Somali flavor meets "Top Chef" Saturday in the first-ever Sambusa Cook-Off in downtown Minneapolis.

In the old country, sambusa was a modest Somali snack food served during the Muslim season of Ramadan to break the day's fast.

But here in Minnesota, where immigrants from Somalia have resettled by the tens of thousands, the sambusa has become much more.

It has become a staple menu item in Somali restaurants all over town and is gaining a following among non-Somalis, too.

The fried, stuffed, triangle-shaped pastry will be the main attraction tonight at the cook-off.

A friendly contest among five local cooks, the event is a festive outgrowth of a larger effort by local Somali-American community leaders and the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee to raise awareness and local money for aid projects in Somalia.

Another goal, said leaders of the Neighbors for Nations program, is to find ways to distract teens from the lure of gangs and religious extremism.

The sambusa cook-off, being held at the Lab Theater, aims to supply a fun way to bring together Somali people in Minnesota and other Minnesotans.

"One of the things that brings neighbors together is food," Said Sheik-Abdi, program manager for Neighbors for Nations, said. "We know that non-Somalis love sambusa."

Competing at the sold-out event are sambusa-making stars of the local Somali community: Nafisa Farah, co-owner of SomAmerica Catering & Food; Sade Hashi, co-owner and chef at Safari Restaurant; Abdirahman Kahin, manager of Afro Deli & Coffee; Aidarus Munye, owner of International Food Manufacturing, which supplies sambusas to schools and businesses; and Fartun Nur, a home cook whose sambusas caught the attention of organizers.

Each cook must prepare 350 bite-sized treats.

Traditional sambusas are filled with spiced ground beef, but for this cook-off, the chefs have been instructed to use vegetable stuffing.

An all-star panel of judges will decide who wins the $1,000 cash prize, donated by local band WookieFoot.

The judges are Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of the popular radio program "The Splendid Table"; Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak; and celebrated Somali singers/artists Hibo Nuura and Adar Kahin.

Much like their role models on TV cooking contests, judges will consider taste, creativity and presentation in choosing a winner, Sheik-Abdi said.

Audience members, too, will get a sample and a vote.

In the days leading up to the event, two of the competitors talked about their odds of success.

Nur, the only amateur chef in the contest, said she's looking forward to competing but is not expecting to win.

Encouraged to enter by co-workers who have tasted her homemade sambusas, she said she accepted the organizers' invitation because she thought it would be fun.

On Friday afternoon, she was on her way to the kitchen to chop onions, peel potatoes and get ready to "fold, fill and fry."

Kahin, a restaurant manager, predicted he would do well because he's used to making vegetarian sambusas, filling his with lentils.

"Sambusa is part of the Somali tradition," he said. "Everyone has his own recipe."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488