284 Racecourse Rd Flemington, VIC 3031
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun 12–8:30pm|
|Features||Cheap Eats, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||03 8589 7631|
A woman walks into a restaurant and gets a menu, a glass of water and a banana. Want to know how the joke ends? I can't tell you because it's not a joke, it's Somali tradition, expressed at this big-hearted little restaurant.
In Somalia, no meal is considered complete without a banana, maybe two, served alongside savoury dishes. To get it right Somali-style, eat your banana with the meal, not as an appetiser, not as a dessert.
Civil war racked the eastern African nation from 1991 and is the reason we have a Somali community in Melbourne. The war also ruined the country's banana industry, once a successful export business and a source of national pride. Plantations and processing facilities were destroyed and farming on fertile riverbanks was dangerous.
Now, with the country inching towards stability, banana farms and livelihoods are being reclaimed and, once again, eating banana and being Somali can go hand in hand. It's a lovely edible tradition to connect with here.
New Somali Kitchen is nearly one year old, and follows on from owner Abdo Sean's Heidelberg restaurant Hamar Weyne. The Heidelberg place was set up to service homesick Somalis; this one is targeted at the broader community, though of course, there's crossover at both.
The menu is small and approachable, reflecting the many influences on this cuisine, Middle Eastern, Indian and Italian (there's spaghetti!) among them.
The key flavours are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and garlic. Sambusa, triangular pastry parcels filled with minced beef, are gently spiced and fragrant. Bajeya, a kind of sturdy falafel made from ground black-eyed beans, are served with a feisty green chilli, lime and yoghurt sauce.
The NSK Classic is braised lamb served with rice and salad; spiced-rubbed and slow-cooked meat on the bone is (mostly) tender. The hefty chilli kick is tempered by bites of banana.
Carb-phobes might like to choose the broccoli and cauliflower rice alternative – it's nutty and nutritious. Carb-lovers (my hand is up) will want to load up with bur, deep-fried breads filled with a sugary paste, sort of like a hybrid pancake-donut-cookie (stand by for a "padookie" craze, guys!).
Once you've gone sweet, why stop? Cardamom-spiced tea with a slab of cinnamon cake makes a simple and satisfying send off.
A few notes: there's no toilet (and I wasn't exactly relieved by the option of the public block across the road), this halal venue is liquor-free, and it's cash only.
On the up side, the experience is warm and friendly, the food is inexpensive and satisfying, and – yes! – we have bananas.
Rating: Three stars (out of five)
Go-to Dish: NSK Classic.