In the land of the bland, one company is trying to bring a traditional Somali food to the masses

Courtesy of Hoyo
Sambusa ready to eat.

Mariam Mohamed has fond memories of eating sambusa when she was growing up in Somalia. It was a special-occasion food, the stuff of weddings and iftar, the evening meal to break a Ramadan fast.

“Whenever we invite people for a special occasion, especially in the south, sambusa is very prominent,” recalls Mohamed. “You look forward to go[ing] to that party because there will be sambusa.”

For the uninitiated: Sambusa is a triangular pastry filled with spiced meat. It’s the same shape as an Indian samosa, but the fillings are different. The outside is crispy from deep-frying, the inside filled with meat and onions, boldly flavored with garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and red chili peppers.

Up until a couple of years ago, if you wanted sambusa in the Twin Cities, you had to either make them yourself or go to a Somali restaurant. But Mohamed and her business partner, Matt Glover, have been trying to change that, creating a frozen version of the pastries for the masses.

And yet, their company, Hoyo, very nearly didn’t get off the ground, and they’ve survived so far by making some unexpected U-turns.

The first challenge was also the most obvious: sambusa are incredibly time consuming to make. The dough, called folio, has to be made by hand. Moreover, each sambusa has to be sealed into a tight triangle so that the inside stays dry when it goes into the hot oil. Mohammed says folio is not available ready-made. The closest things are egg roll wrappers or tortillas.

The first time Glover made sambusa with Mariam Mohamed and her sister Halima, they spent two and a half hours making just 25 sambusa. “I thought initially there’s no chance we’re going to be able to make a business out of this,” says Glover. “But we kept at it.”

Their first day in an industrial kitchen, they made 120 in an 8 hour day. “We still looked at that and said economically that’s not okay,” says Glover. Now, thanks to continued streamlining, they can make 1,000 in a day. In a bit of cross-cultural innovation, they found that a tortilla press flattens the folio to the perfect consistency.

At first glance, Mohammed and Glover would seem to make an odd couple of business partners. She’s in her late 50s, a self-proclaimed bookworm with a ready laugh who came to the U.S. from Somali in 1985. He’s 36, a white guy from White Bear Lake who was consulting with ethnic restaurants on western service standards when the two met and became friends.

What they had in common was a desire to empower Somali women. For Glover, the motivation began with a neighbor, a Somali woman, who was raising eleven children on her own. At the time, Glover and his wife had newborn twins. “We were barely getting by with two kids and two parents,” Glover recalls. “Our hearts just went out to mothers, so we wanted a business that would really help them.”

At first, Glover and Mohamed imagined busy Somali moms — “hoyo” means mother in Somali — popping their product into the oven in time for dinner, and so they delivered their frozen product to several Somali stores.

But nobody — at least nobody in their intended target audience — wanted them. “They all said, why would I buy that when I can make it myself?” said Glover.

Sambusa ready for the fryer.
MinnPost photo by Emily K. Bright
Sambusa ready for the fryer.

At the time, Glover imagined a year’s worth of preparation going down the drain. But then company connected with the Seward Coop in Minneapolis, which allowed them to demo Hoyo’s sambusa to the store’s mostly non-Somali shoppers.

That move changed pretty much everything for the company. “We sold about 40 bags of sambusa in about an hour,” Mohammed marveled. “It was amazing.”

As a result, the company shifted its marketing to target non-Somali consumers, and Hoyo’s frozen sambusa are now available in some 20 grocery stores and co-ops throughout the metro.

Despite that evolution, Mohammed insists the flavor of the company’s sambusa is totally authentic, although she did make one concession for Minnesota tastebuds: Hoyo cut way down on the chili pepper. “Most Somalis like it with a lot of pepper,” she says.

The company has recently developed a vegetarian, lentil-filled sambusa alongside the original beef. They also sell basbaas, a Somali-style salsa made of cilantro and onions.

Sambusa ready to eat.
Courtesy of Hoyo
Spices prepped for sambusa.

Glover says the company is now break-even and employs eight people, all part-time. In line with their stated goal of “empowering Somali women through Somali food,” the company is registered as a public benefit corporation, a designation a for-profit entity that is socially-minded. Mohamed and Glover say they’re proud that the company builds upon a skill that many Somali women gained as girls.

One requirement for new hires, however, can be tricky:  They have to leave their personal recipes at the door. As with many traditions handed down through families, many people have their own preferred variations on sambusa. “We get that conversation almost every time we hire a new employee,” says Glover, laughing. “They say ‘Why are you doing it this way?’”

The next challenge awaiting the company is to find a full-time industrial kitchen space. Currently, they work two days a week out of the VEAP organization’s kitchen in Bloomington. And though Mohammed and Glover are dreaming big, for now they’re content to keep on rolling out the folio dough, trying to introduce sambusa to Minnesota, one bite at a time.

A version of this story first appeared on KFAI as part of its MinneCulture series. Support for MinneCulture is made possible by a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 05/04/2018 - 06:13 pm.

    So, it’s the Somalis that have brought relief to the land of the bland? Legal Mexican immigrants that have survived six generations of Swedish Minnesotans putting catsup on fajitas are going to disagree, probably.

  2. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 05/05/2018 - 12:12 pm.

    I don’t hear a denial of those who are bringing other cuisines to tickle Minnesotan tastebuds, just an introduction to the first Somali business in the spiced-up aisle. Many of us explore cuisines from Thai to Ecuadorian to Ethiopian, and gradually move beyond the three traditional MN spices (salt, pepper and ketchup!).
    Over time, it will work, I’m sure. The British cuisine I grew up with was legendary for blandness, and for vegetables boiled to the point of disintegration. Now Curry, often with chips, is one of the great ‘traditional’ British meals, as Indian restaurants and takeouts have spread across the nation.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 05/05/2018 - 08:00 pm.

      “Now Curry, often with chips, is one of the great ‘traditional’ British meals”

      No, no its not any more than a burrito is a great traditional American food. They are foreign foods you can get.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/06/2018 - 12:10 pm.

        Amen!

        Amen to being able to get foreign foods! Otherwise it would be nothing but Subway & Golden Arches from seas to shining sea.

      • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 05/07/2018 - 08:39 am.

        Just kidding

        Curtis Senker, I was speaking tongue-in-cheek as a way to emphasize just how much curry has become part of the English menu. It’s also a great business for immigrants from the Indian subcontinent to launch. One street in Manchester has a more or less unbroken mile of Indian restaurants and takeouts.
        In this country, burritos are, as you say, not a great traditional American food, but they are becoming so, just as green jello and tater tot hot dish were new to our kitchens at some point, too, in this nation of immigrants.

  3. Submitted by B. Dalager on 05/08/2018 - 01:21 pm.

    Hoyo sambusa are amaaaaaaaaaazing. I was so delighted to find them at Seward Co-op because Afro Deli ain’t open 24/7!

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