As diasporic internet communities emerged in the early 2010s, Xawaash connected an entire generation to his cultural legacy
The written prescription is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, and even more relevant to Somalis than to people in other parts of the world. For thousands of years, our living oral tradition has archived our recipes the same way we preserve our poems and stories. So what happens when knowledge is no longer passed on orally? When it leaves the tongue of one generation but struggles to reach the ear of the next?
For a generation of diaspora Somalis, this cultural transmission was interrupted first by the Somali civil war in 1991 and then by the resulting mass international migration. Like an encrypted phone call, knowledge that should be passed from one generation to the next is often discarded.
In many ways, the millennial Somali diaspora has been able to learn and reconnect to this cultural knowledge thanks to the internet. In the early 2010s, as blogs became a cultural phenomenon and many young Somalis went online, diasporic internet communities emerged. The transfer of cultural knowledge and resources began to go digital. This effort was led by pioneers like Spicesthe food blog that taught a generation of Somali diaspora children to cook online.
Xawaash was founded in 2011 by Leila Adde and Abdullahi Kassim, a couple who grew up in pre-civil war Somalia before eventually settling in Kitchener, Ontario. The self-proclaimed “food-loving” couple, who ran a second-hand clothing export business, decided to start a food blog in their spare time. On weekends in Kitchener, their home was filled with the sounds of oud-heavy Somali music and up to 40 to 60 friends and family members all enjoying the dishes they prepared. “It was good practice. . . . “We used to try different recipes,” Kassim recalls.
They began collecting recipes from their parents and relatives around the world, from Australia to Kenya, and preserved unique regional Bravanese (Barawani) and Somali recipes such as Kalamudo (hand-cut noodles with meat) and Bariis Iskukaris (stew rice and meat) . before the older generation died.
Almost immediately, Adde and Kassim’s blog became a hit and found its way into every corner of the global Somali diaspora
While Xawaash wasn’t the only Somali food blog on the scene, it made a lasting impression. Not only has Xawaash painstakingly created a digital archive of recipes like Soor Iyo Maraq and Oodkac that used to only be passed on orally, but it has also connected an entire generation to this culinary legacy, preserving knowledge and effectively restoring the cultural transmission of our recipes.
Almost immediately, Adde and Kassim’s blog became a hit and found its way into every corner of the global Somali diaspora. Their audience continued to grow as they added recipe videos to the blog, along with how-to guides in Somali, English, and Arabic. But Xawaash’s popularity really exploded when he joined the blog youtube. For older Somalis, YouTube was a way to keep up with politics and their peers around the world, or to nostalgically reminisce about all the things from their youth that war had shattered and now only existed online – like old Ruwaayad (theater) performances and concerts or recordings of Somali cities as they once were.
For a younger generation who had never experienced their parents’ Somalia, YouTube also provided a window into the past, showing pre-war Somalia and its golden age of art, music and cultural production. It was here that Xawaash found another audience: viewers from Adde and Kassim’s generation who no longer had to deal with language barriers or learn how to access the blog – they could just watch. The results speak for themselves: 196,000 subscribers, millions of views and thousands of comments. “Thank you for all the recipes. I grew up in America and didn’t learn to cook anything. . . . I was mocked all the time for getting burned and making bad food. Now that I have you, I’ll do anything. Really, thanks a lot,” reads one response to a video about samosa wraps.
Xawaash also found his younger millennial audience through the popular 2010s microblogging site Tumblr. On Tumblr, young Somalis formed a community and made friends with other Somali millennials who lived thousands of miles away. Many of these connections between “reer Tumblr” (aka the Tumblr family) continue today. Somalis posted recipes on Tumblr, as well as Xawaash’s iconic spice menu: Each ingredient of Somalia’s famous “Xawaash” spice blend is arranged in the country’s geographical shape, with golden turmeric and cinnamon bark chunks nestled alongside a coriander seed horn and earth-green cardamom pods. For many, it was the first time Somali cuisine had featured on the internet.
For others, Xawaash has become both a guide and a cultural lifeline: “If only you could see what people say when they write to us,” Kassim said, laughing as he recounted the amount of emails and comments he and Adde receive had over the years. “There were Somali students studying in Turkey who told us they entered an ethnic food competition and won because of Xawaash. Once a girl from China wrote to us that we had saved her marriage.”
Xawaash’s influence can still be felt today. “I’ve loved Xawaash since I was a teenager when I first started cooking. I was looking for recipes because my mom didn’t write her recipes down,” says Los Angeles-based filmmaker and model Miski Muse. “It’s still my go-to place for Somali recipes to this day, and I even use it when I’m hosting dinner parties or when I’m feeling nostalgic.” Author Jamila Osman recalls eating an incredible date cake at Xawaash in Toronto recently and searched for something similar after returning to Portland, Oregon before finally finding the recipe at Xawaash’s.
For Somali chefs and recipe developers like myself who need to translate oral recipes into precise written measurements, Xawaash has served as a helpful guide when I needed to translate my family’s abstract forms of measurement into something that others can use or provide further context to a dish’s story. Aside from being able to personally learn from my elders, it was often one of the few culinary resources available to me.
Given the lack of representation and knowledge of Somali cuisine in the mainstream, Xawaash also serves non-Somalis as a primary source on Somali cuisine. For Ohio-based archivist Qaman Omar, Xawaash also offered something more meaningful than just recipes: a positive narrative. “For me and my mother, Xawaash was less of a source of recipes and more of a kind of digital museum of Somali cuisine and its interpretations. We were amazed that our traditional foods entered the digital space at a time when almost all media was negative about the Somali people and culture.”
As Xawaash’s influence grew over the years, supporters of the blog encouraged Adde and Kassim to open their own restaurant. Kassim jokingly replied that they would only open a restaurant if they “had a million dollars.” After years of persuasion and realizing that their nearly decade-old clothing business was no longer viable, Adde and Kassim opened Xawaash restaurant in Toronto in 2015 and eventually closed their blog and YouTube channel to focus fully on the restaurant. Xawaash’s international virtual support created a steady customer base who flocked to the restaurant for dishes such as chicken mandi and rice or braised lamb, eventually allowing Adde and Kassim to open a second location in Mississauga in 2019 .
When asked if he ever expected that the blog he and Leila started as an archival side project would not only grow into a restaurant empire but also help so many diaspora Somalis connect with their Combining culinary and cultural roots, Abdullahi replied: “We never thought that would happen in our wildest dreams.”
Like many Somali women throughout history, I first learned to cook from my mother, who learned from her mother, who in turn learned from her mother. But many of my colleagues in the diaspora learned how to cook from the internet. One is an oral tradition, the other a digital one – but both preserve and share our cultural traditions. The latter has been made possible for an entire generation thanks to pioneers like Xawaash.