Eating With Immigrants in Grønland

Down a flight of stairs, in a bare room with orange walls, Somali men gather in the heart of Norway's capital to eat lunch and sip coffee.  This is the great normalcy of Oslo's Grønland neighborhood, where Iraqis, Vietnamese Kinh, Pakistanis and ethnic Norwegians rub shoulders.  It's a place where the smell of cumin and roasting meat wafts down the alleyways and people of all religions shop at the same Filipino fruit stand.  We ate two lunches and a dinner in Grønland, enjoyed ourselves a lot and discovered something new about what it means to be Norwegian.
Jubba - our downstairs lunch spot - is more popular with the Grønland locals than its famous Somali neighbor, Salaama, which looked louche and red-tinted from the sidewalk.  There, the tables were covered and the atmosphere was almost formal.  At Jubba, formica and counter-service sufficed.  The place was full of regulars, and the word "tourista" made its way from table to table when we came in.
We Americans were given forks and knives, the Somalis ate with their hands.  The menu was given to us verbally: "we have meat, fish or chicken," the chef announced.  Others were given more choice - there were various pastas and a strange type of chopped pancake called canjeelo.  Everyone was given a banana.  A bowl of sauce and a squeeze bottle of spice were put on the table.  The man who brought them said "strong" and "epicé," sucking in his breath to illustrate how hot it was.  Men at other tables repeated the words, one man said "spicy."
The food was really very tasty.  The chicken was moist and well spiced, the fish - coated in ochre powder - was reminiscent of something cooked in a tandoor.
Underneath a skyway, a saturday flea market bubbled with different voices and cultures.  Women in headscarves jostled up against blonde women with tattoos under their t-shirts.  A street away, tired-eyed derelicts drank their morning beers.  Next door, middle-eastern men sipped coffee.  The boulevards of Grønland are full of Turkish barbershops and Persian clothing boutiques.  There are Islamic centers and churches.  It's a place where anybody can feel at home.
At Lahoree Dera, the food was from further east.  We ate Pakistani lamb Lahori haleem and a vegetarian mix of chana and saag.  The spinach and chickpeas were spiced with nutmeg and chili.  The haleem was a thick, orange lentil and lamb paste that stuck to the spoon and had a slow-building heat.  We were served a basket of nan bread to sop it up.
In a testament to the peaceable mixing of cultures, it's not uncommon in Oslo to see restaurants that advertise both "Indiansk" and "Pakistanske" food.  At Lahoree Dera, the line was a little more clear cut.  "The restaurant is Pakistani," the man behind the counter said with certainty.  When I asked him if he was from Lahore, though, he said no.  "I'm from Afghanistan," he chuckled.  The television had advertisements for Afghan cell-phone companies and video clips of rockets flashed on the screen.
Norway has long embraced immigration, especially by asylum seekers and people from war zones.  In Kosovo and Bosnia it seemed as though everyone had a relative here.  While the largest immigrant groups, by far, are Poles and Swedes, they aren't as culturally visible.  The only Polish restaurant we could find was closed when we visited, and Swedish culture is hard (for an outsider) to distinguish from Norwegian.
In contrast, people from the middle east, Africa and South-Asia have become distinct parts of the capital's cultural map. At Cedar Sunrise coffee shop, the Lebanese owners play host to caffeine drinkers from all over the world.  Right on Grønland boulevard, with tables spilling out to the edge of traffic, the cafe is a focal point for local greetings and gossip.  The kaffe au laits were strong and expertly made, the baristas call out to everyone by name.
At Mama Africa, on the second floor of the central bus-station, the Ethiopian food is spicy and served with yards of injera, the porous flatbread so popular in East African cuisine.  A man there told us that his entire family lives in Washington D.C., but that America was "too hot" for him.  He blamed his asthma, and the southern swampiness.  He likes Oslo, but wishes he could be around people he's used to.
The bus station was full of people rushing from place to place - most of them didn't even seem to notice the dark restaurant serving doro wat and beyaynetu.  Those that did stop in seemed to be a mixture of the curious and the practiced.  Mama Africa was a pleasant mix of cultures - there were Ethiopian friends of the owners, Norwegian families, tourists from continental Europe, the two American travelers and a few Indian young people.  We all ate with our hands, drank coffee and listened to the mixing of languages.  It was fun, it felt like Oslo, we left very full.
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