Anchorage, AK: In Midtown and Mountain View, the flavors of Africa

Omima Adams, formerly from Sudan, poses in front of her Sultan Shawarma food truck
at 4055 Mountain View Drive in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday, March 31, 2015.

By Shannon Kuhn  |  Alaska Dispatch News

Omima Adams, formerly from Sudan, poses in front of her Sultan Shawarma food truck  at 4055 Mountain View Drive in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday, March 31, 2015.
Omima Adams, formerly from Sudan, poses in front of her Sultan Shawarma food truck
at 4055 Mountain View Drive in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday, March 31, 2015.

I have a lot in common with Omima Adam. We both love to cook, put hot sauce on everything and call Alaska home. We share a fondness for colorful scarves, are close to our families and are quick to hug people.

Adam and her husband recently opened up the Anchorage food truck Sultan Shawarma, where they serve homemade falafel, kebabs and shawarma six days a week.

But the road to becoming a food truck proprietor in Alaska hasn’t been an easy one.

It started in Darfur, Sudan, where Adam was born. It’s a place most people know about only from news reports of a horrifying, violent conflict in a faraway African nation. Adam lived it.

“I was lucky. I left,” Adam said. Her sister and brother remain in Sudan, unsure of their future.

Adam and her husband, Abu Baker Eltaher, are now raising their two kids in Alaska. Their son is 17 months, their daughter is 4. She proudly shows me photos of them at Chuck E. Cheese’s on her phone. All smiles and baby fat, they have never known war or famine, and Adam intends to keep it that way.

Painted in cheerful shades of yellow and orange, Adam’s food truck, Sultan Shawarma, brightens up the dusty gravel lot it’s parked in. The scent of onion, cumin and roasting meat is warm and welcoming as a hug, greeting me as I get out of my car.

“I love food — when I cook, I cook like I want to eat it myself,” she calls out to me from inside the truck as she prepares my lunch.

No one was surprised when an African food truck opened in Mountain View. After all, it’s one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country, with a concentration of affordable housing and commercial revitalization efforts.

Near the intersection of Bragaw and Mountain View Drive, Sultan Shawarma is almost hidden from view. Across the street is a Dominican restaurant and an Asian grocery store. A block in one direction, you can find German cuisine, and a block the other way, Vietnamese pho.

Adam says she likes the spot, but would also like to be downtown or somewhere more visible. The hardest part for her is marketing.

“I know if people just tried (my food), they would like,” she declares.

Shawarma is Arabic for thinly sliced and roasted meat, usually lamb, beef or chicken cooked on a vertical spit. No pork is served, and Adam can tell you which food is halal (allowable under Islamic dietary guidelines). The falafel is vegetarian.

Marinated in a sauce of chilies, garlic, ginger and cinnamon, Adam wraps the hot chicken in a warm pita with vegetables but smiles slyly when asked about the details. “It’s my secret shawarma recipe,” she says. Shawarma is a common street food in Sudan, but Adam never made it before moving to the United States.

In Sudan, she was a civil engineer. She rarely cooked. When she moved to Alaska she could hardly speak a word of English and says she turned to the kitchen as a way to share what translated without words: food.

“Alaska is good,” she says. “You can do anything here.”

Today, Adam speaks conversational English. “My husband says I learned fast because I talk so much!” She is studying for her citizenship test this summer. Making shawarma is helping her save money so she can go to the University of Alaska Anchorage to earn another engineering degree.

People sometimes ask her if she feels safe in Mountain View. “Always,” she says. “Except for last weekend. That has never happened before.”

She is referring to the vandalism of two Darfurian refugees’ cars with messages including “not welcome” and “leave Alaska” in Spenard. “If we don’t stand up, it could happen to any of us,” she says.

I ran into Mobarak Albadawi, one of the Darfurian men whose property was been vandalized, while ordering lamb suqaar across town at the only other African restaurant in Anchorage: Safari.

Located in a Midtown strip mall and serving huge quantities of Somali-style food, Safari has become more than a restaurant — it’s a gathering place for Anchorage’s African community.

Under the new ownership of Ayub Epralin and his wife, Safari offers hard-to-find African and Middle Eastern groceries and ingredients like ugali flour, canned fava beans, fenugreek seeds and kofta spice mix. There are a few tables for diners, with a TV overhead. A college basketball game plays in the background

Adam says Epralin would like her to come cook for Safari, but she likes her independence. They support each other, but she prefers her Sudanese style of making shawarma and samosas to his Somali recipe.

In reaction to the vandalism incident, a community potluck in support of Anchorage’s immigrant population is being held at the Northway Mall this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Adam will be there with her husband and two kids. She is thinking of bringing samboksas, fried pastry triangles with spiced ground beef, peas and carrots inside. They are eaten dipped in a mixture of ketchup and hot sauce.

Afterward, she’ll be back at her truck making food. Adam proudly hands me my shawarma.

“Everyone is welcome here,” she says.

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture. Reach her at (subject line: Shannon Kuhn).

If you go

Sultan Shawarma food truck is open noon-5 p.m. Sunday to Friday. 4055 Mountain View Drive, cash only.

Safari Restaurant is open Monday-Saturday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 2813 Dawson St., cash and credit cards accepted.