Dining out: De-mystifying Maskali

Shrimp on spaghetti might seem odd, but Italy had a presence in East Africa in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

Maskali Restaurant

23 Selkirk Ave., Unit C (Eastview Shopping Centre), 613-745-5757

Open: Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Prices: $6.99 to $11.99

Access: no steps

 

Abdi Badar told me that he sees a lot of people stop and hesitate in front of his eatery.

Badar imagines that passersby are debating about whether to eat at his place, Maskali Restaurant, which serves East African fare, or the neighbouring submarine sandwich shop or nearby Chinese buffet restaurant. All are in Vanier’s Eastview Shopping Centre at Montreal and River roads.

It’s understandable that one might be bemused and curious outside Maskali. There’s no menu posted outside — just an oversized, albeit positive, review from a fringe publication.

But as I’ve discovered during several lunch-hour visits in the last week, it’s definitely worth venturing inside Maskali.

Yes, it’s a slim, no-frills, fast-food counter that could use some sprucing up, its peach-orange walls decorated only with posters of Badar’s homeland, Djibouti, the small nation north of Somalia. Yes, its menu is limited to not even a dozen choices posted on signage above the open, galley kitchen.

But the four-year-old restaurant, which Badar has co-owned for the last year and a half, serves humble but comforting, cheap but interesting, nothing less than unique-in-Ottawa food, prepared with evident attention and pride.

At Maskali, one of the stars is suqaar, a stewy mix of bite-sized meat and strips of onion and green pepper in a brown sauce rich with the flavours of garlic, coriander and a mix of spices.

Maskali serves a beef suqaar, a chicken suqaar and, although it’s not advertised on the menu board, a shrimp suqaar in which the small, marinated shellfish are cooked à la minute and added to the sauce. (An amiable, hospitable Badar recommended this off-menu option, and it’s worth following.)

I’ve had the chicken suqaar wrapped with some lettuce in sabayaad, a fried flatbread not unlike Indian chapati, and it was a tasty, if somewhat sloppy, lunch.

The sabayaad, the samosa-like sambuusas (savoury stuffed pastries) that Maskali sometime serves, and the restaurant’s preference for basmati rice surely have their roots in the centuries-old trade of spices between India and East Africa.

I also enjoyed a beef suqaar platter, a more filling choice with a basic but fresh salad, cardamom-spiked rice and a roll of sabayaad on the side. It’s a less messy way to go, although I’d pop for the slightly more toothsome chicken over the beef.

The beef suqaar platter comes with a fresh salad, cardamom-spiced basmati rice and a roll of sabayaad — a type of flatbread — on the side. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

On my last visit I had shrimp suqaar on spaghetti, which was my favourite lunch of the three. Suqaar on pasta might not compute with some of my Italian friends, but it should be remembered that in the late 1800s and into the 1900s, Italy had colonized parts of East Africa.

These dishes were full-flavoured but definitely accessible. Badar can make them more spicy with the addition of a vibrant, made-in-house, green hot sauce, stirred in during the last bit of cooking or served on the side.

Meanwhile, my dining companions ate their way through the rest of Maskali’s menu and were well satisfied.

The lamb platter featured baked pieces of lamb shoulder, cooked to fork-tender and bolstered by some marination with more coriander, ground coriander seeds, garlic and some paprika.

Maskali also serves larger platters for two and three people, and during one visit I saw two mothers and three small children digging into the rice and lamb with gusto, while some children’s programming played on the restaurant’s wall-mounted TV.

Maqbaazad, a sweet and appealing mash of sabayaad, sliced bananas, honey and butter, came with a piece of nicely cooked, spice- and herb-topped kingfish. I preferred the maqbaazad to the fish I stole from my friend’s plate, but he had no complaints.

While Maskali focuses on meaty (and halal) items, Badar says he can whip up dishes for vegetarians and they’ve not been disappointed. Of course the restaurant is unlicensed, serving canned drinks for the most part.

In the middle of the last decade, Badar ran the Mer Rouge restaurant on Cyrville Road. It was only open for a few years, and Badar, with whom I spoke this week following my three incognito visits, says he can’t even remember its exact address.

I’m hoping there will be a longer, happier run for Maskali, provided that curious eaters overcome their hesitations and take that first step through its doors.

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