Somali bread makes a lefse substitute

DurDur cookies taste like my Norwegian grandmother’s sugar cookies.

There is a tradition in my family of cooking a couple of Swanson-brand turkey pot pies to be served alongside the Thanksgiving feast. The source of the tradition is the very first Thanksgiving my parents spent together, when my father had lost his job at the potato processing plant for lying on his employment application about being an ex-convict, and there didn’t seem to be enough money for a turkey and all the extras.

Trying to observe Thanksgiving traditions as well as he could under the circumstances, my father purchased a couple of inexpensive turkey pot pies. But when he arrived home, he discovered my mother had managed to obtain a live turkey from a nearby farmer. She was quite a sight, nine months pregnant with her first child (that would be me) and hauling that frantic turkey around.

My parents killed and cleaned the bird together, and then my father asked, “Well, what about the pot pies?” My mother replied they should toss them in the oven as well. So, ever since that first Thanksgiving, the pot pie tradition has continued. At a minimum, the story is told even if actual pot pies aren’t purchased. I’m very glad the tradition didn’t evolve into “You must send a pregnant family member to walk down a snowy road to procure a live turkey and then both kill it together.”

Being Norwegian on my father’s side of the family, we observe the tradition of lefse and lutefisk, usually during Thanksgiving but certainly by Christmastime. But, during my freshman year of college, I began to question this tradition. How was it, I wondered, that some families endure lutefisk during the holidays, while other families enjoy baklava and marzipan? Why was my family stuck with lutefisk instead of baklava, which tastes like it was made by angels with a sweet tooth?

I actually wrote out a little declaration in my journal that I would start a new tradition of picking and choosing among everybody else’s traditions, starting with marzipan and baklava.

Actually, this questioning of tradition extended beyond foods served during the holidays. Why should I be stuck in a boring culinary rut, eating things I had always eaten like Midwestern “hot dishes,” macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, squirrel stew and vegetables scavenged behind grocery stores? (Being traditional doesn’t always mean being orthodox.) And so I began what I call “random food experiments,” buying the most unfamiliar foods I could find, seeking out ethnic and regional restaurants and ordering the strangest thing on the menu.

In Virginia, I learned that frogs are delicious and really do taste like chicken. On a reservation in New Mexico, I tasted a kind of bread made by the Hopi tribe, blue and paper thin. Stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, I learned that chorizo sausage is fantastic fried up with some eggs for breakfast. When I received orders to South Korea, twice, I prepared myself by learning to eat kimchee, a spicy pickled cabbage and the national dish of South Korea. The orders were cancelled, but I was left with a serious kimchee habit.

But seeking out the exotic and unfamiliar brings you around full circle. This happened to me recently when I decided to try some Somali bread called Sabayad/Jabat made by DurDur Bakery, a local business. I was struck by how much this bread looked like Norwegian lefse, even though it didn’t contain potatoes as an ingredient. I thought the bread kind of tasted like lefse, only without the fattening, starchy potatoes.

Experimenting, I threw some butter, sugar and cinnamon on my Sabayad/Jabat and rolled it up like a piece of lefse. As I bit into my creation, I was transported back to the holiday kitchen of my Norwegian grandmother. The whole point of lefse is to be somewhat understated and served as a vehicle for the consumption of butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Sabayad/Jabat served this purpose perfectly.

Furthermore, it’s a lot cheaper than lefse. I recently saw some “Mike’s Potato Lefse” on sale for $3.29 for “six large sheets,” which didn’t strike me as large at all. The same amount of money will buy me a lot more Sabayad/Jabat.

Experimenting with other East African breads has led me to similar results. For example, Hambasha bread makes a delicious and convenient pizza crust. Something I found called “Shega Injera,” which looks like a flat gray sea sponge and is made from “teff, barley, wheat, yeast and water,” actually tastes kind of like sourdough bread, and works as an affordable, convenient substitute served beside, for example, Rice-A-Roni.

Most amazing of all are DurDur cookies, which seem to be the pride and joy of DurDur Bakery. The cookies are star-shaped and sold in Ziploc bags, which actually say “Ziploc” right on the bags. So you’re not paying for fancy packaging or television commercials featuring Keebler elves. DurDur cookies taste like my Norwegian grandmother’s sugar cookies, only stand up better dunked in milk.

No matter how far you may roam, no matter how much education may change your sense of who you are, we are always tied to our families. Thanksgiving can be a time for old and new traditions to fit perfectly, side by side.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]