Mieda Ertra, one of Asmara’s busiest squares, is a marketplace, city bus terminal and a place where Asmara’s greatest church and mosque are found. It is a center for many formal and informal businesses. Street vendors abound in the area. During Ramadan, street vendors around Mieda Ertra sell the popular and flavourful Sambuusa (samosa) in the evening. The vendors find the streets heading to the great mosque convenient places where they can sell their sambuusa.
In the last edition of Eritrea Profile, I read an insightful article titled “The Holy Month of Ramadan” written by Sona Berhane. She recounted her apt observation and experience of Ramadan and the breaking of the fast in Ginda’e, 48 kilometers from Asmara. The article is informative and it has introduced me to the culture of Ramadan in that particular place. It also inspired me to share my observation of the selling of ambuusa on the streets of Asmara, which I think is uniquely associated with Ramadan.
Fasting during Ramadan means abstinence from eating and drinking between dawn and dusk. Although fasting during Ramadan is universal for all Muslims, the cultural and geographic diversities across countries has resulted in variations in dietary habits.
I was often invited by Muslim friends to eat together and observe the breaking of the fast. Communal gatherings are common in families living together. When breaking the fast, it is important to ensure the safety of the food. There is a convincing alternation of food both in terms of quality and quantity during Ramadan. The two blessed meals are Suhoor, a pre-dawn meal and Iftaar, a meal served after the sun sets. The breaking of the fast comes with several traditional foodstuff. Sambuusa is probably the most popular snack among Eritrean Muslims. It’s a popular snack in lowland and highland as well as in urban and rural areas. Sambuusa is generally made using vegetables and meat, although many spices are added for flavour.
The veggie sambuusa is filled with sautéed whole lentils, potatoes, green collards, onions, tomatoes, and some spices. The meat-based sambuusa is primarily stuffed with sautéed meat along with many other herbal spices. Most of the sambuusa that is sold by vendors on the streets of Asmara is fried in oil. The frying continues until the sambuusa turns golden brown. Sambuusa may also be made in oven, which is easier and preferred by many. Sambuusa made in oven can retain its warmth for a while, making it easy to serve customers with fresh and warm sambuusa.
Sambuusa is a special snack for Muslims during Ramadan. I am always tempted to buy sambuusa whenever I come across a street vendor and am hit by the aroma of fried sambuusa. The aroma of a baked or fried sambuusa filled with savoury is just irresistible. Although it takes different shapes, the most popular sambuusa is triangular and golden colour. When I asked people about why sambuusa takes the triangular shape, their responses tended to be idiosyncratic. Some believed that it symbolizes the unity of family members, friends and neighbors.
During Ramadan, for reasons I don’t know, sambuusa is the most popular street food. Vendors also sell roasted groundnuts along with sambuusa. The customers are mainly young men and women. Similarly, the vendors are from both genders. The selling of roasted groundnuts in the streets is dominated by women, and men are more active in the sale of sambuusa. Although it lasts only one month, Ramadan also provides a good opportunity for self-employment. It is true that food served on streets may be seen by some as unhygienic, but it’s common and likable in Asmara.
Men and women sitting on pavements and some mobile vendors selling sambuusa from pushcarts at the roadsides are a common sight in Asmara. The advantage of sambuusa is that it can be eaten without further processing on the street. In the evening hours it’s available everywhere but mostly around Mieda Ertra and the great mosque, Rashid Alkulafa. Students and working people buy sambuusa on their way back home. Therefore, street vendors can be said to be filling an important niche in the provision of food.
Asmara is unique because of its multi-ethnic population, with every ethnic group having its own distinct cuisine while some cuisines are equally shared by others. Generally, Muslims are hailed for making nutritious and healthy food. During Eid al-fitr, neighbors and friends visit to say Eid Mebruuk and are often served sambuusa, homemade pastry and beverages such as Aba’eke.