New York

Safari in Harlem Is NYC's Premiere Destination for Somali Food and Culture

Translating into "journey," it's widely regarded as the only Somali restaurant in town.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

When Maymuuna Birjeeb opened her Harlem-based restaurant Safari over six years ago, she had little notion it was once the site of a social haven-a lively spot to enjoy a cup of tea or have a smoke-in the 1950s for fellow Somali immigrants in NYC.

While Birjeeb (who goes by Mona) sees more people of Somali descent in today’s Harlem, traces of the neighborhood’s historic ties to her East African homeland have long faded. It’s a void she and her husband Shakib Farah, who is also the restaurant’s co-owner and chef, aim to fill with Safari-widely regarded as the only Somali restaurant in NYC.

“I was reading the history of the time, and before the war in Somalia, there were Somali seamen who used to come to Harlem-particularly to that area,” says Birjeeb, who was born in the southern port city of Kismaayo and grew up in Sweden (Farah, her husband, hails from Galka’ayo in northern Somalia). “I just came across it, sometimes there is a spiritual connection that leads you.”

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

As the first African and Islamic immigrants to come to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, Somalis arrived as sailors from British Somaliland. Mid-century, they made their way to Harlem and for decades, ran businesses there (delis, clothing shops, markets), with the majority closing for good by the late 2000s after civil unrest in Somalia led to migration shifts (little has been documented of these early decades though, either written or photographed).

In Swahili, the word safari means “journey,” an apt name for the origins of both the restaurant and its Somali owners-reflecting their migration to America; becoming first-time restaurateurs in NYC; and re-introducing the culinary legacy of Somalia on 116th street, an area known today as Le Petit S√©n√©gal.

“I’ve always been around women cooking in our home, my mom and older sisters,” says Birjeeb. As one of the youngest in the family, she was often sent to purchase staples that needed replenishing, like cumin or rice. “I’m the one who used to go to the market to buy everything, helping them is how I got introduced at an early age to food.”The aromas of her mother’s cooking and watching her sister’s hand at the stove flooded her memories when she came to New York. And though she saw Ethiopian, Senegalese, and other restaurants of the African diaspora in Harlem, none were Somali. Beyond that, New Yorkers, she soon learned, had an impression of Somalia that was limited to models in magazines and pirates at sea, predicated largely by the media.

Despite that, friends in the city were curious about the food of Somalia; even in her previous career (she worked in finance, her husband, Farah, in engineering), clients would ask if she knew where they could enjoy Somali food. She realized then that there was genuine interest in the cuisine, and after speaking with Farah a decision was made-it was time to take the leap.

Opening its doors in the spring of 2015, Safari introduced new audiences to its globally influenced cuisine, quickly garnering recognition for its deeply-hued, spice-laden dishes like hilib ari, goat marinated for six hours and placed atop basmati rice; beef suqaar, saut√©ed meat infused with rosemary and mitmita, a Somali spice mixture; and the ever-popular sambusas, deep-fried golden triangles housing meat or vegetables. There was also bisbaas, the lime-hued piquant sauce that silhouettes many Somali dishes. Safari’s bisbaas (available for purchase at their online shop) is a longtime family recipe that Birjeeb enhances with her own additions.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Since its debut, Safari has spotlighted the tumultuous richness of Somalia’s culinary roots. In addition to Italy’s half-century long colonization in the late 1880s, which led to the introduction of pasta, Somali food is flecked with impressions of its spice trade partners-Indian, Arab, and Persian cuisines-resulting in cross-over dishes which remain today, like: xalwo, a carrot-based dessert similar to halva, which has roots in South Asia and the Middle East; and canjeero, a fermented flatbread akin to the South Indian dosa.

Throughout the years, Birjeeb has continued to champion the culture of Somalia and share the cherished practices of their Islamic faith at Safari, often inviting the community to gather and celebrate together. She also decorated the interior with wooden carvings of Somalia’s ancient writing script; exclusively plays music from the East African nation (which, to her delight, customers cannot resist dancing to); and introduces guests to the tradition of eating a banana in tandem with a meal, the intent being to balance the intensity of spices like paprika and cumin. In addition, every year, she and her husband invite customers and friends to celebrate Ramadan, with 2020 being the first time they could not do so due to the pandemic; in 2018, they hosted an Iftar dinner at Gracie Mansion with the mayor; and in 2019, they welcomed Minnesota Congresswoman and fellow Somali native, Ilhan Omar.

Despite the success Safari has seen, at present, it has been a marathon of endurance, weathering over 18 months of pandemic-era setbacks. In the early days of COVID, Birjeeb says they had to shut down, with no PPP funds or resources. Because they were primarily dine-in, adopting a takeout model was a complete upheaval.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Then she and her husband saw the community who surrounded them-not only their regular customers but those in the vicinity who had far less-and reopened, offering takeout as a tiny team with limited resources. Last spring, they donated meals to Harlem Hospital, NYU Langone, and first responders in the area, and when summer began, they built an outdoor bar area to welcome locals back to their tables.

Part way through the COVID-crisis, Safari started serving breakfast outdoors to expand their menu (currently served beginning at 9 am, Wednesday to Sunday). Birjeeb’s mandazi, a traditional Somali sweet bread, has been such a hit that a customer recently pulled out a notebook with pen poised, ready to take down the recipe.

The restaurant will also be a featured local vendor at the upcoming Thrillist Block Party taking place in Harlem on September 12. However, just the other week, their outdoor bar setup was vandalized, with the culprit breaking glassware and damaging the structure. The one savior was no one entered the interior of the restaurant-and it’s these moments of grace that give Birjeeb the strength to continue, channeling the strength to persevere, much like the courageous Somalis who preceded her.

“That’s the thing, what you put into your mind, I feel that you can do it,” says Birjeeb. “Even though there are obstacles, there are a lot of things that come after. I believe strongly, you just have to push forward.”

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Thrillist and DoorDash partnered with Harlem Block Party Executive Producer Tren’ness Woods-Black to select four local Harlem business owners from Harlem Park to Park’s¬†Local Vendor Program. Each recipient received a grant furnished by Thrillist and DoorDash along with prominent exposure at Harlem Block Party and across a series of content/ social extensions amplifying their small business.

Swathi Reddy is a Louisiana-born, NYC-based freelance writer and marketer.

New York

Scavenge for Peeps Cookies and More Fun Treats in NYC This Easter

The best Easter desserts in NYC this spring include Easter Bunny Churros and Carrot Cake Macarons.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

As spring makes its way through New York City, not only do we get to enjoy beautiful weather, stunning cherry blossoms, and cool activities priced at $Free.99, but it’s also the perfect time for some limited-edition desserts.

With Easter fast approaching, bakeries are filling their shops with tons of chocolate eggs, carrot cake-flavoured everything and all types of flavours that offer both nostalgia and innovation within the city’s dessert landscape. After you’ve picked up a cake from the city’s best new bakeries, from Easter Bunny Churros to Carrot Cake Macarons, here are 8 Easter desserts to try in NYC right now.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery

Magnolia Bakery

Throughout April
Various locations
There’s great news for devotees of Magnolia Bakery’s Classic Banana Pudding: For Easter, the spot is mixing up the iconic dessert’s vanilla pudding with some carrot cake. The Carrot Cake Pudding is filled with freshly grated carrots, coconuts, pineapples, raisins, and walnuts. And if both bananas and carrots aren’t your thing, they’ll be offering their Classic Vanilla Cupcakes in pastel colours with a Cadbury chocolate egg hidden inside.

Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery
Photo courtesy of Funny Face Bakery

Funny Face Bakery

Through Easter Sunday
NoHo and Seaport
Known for their celebrity face and meme-worthy decorated cookies, fans of Funny Face Bakery know that a new fun design is always just around the corner. For Easter, they’ve created the adorable Hoppy Easter decorated cookie that resembles a classic box of marshmallow Peeps. Along with that, they also have the return of their fan-favourite Caramel Pretzel Chip cookie flavour, plus a set of three mini-decorated cookies perfect for gifting.

The Doughnut Project

Friday, April 7 through Easter Sunday
West Village
With the ever-changing flavours at The Doughnut Project, it’s super easy to miss out on trying out a new debut. But this Easter weekend, there will be two new flavours available. One is of course, a carrot cake doughnut topped with a cream cheese glaze, and the other is known as the Doughnut Nest-a French cruller “nest” with a cream-filled doughnut hole “egg” in the centre.

Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour
Photo by Cole Saladino, courtesy of The Fragile Flour

The Fragile Flour

Wednesday, April 5 through Easter Sunday
East Village
For stellar vegan desserts this holiday, head to The Fragile Flour, a plant-based bakery and dessert wine bar. They’re known for going all out for each holiday with a variety of new pastry options that you can pair perfectly with a glass of wine. This Easter, they’ll have a whole dessert menu that’s both delicious and gorgeous for posting on IG. The menu includes Stuffed Carrot Cake Cookies, a Lemon Cake (whole or by the slice), some festive cupcakes, and specialty macarons.

Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate

Through mid April
Midtown
For a luxurious take on Easter chocolates, browse the selections available at Kreuther Handcrafted Chocolate. You can even pick the Easter Signature Chef’s Selection for a special box curated by award-winning chefs. For something other than chocolate, choose between the Carrot Cake Macarons or the cake flavored Easter Marshmallow Trio, both of which are almost too cute to eat.

La Churreria

Throughout April
Nolita
This churro-centric spot is putting the cutest Easter spin on their crispy cinnamon churros by twisting them up into bunnies and bunny ears. At Churreria, choose from a Bunny Churro Lollipop topped with your choice of chocolate or dulce de leche and sprinkles, or the bunny ear churros in the Ube and Matcha ice cream sundae or the Ube Milkshake, both of which are made with ice cream from il laboratorio del gelato.

Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci
Photo by Briana Balducci

Lafayette

Throughout April
NoHo
You’ve surely seen this croissant tons of times while scrolling through IG or TikTok, whether it’s the Pain au Chocolat one or the latest of the month. Known as Supr√™mes, these filled croissants went viral and continue to live up to the hype each time a new flavour comes out. April’s flavour-sour cherry amaretto with a Luxardo custard and toasted almonds. While you’ll have to be super early and wait in line during one of their three drops of the day to get a taste, we promise you it’ll be worth it.

Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain
Photo courtesy of Levain

Levain

Seasonal
Various locations
We all know the iconic cookies from Levain-they’re gigantic, perfectly crispy and chewy, and well worth the long lines. For spring, the shop is launching a new flavour: Caramel Coconut Chocolate Chip. Filled with gooey caramel chips, fresh shredded coconut, and melty dark chocolate, it’s one you’ve got to try while it’s still around. To further celebrate the new season, all of Levain’s storefronts will be decked out in spring floral displays, serving as the perfect backdrop for pictures.

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Alaina Cintron is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist. Her work can also be found in Westchester Magazine, Girls’ Life, and Spoon University. When she’s not at her desk typing away, you can find her exploring a local coffee shop or baking a new recipe.

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