In 1996 Marian Ahmed took a considerable risk and left Somalia alone to the United States in search of a better life.
When moving she was forced to leave everything dear to her behind, her mission was to ensure her family would have a better future.
Desperate to make ends meet and pregnant with her daughter Honey Mohamed, Ahmed worked at a Marriott theatre whose in-room dining program served pork and alcohol, both of which are forbidden by Islam.
So in 2002, an idea came to her mind, to set up a food truck on the streets of Austin, Texas. It was not easy then, trying to curve a niche for herself.
She didn’t feel welcome in the white, male-dominated food industry. That didn’t stop her from creating something for her daughter and future generations.
She began saving up, she tried to invest in existing restaurants, but found the male-dominated world of Somali-owned restaurants unwelcoming – and only willing to employ her as a cook.
But it is when she moved to Seattle in 2009 that she became known in the local food community for her Somali street food, especially her handcrafted Samosa pastries, which are stuffed with spiced meat, fish, or veggies.
She became known as Mama Sambusa. According to her, her samosas are the only love triangle you’d want to be a part of. While her vision was to one day grow into a big restaurant, she was limited by resources.
In tow with her daughter Honey, they operated the Mama Sambusa kitchen on a food truck.
Meanwhile, Honey would go to school and join the mother in the evenings in their kitchen.
Honey watched her mother persevere through.
They had amassed a huge community following, but their current location offered only two parking spots and little protection.
“It hurt to have to tell people to wait in their cars and lock their doors,” Honey said. “It’s not the aesthetic that we’re going for.”
“My mom was by herself,” says Honey. She watched a familiar pattern play out over and over: her mom would get a lease on whatever run-down space she could afford, get it up to code and “all dolled up,” then, suddenly the landlord would find someone else to rent to – someone who could pay more for the now-improved space.
Watching her immigrant mother taken advantage of and illegally pushed from leases without any resources to fight back inspired Mohammed to study business.
While in school, she worked in all facets of the restaurant industry, preparing to someday join her mom. Meanwhile, Ahmed had a plan to secure a restaurant nobody could take from her: in 2017, she went down to Portland to buy a custom food truck.
She drew out her own configuration, exactly what she wanted, and purchased the truck they have been operating. By then, her daughter was 19 and ready to help shape the direction of Mama Sambusa Kitchen’s latest iteration.
After graduating from school where she studied business, Honey joined her mother full time to manage Mama Sambusa.
Her vision was to see it grow from just a street side kitchen.
She applied for grants in order to move to a better and safer place, none was coming.
Faced with few options and what she called a “Willy Wonka factor” in her chance of landing a grant – thousands of applicants vying for only a handful of spots – Honey would later set up a GoFundMe for the shop. Her aim was to look for a space where more than two cars can pull-up.
“We want a place that will create relationships,” rather than leave them reminding their customers to lock their car doors while they wait for food and leaves them constantly in a state of concern. “We love everyone,” she said.
The fund raising seem to have been successful.
In July Ahmed, she procured the space at 8319 Wabash Avenue South. Currently, the cart sits right outside; soon it will become a dedicated destination for Mama’s handmade sambusas run by Ahmed and her daughter. The restaurant’s official opening date is December 1.
And apart from just samosas, they plan to introduce more in their menu.
Dishes like fettuccine alfredo or crispy chicken tacos might not sound like traditional African cuisine. But pasta, says Honey, represents influence from Italy’s colonization during the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century.
The titular sambusas remain a popular dish on an entirely halal menu: petite golden-fried pouches filled with varying proteins and a plethora of spices that come in four different flavors at Mama Sambusa Kitchen.
With the new space comes four new flavors of Honey’s signature cheesecakes, including a Somali chai–spiced version called “What’s the Tea,” and a xalwa cheesecake, inspired by a chewy spiced Somali confection.
Aside from a few additions, the brick-and-mortar iteration of Mama Sambusa Kitchen will keep the menu largely the same.
Once the new kitchen finds its footing, a brunch menu that has long been lodged in Honey’s brain is set to drop, including a shakshuka breakfast sandwich.
“I wanted to elevate Somali cuisine, right?” says Honey. “In all honesty, there’s a lot of amazing restaurants that don’t get the light of day.”
In short, she wants the comforting and bold flavors of her homeland to get the respect they deserve. “We’re so worthy of being in these rooms and we’re not often presented in a way where we should be.”
Honey designed the space to provide a warm and intimate environment for customers, something not always possible while running the OG food cart in unpredictable cooking conditions and equally incalculable Washington weather. The results are both broody and inviting, with red-and-white foliage displays and emerald palm fronds tracing the doorways.
The only seating in the restaurant however consists of four stools at the bar; the rest of the dining room sits empty. After some deliberation, Mohammed decided to use the space as a place where customers can wait for their food, rather than a proper seating area.
With the restaurant’s official opening date next month it will retain the cart’s similar overnight hours and remain open for curbside pickup and takeout only until then.