We need to talk about kidney disease (and delicious Somali liver recipes)

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We need to talk more about kidneys

Khadija Gure talks about kidney disease within her family through the lens of food and Somali liver and kidney recipes.

I don’t think we think enough about kidneys or at least talk about them enough. I’m scrambling through information stored in my brain, but I can only come up with a few bits and pieces about kidneys:

They make/sieve through urine before releasing it towards the bladder.

They’re partly responsible for the clearance of insulin.

They’re usually the size of a fist, and sometimes, I eat them when my mom cooks them.

Not human kidneys, of course, they’re usually cow or sheep kidneys.

I also come across kidney beans in my brain: not sure how they relate to the fleshy kind.

And kidney and livers taste great cooked the Somali way (not human of course!)

Before I share my favorite Somali liver recipe, I need to tell you about my cousin Asha, who has tiny cysts attached to the surface of her kidneys. The doctor says Asha’s kidneys are the size of two fists, they seem to be operating well, although she can’t determine the cause of the enlargement yet.

The doctor asks, “does your family have a history of kidney-related issues or diseases?”

My cousin replies, telling the doctor that her father may have had issues with his kidneys, but he passed away in Kismayo years ago.

I interpret parts of this conversation for my cousin from Somalia. Her interpreter misses to convey some things, but she delivers on the kidney bits, considering all the medical vocabulary hurled around the small square examination room.

My mom’s cousin died of kidney failure. He lived with diabetes for more than half his fifty-odd years. I remember him sitting under a pomegranate tree, seeds, and soft fruit carcass at his feet, sipping cinnamon-spiced tea.

The thing about tea in my family is that the flavor is buried in sugar, white crystals that glint briefly before dissolving into the depths of a cup of brewed Kenyan black tea. This sugar is deceptive, its vast presence is detected by the tongue when it’s too late to reverse the damage. The sugar situation does not help with the prevalence of diabetes within my family.

Photo collage of kidney beans laid out in a row on top of a table cloth painted in the Somali flag, a prompt for the Somali community to talk about kidney disease more.
Credit: ©dule964 / Adobe Stock

Why is it so easy to forget the kidneys?

I think about my lungs almost every day because my chest lifts up and down to remind me. 

Because air travels through my nose and pushes my chest out. I can feel them hoist themselves whenever I yawn. My stomach never lets me forget her. She growls in a reminder every few hours.

I think of my intestines more than I do my kidneys. I think of them the most when I have cramps in my abdomen. I can feel them twisting and writhing their snake-like bodies, asking me to empty their contents as soon as possible. I think about my heart, especially when I exercise, and I feel it beating against the veins on my neck.

Photo collage of fresh liver, Lahore bread and green peppers on top of a table cloth painted in the Somali flag. All ingredients are key to Somali liver recipes.
Caption: "Liver, particularly beef liver, is one of the most nutritious meats you can eat. It's a great source of high-quality protein; vitamins A, B12, B6; folic acid; iron; zinc; and essential amino acids." WebMD reviewed Credit: ©dule964 / Adobe Stock

I think the kidneys should make more noise

I grew up eating delicious kidneys at least once every week. They go well with a freshly baked batch of injera, the Somali kind. They go well with regular flatbreads as well and crepes, the Somali kind. They taste better when they’re fresh, not frozen.

They don’t need to be fussed over in my experience, they just need to be cut up into small, but decent-sized pieces, and sautéed in a bed of oil, onions, tomatoes, and peppers.

They’re almost similar in texture to mushrooms when cooked.

I can function just fine with only one of my kidneys working. I have a backup for the future, just in case I need it, or someone close to me needs it. Kidneys are resourceful, and futuristic, the executives of the human body, but they’re not honored as much as they should be as Kidneys cost quite a bit in the black market.

Demand always exceeds supply, and the poor sell their kidneys in the hope of attaining a more bearable life. There’s a waitlist for anyone who needs a transplant, but the waitlist is not required; sometimes, if a family member is present, or a friend who turns out to be generous and a genuine match.

No other organ is as flexible as a kidney. No living person can donate a heart, stomach, or lung. Livers are a little bit more flexible as far as organs go. I think this is why I grew up eating liver as well. They can always stretch in terms of giving. The whole family is satisfied after a meal of liver.

My cousin wants to have a baby soon. That’s why she’s having a checkup that ends up being about the health of her kidneys. At the doctor’s office, her gynecologist says to her, “I want to make sure that you can carry a baby safely to term.”

Having a baby is about kidneys, and kidney beans are about kidneys.

My favorite Somali liver dish recipe

Given I  have such fond memories of eating liver growing up, I will share with you my absolute favorite liver recipe.

Of course, you could substitute kidneys for the liver if you prefer. To give the kidneys a milder taste, soak them in cold milk for about half an hour. Enjoy!

A photo of somali liver & onions (Beer iyo Basal)

Somali Liver & Onions (Beer iyo Basal)

Prep time


Cook time





Main course




1 fresh liver ( goat or lamb liver works best, but calf’s liver also works)
1 large red onion
1 1/2 large green peppers
2 Serrano peppers
2-4 tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable oil of your choice
Black pepper
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 teaspoon of coriander

Food preparation:

Using a sharp knife cut the liver in half then cut into thin strips.

Cut the onions into thin crescent slices.

Slice the peppers into thin slices

Cut the Serrano peppers in half horizontally, then chop into small squares.

Cooking directions:

Heat a large nonstick pan.
Add 2 to 4 tablespoons of oil.
Once the oil heats sauté the onions until translucent.
To season: a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper.
Add the liver and sauté until the liver browns.
Add a teaspoon of coriander and cumin.
Once the liver starts to soften add the green peppers and the Serrano.
Sauté until soft.

A liver that is cooked properly is moist and sweet; if it is dry it is overcooked and tastes horrible!

Serve with Lahooh, a Somali flatbread, or pita bread, and lemon wedges.

Note: if you wish for the liver to be spicy, sauté the Serrano peppers with the onions. The liver is normally quick to cook, so this whole process should not take more than 10-15 minutes; as such be prepared with the ingredients before you start cooking!

Article by
Khadija Gure

Khadija Gure, the author of "Need to talk about kidney disease (and Delicious Somali liver recipes)", is a writer living in central Minnesota. She’s currently working on her MFA at Hamline University. She likes to write because it is a way to share experiences and ideas with others.