heaping plates in the adjacent space, their eyes raised to the Bollywood movie burbling on the flatscreen.
The server explained that they were out of various dishes, but she helped us cobble together a meal for four that touched on some menu highlights—namely goat, chicken, fish and beef, pasta and rice, the familiar-sounding japatti and the enigmatic muufo. She then delivered cups of sweet, subtly spiced black tea that chased the chill, though not quite from my throbbing toes.
The wait for food was not long, though we were a bit stumped by the first dish to the table, a ceramic boat filled with curried vegetable soup, sided with the flaky japatti—just like its sound-a-like Indian flatbread—and muufo, a thicker, spongier pan-bread that’s part cornflour. Did we order it? We were so tantalized—and famished—we tried to load soup into our mouths with the bread. The spoons arrived with the rest of the food.
The main course included a big platter split between rice and spaghetti and a similarly hubcap-sized plate of savoury meats strewn with bright stir-fried vegetables—bell peppers, carrots, onions, and chopped swiss chard.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the best Somalian food I’ve had in Edmonton. Some previous specimens had been bland, overcooked or made up of bone and gristle, but Maye’s food was obviously made and presented with more than the usual care. The beef suqaar was like Ethiopian special tibs without the chewiness, zestily seasoned with garlic, cinnamon and cardamom; the roasted goat was favourably balanced between lubricious meat and bone (and not too goaty); at least two co-diners called the unpromising-sounding chicken steak their favourite; the fried fillet of whitefish was a touch overdone but still within acceptable specs, especially when ladled with a vinegary dose of the benign-looking garlic and jalapeno hot sauce they make in-house.
We easily polished off most of the meat and stir-fry, but there was no way we were going to vanquish the enormous servings of rice and pasta which were—untypically—not just an afterthought. The cardamom-scented rice, topped with dried cranberries and pimiento, was particularly aromatic and toothsome. And there was a shitload of it.
Though quite stuffed, I still capped the meal with the large banana, an obligatory element of any Somalian meal. I almost laughed out loud when I went to the counter to pay and found the entire feast, halal beverages included, came to $46. If you were in the market for a Somalian meal, I can’t think of a single reason why you wouldn’t have it at Maye’s Restaurant.