Every year during Ramadan, Samira Mohamed, the owner of Montavilla food cart Mira’s East African Cuisine, gathers with her entire family — her nine siblings, her cousins, her aunt — for Iftar, the breaking of the daily fast after sundown. Before her family prays together at the mosque, they eat ceremonial dates and prepare a massive feast. Her aunt makes mashmash, a pancake-esque fried snack, and her cousin handles the shorba, a silky lentil soup. By the time everyone is able to eat, the Mohamed family is surrounded by food: crispy black eyed pea fritters called bajiya, sambusas, filled potato croquettes named nafaqo, fluffy doughnut-like puffs known as mandazi, large platters of lamb and chicken. Much of the food was made by her aunt — muufo, little spongy flatbreads, and “feast rice,” as Mohamed calls it.
“People say anyone can cook, but you have to have the right hand to be a great cook. My aunt has the hand,” she says. “Whatever she makes is really great.”
However, in her family, Mohamed is the person cooking professionally. Her food cart, at the edge of the Yard at Montavilla, has accrued a stable of devotees, thanks to dishes like her chicken mandi, fragrant with cumin and cardamom, or her chicken suqaar, raisins, peas, and rings of onion tossed in a lightly sweet sauce over rice. She stuffs sambusas with cumin and coriander and ground beef, and fills flatbreads with braises and stews. Mohamed opened Mira’s last August, which means this Ramadan will be her first as a food cart owner; to celebrate, she’s going to spend the month making the Iftar dishes she loved growing up for those who can’t spend their Ramadan with family.
Mohamed moved to the United States when she was eight; she left Somalia for Kenya before landing in Oregon. But even considering how young she was when she moved to the United States, she still remembers Ramadan in Somalia — the sound of the call to prayer, voices melting together, reverberating across rooftops. “In a Muslim country, everyone is celebrating,” she says. “Here, families have to really bring that alive.”
Growing up in the United States, things were harder for her. Her gym teachers didn’t understand her need to fast and would make her run laps; while other kids grabbed water bottles after class, she would wait, unable to rehydrate until sundown. She found her community at the mosque, now just a few blocks from her cart. “After you eat, you go and pray for two hours — that’s when you get to see people,” she says. “Now, communities are so spread out. … If your family is elsewhere, it can get really lonely.”
That loneliness was particularly pronounced during the pandemic — unable to worship together, 2020 was a solitary Ramadan, especially for those without families in the United States. Even when the mosques could reopen in 2021, social distancing made it difficult to host all of those who wanted to pray. And, of course, large community Iftars were canceled. “It didn’t feel like Ramadan,” Mohamed says.
This year, however, she wants things to be different. She plans to serve meals for Iftar as often as she can, for people who might not have the family nearby to make dinners with, the way she has. Every night she’s open during Ramadan, she’ll feature a selection of her family’s classic Iftar dishes: nafaqo, sambusas, bajiya, mandazi, suqaar, switching things up from day to day to keep things fresh through the month. “A lot of people, they don’t have their families here to cook for them, so when they come here, they often come alone,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m hosting Iftars is that we have new converts, so there’s an opportunity to learn, to meet more Muslims in the community.”
But this menu, and her cart, is for everyone. Since she opened Mira’s, Mohamed has noticed many customers are tentative about ordering specific Somali dishes that are unfamiliar to them, sticking to dishes with clear, known relatives in Portland restaurants: chicken curry, sambusas, wraps. She hopes that her Iftar menu might give people the opportunity to learn not just about Ramadan, but also Somali culture and food. “Everyone is welcome,” she says. “You don’t have to be fasting to try new things.”
This Ramadan, even as she helps Portlanders break their fasts at her cart, she will still celebrate with her family and her community, but it will be a bittersweet one for her. She lost one cousin to COVID since last Ramadan, and she feels her loss as she prepares for this year’s. “This year will be different Ramadan without her,” she says. “When we pray, we say, ‘Let me see another Ramadan.’ It has its own blessing, you know?”
Mira’s East African Cuisine is located at 8220 NE Davis Street.