In trading up for the romantic notoriety of piracy from the ignored tragedy of famine and civil war, Somalis have pulled off the PR coup of the millennium. As historian Marcus Rediker notes, pirates are the original egalitarian working-class heroes — sailors who rebelled against cruel and exploitative captains from the European upper class, elected leaders democratically, shared profits, and often freed African slaves when they seized the ships that bore them in bondage. Contemporary Somali piracy originated in the efforts of fishermen to do what their navy-less government could not: defend coastal waters from European and
BOTH STRIKING AND MUTED Barava's yogurt-based drinks. CREDIT REBECCA GOLDFINE
American ships that dump toxic waste near some parts of the Somali coastline, and illegally fish in others.
BARAVA | 653 Congress St. Portland | Sun-Thurs noon-10 pm; Fri-Sat noon-11 pm | Visa/MC/Amex/Disc | 207.899.0599
There is also something pleasingly egalitarian about the sight of no less than five youngish Somali siblings running Barava without a parent in sight. This handsome group is probably Barava's best PR coup, and it's a nice twist that it's the women do the serious work in back while the men charm the customers up front in the spacious room that once housed Uncle Billy's Resto-Bar. It says something sad about the interchangeability of the exotic that the room, with its deep reds and yellows, looks just as right with Somali lamps and photos as it did with French-Canadian kitsch. But in its current incarnation the space is less cluttered, warmer, and lovely. They need some music.
Equally striking, if more muted in color, are Barava's tall, creamy yogurt-based drinks. The avocado, a pale green, was subtly flavored and tangy rather than sweet. A rose-flavored version was sweeter and milkier. Sipping them while we snacked on the appetizers and goat soup was the best part of the meal.
You can get all seven appetizers tucked together in a basket for just $8. Though many of them are fried, the differences are striking. The sambusa is a crispy and greasy packet filled with juicy and salty meat. But the kachori is an airy pillow of potato blended with lemon juice, and powdered with a bright orange spice. Somewhere in between, texture-wise, were the bajiiya, a mildly spiced black bean fritter, and the katles, a divine sort of curry hashbrown spotted with beef. Along with these come cubes of seasoned beef, a patty of spicy kabaab, and a big ball of fried potato that hides a boiled egg inside. This basket is my favorite new dish in Portland in quite a while. The goat soup could not be simpler — rich broth and tender meat still on the bone.
The entrées, while perfectly fine, could not live up to the opening. The kabaab, "broiled with complementing addition in the tandoor" as the menu said, was a bit drier as an entrée then it seemed in the basket. But is came with a creamy, spicy, lemony hummus, and a spectacular thick African flatbread called muufo baravani. The bread was thick, moist, sour, and tasted of something like hops. A thinner flatbread, more like a French crèpe than an Ethiopian injera, was served with a strange entrée called zigni. The menu, endearingly filled with odd and semi-accurate descriptions, promised "sauce with African spices." Since it was the most expensive entrée we expected something more, but that is precisely what it is — a shallow bowl of tomato sauce, and sort of chilly at that. But the bread was so good we soaked it all up and used it to wipe the bowl.