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in the kitchen with: halimo’s malawah and spiced milk tea

by Kristina Gill

The recipes featured on today’s column are by Halimo, a former Somali restaurateur in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.  The sweet Somali flatbread, malawah, and spiced milk tea were staples for Halimo, her family and many other residents in the camp and are cherished foods they have brought with them to the United States.  The recipes are a preview of what will appear in the narrative cookbook project, Between Meals, by the Bay Area organization, Refugee Transitions, whose mission is to assist refugee and immigrant families in becoming self-sufficient in the United States.  Created by food stylist Dani Fisher, and writer and educator, Lauren Markham, Between Meals will share the expertise and stories of newly-arrived refugee women, from Burma to Liberia to Afghanistan.  The women’s traditional recipes have been documented with the help of their Refugee Transitions tutors.  Between Meals also tells the stories of students’ exile from their home countries, their journeys to the United States, and their efforts–literally and metaphorically–to nourish their families in their new California homes.  Check back on the Refugee Transitions site for more information about the kickstarter campaign Dani and Lauren will be launching in the next few days for the realization of the book.

About Halimo: Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world and home to over two hundred thousand Somali refugees like Halimo, is where Halimo lived for 21 years before resettling to Oakland in 2011 with her three daughters, Fatuma, age 16, Suado, age 14, and Hamso, age 8.  As a single mother in Dadaab, Halimo had to support her family, so she opened a small restaurant: “Halimo’s.” The most common images of refugee camps are portraits of expansive squalor and desperation—but people had been living in Halimo’s section of Dadaab for decades and, despite severe hardship, had set roots there. Like many long-term refugee camps, Dadaab was home to vibrant and surprising town centers, with everything from basic internet cafes to bars to sundry shops to restaurants like “Halimo’s”.  Each day from 7:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. she cooked and served camp residents who had a source of income from their own small businesses. In this traditional Muslim community, women and men ate in different parts of the restaurant, separated by a thin, tattered curtain.

Click through to read the full recipe and more about Halimo after the jump…

Though Halimo fed over a hundred people each day, most Dadaab residents cooked their own food with rations provided by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). These rations came twice each month and included flour, salt, oil, lentils and maize (corn) flower. Hence malawah’s popularity—all Halimo needed to procure to make this subtly sweet pancake was a few pinches of sugar, eggs and some milk. Many Dadaab refugees made a less rich and tasty version of this dish each day with their WFP rations.

Malawah—A Sweet Somali Flatbread

To make malawah, Halimo uses no measuring devices—she knows just how much flour to scoop into her two cupped hands. To crack an egg she knocks the tip then removes small flakes of shell, patiently and bit by bit, until the hole is large enough to drop out the yoke.  Dani and Lauren translated it into a recipe you can try in your kitchen.


  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-2 tbsp. vegetable oil for frying

8” frying pan

Whisk together until totally smooth. Mixture should be thin, like crepe batter. Add water if too thick.  Heat pan for 10 minutes, then fry each Malawah individually in a flat bottom pan. Spoon into center and use back of spoon to spread batter out. Flip after bottom is browned. Cook over med-low heat. Eat for breakfast with spiced black tea.

Why Halimo and her daughters love malawah

“We ate malawah every morning in Dadaab,” says Halimo as she stirs flour and sugar in her sun-lit East Oakland kitchen.   “I don’t like food here a lot, but my sister Hamso likes the cake,” says Fatuma. “She likes the vanilla kind only, not chocolate.” But nothing compares to Malawah. Though they can’t get it anywhere in Oakland except their mother’s kitchen, the three girls can agree that Malawah is their favorite food of all.

Spiced Milk Tea


  • 2 cups of milk
  • heaping tbsp black tea
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 cloves, smashed
  • 2 pieces of cinnamon bark
  • 3-5 tbsp ginger, grated

Use  mortar and pestle to crush cardamom and ginger into a thick paste. Combine ingredients in pot with milk, bring boil and cook over high heat until tea begins to boil, turn down and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Pour tea over a strainer to serve.

Halimo’s daughters explain why they love this tea
“Before we used milk from the goat,” she says. “But here we use cow milk.  My mom likes goat milk better,” explains her daughter, Fatuma. “But I like  cow’s milk.” Eight year old Hamso likes cow’s milk, too, they explain—in just a few years, she now prefers the ingredients available in the U.S., and loves perusing the aisles at the nearby Lucky’s.


(first image, Victoria Wall Harris; images of tea and Halimo, Jennifer Martine)

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  • what a wonderful project for this cookbook. the tea looks somewhat similar to the sweet tea i was served both mid-morning and late afternoon when i did volunteer work in nepal. that flatbread looks delicious.

  • Thank you for this post. It is a great addition to my daily dose of design, art and food at Design Sponge. More of this please.

  • Such a fascinating story. Who knew there were restaurants in refugee camps? Great post.

  • I tried both recipes this morning on my husband and 5 year old daughter. The flatbread was like a thick, sweet crepe. Very much living up to the title of a “bread”. The spiced milk however was a real disaster. (Did I do something wrong?) Essentially, my milk curdled and I wonder if it has something to do with the fresh ginger being boiled in milk. I followed the recipe and came up with a gloppy, un-milk-like mess…which after taking the time and ingredients to make was a real disappointment. (I even double checked the date on my milk carton thinking that could be the problem. Nope.)
    Curious to know of other peoples results. This recipe really strikes me like a chai tea, in which I’ve always used powdered ginger. And so, that’s what I’m thinking would work here.

  • This is so great! What a fantastic project. Food is such an important tether to home, no matter where you go, and hanging on to culinary traditions has to be so essential for displaced people. Bonus, these recipes looks absolutely delicious.

  • I never considered what milk to use for my cup of tea, but this post makes me realize there is more you can experiment with tea.

  • This recipe has become a regular treat with my family. We LOVE it. It’s perfectky sweetened but not over the top. It goes so well with coffee or tea. It’s quite easy to make and hope more of your readers will try it. Thank you so much for sharing this and I hope to see more articles like this. xo a loooooong time reader

  • I had never considered how long anyone was in a refugee camp. I would have said 2 years or so would be the max, but 21 years? I can’t even imagine. Thank you for sharing this story, I like to hear their creative solutions to unbelievably difficult times. Finding a way to have something that feels like a treat in that situation is just so inspiring. I am glad to see that the family has a permanent home now.