Dining Out: Mama Asha Cafe offers comforting Somali cuisine

Mama Asha Cafe is a neighbourhood spot with an international perspective, providing a taste of east Africa that is at once comforting and exotic.

It’s always a pleasure to seek out food from another part of the world and, in the process, find a hidden gem in a sometimes forgotten part of your own city.

Mama Asha Cafe is just such a place, in the most international of Edmonton neighbourhoods, just off 118th Avenue on 95th Street. The food is east African — from Somalia to be exact — and if you’ve never had it, it’s definitely worth trying.

The unassuming little café is bright and sparkling clean, with white tables and chairs, black and grey accents, plank-style laminate flooring, and a big window along the front wall with a counter and bar stools beneath. A light fabric curtain can be drawn across an adjoining room for private gatherings.
It’s a simple and casual spot, where diners order at a counter at the back, by the kitchen. We had to ask for a menu — this is the kind of place where customers are regulars who order without one. But on each of my two visits, two different but equally friendly women were happy to help us, describing the food and offering recommendations.
The single-page menu has a section for breakfast (all-day), appetizers, plates and wraps. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday).
I found out about Mama Asha Cafe from my blogger friend Linda, who is always on the hunt for good food, particularly when it comes at bargain prices. The wraps are a real deal at $8 each — as big as a beefy forearm filled with chicken or beef sautéed with onions and peppers, plus lettuce and tomato — and made with a Somali flatbread called sabaayad that is similar to an Indian chapati.
I opted for a ‘plate’ — a deconstructed version of the wrap that includes a bowl of either beef or chicken (I tried a mix of both) sautéed with onions and peppers in a delicious, cumin-scented sauce with a lemony tang and spicy heat. A side salad of lettuce and tomatoes and a wee cup of green chili sauce completed the plate. Linda had rice and pasta instead of the flatbread, which made for a ridiculous-sized lunch platter, especially for $12. The pasta, a mound of spaghetti in tomato sauce, seemed at odds with the rest of the food, but I later read that it’s a common side dish in Somalia — a culinary holdover from Italy’s colonization of east Africa.
I was curious to try the breakfast, so I went back to Mama Asha Cafe with my partner the next day. We tried the shakshuka ($11), which I’d always thought of as a Middle Eastern dish, but it apparently originated in North Africa. It’s usually a variation of eggs poached in tomato sauce. The version at Mama Asha was a mix of scrambled eggs and a rich, tasty tomato sauce thick with onions and peppers. It too came with the warm and wonderful sabaayad flatbread that I had been thinking about since the day before.

We also tried the anjero, described as a Somali sourdough crepe. If you’ve had Ethiopian food, it’s similar to the spongy, injera flatbread, but lighter, smaller and less sour. We topped it off with Somali coffee (qahwa), flavoured with fresh ginger, cardamom and cinnamon.

The café is small, with only four tables and a counter with a few stools in the main room, plus two larger tables in the adjoining room. Don’t go unannounced with a crowd or you’ll likely overwhelm the humble operation. On my visits, two women staffed the café, both working mostly in the kitchen and making an appearance only to take orders at the counter and deliver food to the tables.

Next time I’d like to try the samosas (called sambuus), filled with beef, chicken, tuna or vegetables — another bargain at $1.50 each. The mango shake and green shake (kale, spinach, pineapple, mango and apple juice) also looked impressive.

For those keen to explore a new cuisine, Mama Asha Cafe offers a taste of east Africa that is at once comforting and exotic — a neighbourhood café with an international perspective.

Source:The London Free Press