What Spices are in Somali Food?

The Cave paintings of Laas Geel rock near Hargeisa, Somalia

Occupying the coastal plain of the famed Horn of Africa, Somalia’s seaward orientation has led to a legacy of culinary mingling. African, Italian, Persian, Arab & South Asian influences color the national cuisine and lend themselves to a unique mélange where spaghetti, banana, samosas, herbed rice, yogurt and sourdough bread all coincide.

Accordingly, Somali cuisine features a rich palette of spices and ingredients  (including the famed xawaash spice blend) that are widely used across Africa, the Middle East, south Asia, and southern Europe. Drawing from this rather broad expanse of culinary heritage, popular Somali dishes include:

As you can see, quite a unique mix of ingredients and cooking traditions have influenced the cuisine of Somalia. But an ingredient that’s nearly ubiquitous, a spice blend that we’ve touched upon above gives Somali cuisine and one dish in particular a uniquely zesty taste.

Xawaash: the Somali Spice Rub par excellence

Somali spices

Turmeric, cardamon, and a few other spices that comprise the xawaash spice blend

The array of Somali spices is exemplified by the traditional Xawaash spice blend: it features cumin, coriander, cardamon, turmeric, oregano, basil and cilantro. Xawaash also sometimes includes black peppercorns, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and fenugreek. Its name is thought to derive from the Arabic word “Hawa’ij“, which means “essential” or “required” and hints at its importance as a spice cabinet staple in Somali cookery.

What Dishes is Xawaash Used in?

Bariis Iskukaris is a Somali dish that incorporates not only Xawaash, but also a unique combination of ingredients that hint at its Middle Eastern influence: raisins, cilantro, meat and rice. Lamb, chicken, goat or ground beef can be used as Xawaash-rubbed meaty additions to the recipe. The word Bariis means “rice” in Somali – an apt description of the dish.

Xawaash can be used in other dishes, as mentioned, and is also excellent for roasting or grilling meats with a traditional Somali flair. Rub your chicken, beef, lamb or goat with some xawaash for a smoky, spicy African twist at your next cookout!

A Recipe for Somali Bariis from a Member of the Niblack Foods Team

As promised, we’re bringing you the perfect recipe for your newly-purchased xawaash blend. A comforting and healthy jeweled rice with Middle Eastern influences, Bariis is one of the most popular dishes in Somalia, and is unequaled when it comes to having a balanced flavor profile. Warming cinnamon, cooling cilantro, the complexity of xawaash and some hearty meat and rice round out this recipe that you should you need to try, stat!

Somali Bariis

Bariis is a warm - not hot -Somali rice dish that will comfort you on any occasion. It can be served on its own or made alongside some xawaash rubbed protein or a bright veggie accompaniment. 

Ingredients
  

  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly-sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly-sliced
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1 large bayleaf (You can use two if they're small)
  • 1 tbsp Niblack soup base
  • ¼ cup Fresh (or try Niblack's dried!) cilantro
  • 2 tbsp Somalian Xawaash blend
  • 2 cups Basmati rice (Soak for one hour and then drain)
  • 2 ½ cups hot water
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Garnish

  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • cilantro or parsley, chopped
  • bell pepper, thinly-sliced
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Instructions
 

  • Preheat the oven to 350°
  • Heat a medium pan (an oven-safe one, if available) on medium-high heat (Note: This recipe calls for an oven-safe pan, but if you don't have one, cook in a pan until step 6, and then follow instructions in italics)
  • Add vegetable oil, onion, garlic, and the cinnamon stick to the pan. Cook until onions have lightly softened, 5-6 minutes.
  • Season with salt, add the soup base and cilantro and cook for an additional minute.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and then add bay leaf, xawaash and soaked rice. Cook for 3 minutes and stir so that the rice lightly toasts.
  • Pour in the hot water and bring it to a boil. Cover the pot and put into the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, and periodically check the water: add more if dry. (If using casserole, transfer from pot to casserole, cover with foil, and cook for an additional 10 minutes, more if needed)
  • Remove from oven and sprinkle the raisins, bell pepper, and cilantro/ parsley evenly over top.
  • Serve warm and enjoy!