Captain Phillips: Sweet Somali Cake Recipe

Year Released: 2013

Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi 

(PG-13, 134 min.)

Genre: Crime Drama, Thriller

"Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary."  Gerard Way

On rare occasions in film as in life, everything comes together to create near perfection.  Because it does not try too hard to please us with Hollywood's standard visual and verbal excess, that's exactly what happens in this retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship off the Somali coast.

One reason this film feels so fresh is that we are accustomed to over the top characters and plots.  In fact, the go to source for much of recent film has been the comic book.  No wonder too often the villains are cardboard, the heroes mere warm bodies beneath sparkly spandex tights and capes.

And don't even get me started on the core vulgarity that has become a poor substitute for comedic wit, or the social dramas that are really hollow stories used to hammer home the most current politically correct dogma.  Maybe that's why some of the finest films in recent history, such as Lincoln  or The King's Speech have been based on real people and events.

Of course, Captain Richard Phillips is certainly not a president or king, but he is, none the less, a true hero.  He shares their very human qualities. What endeared us to Daniel Day-Lewis' portrait of Lincoln – his tender indulgence as a father or his homespun humor – are qualities of Lincoln as a man, not as the U.S. President.  Just as in The King's Speech when the stammering monarch stripped of his kingly robes made Colin Frith's performance so endearing, Tom Hanks brings an everyman core of decency to Captain Phillips that resonates with the audience. It is  much more profound than any heroic pyrotechnics we have come to expect in our cinema.

Captain Phillips is essentially an ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance.  He will not use any special prowess to retake his ship once it has been boarded by the small band of Somali pirates.  He is just trying to keep everyone under his command safe and alive.

Yet there is a bit of the "wily Odysseus" buried deep in the taciturn New Englander Hanks portrays. Or maybe a touch of William Shatner's Captain Kirk, using special words and codes to communicate tactical maneuvers to his hidden crew.   He leaves his two way radio on as he leads the pirates on a search of the ship so the crew holed up in its lowers bowels know exactly where their abductors are. 

Equally fascinating, if I can borrow from Mr. Spock here, is the complex portrait of the Somalis, especially the leader of the rag tag band, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skeletal figure whose vaulting ambition overshadows his physical form. We see him struggling with the corrupt hierarchy of the Somali kidnapping ring, how the actual kidnappers are almost as much victims of the scheme as those they abduct.  He brags to Captain Phillips of the last ransom he brought in, to the tune of several million dollars, but has no ready answer when Hanks asks him why he still needs to bring in more money. Of course, the truth is that the lion's share of the ransoms go to the war lords who arrive at the Somali hovels in their flashy cars to herd the young men out to the seas once again to fill their coffers.  Here is where the film gets a bit preachy, though, stopping barely short of a "pirates a societal victims" motif that is a step too far for this critic.  There is actually a thing such as free will even in poverty stricken Somalia.

That is a minor criticism in this fine film, though, which also ranks with the best of those submarine films, such as Das Boot or The Hunt for Red October, where two warring captains play a game of cat and mouse under the sea, each holding the enemy captain in high regard.  There is a whiff of that psychology repeated here, too.  Muse's boat is just a wooden skiff, but when he steps on board the Maersh Alabama, he immediately assumes equal stature with Phillips.  And just in case that fact is not clear to Phillips, Muse says succinctly, "I'm the captain now."

We watch the drama play out to its foretold conclusion, but we do not merely care about the fate of Captain Phillips and his crew now.  

There is no triumph in the bloody reckoning.  

…therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 –Kathy Borich


Film-Loving Foodie

Even Christian Bale, notorious for losing great amounts of weight for his films, such as The Fighter and Rescue Dawn , could not fast himself down to the gaunt frame of Somali pirate Muse.  His hollow cheeks look as though they are carved in ebony.  

What he needs is some good Somali cake to fill himself out.  Maybe with a full belly instead of that " lean and hungry look," he might have stayed safe and sound on dry land. 

Halwa: Sweet Somali Cake

Halwa is Somalis favourite sweet and a must have during festive occasions.  This recipe is a variation of the Somali halwa recipe. It uses semolina flour in lieu of the traditional cornflour. The chickpea flour adds an amazing depth of nutty flavour.

I have also used almonds, pistachio and sultanas to add crunch, but you can use different kinds of nuts or seeds. Try using pumpkin seeds and sesame for a unique and flavoursome combination.

The word halwa (حلوى) means sweet in Arabic. It comes from the Arabic halawa (حلاوة) which means 'sweetness'. Halva is the most common English spelling.


1 cup semolina flour

3 tbsp. chickpea flour

1 cup sugar

100g butter or subag (ghee or clarified butter)

½ tsp. ground cardamom

½ cup of mixed nuts and fruit – slivered almonds, pistachio and sultanas (leave some pistachio for garnishing)

2 cups milk


1. Add the ground cardamom and butter to the semolina flour and toast lightly on low heat to a light golden brown colour. This should take about 5 minutes.

2. Add the nuts and sultanas and mix well.

3. Add the sugar and milk. The semolina flour will absorb the milk.

4. Keep stirring the mixture on a low heat until the semolina stops sticking to the cooking pot and the spoon. This should take about 5 minutes.

5. Place on a plate and cut to desired shapes.  I like to shape the halwa using small cups, which I then turn onto a serving plate. Sprinkle some pistachio to decorate the halwa.

Serves 6 – 8 people. Semolina Halwa is best eaten warm with a cup of spicy Chai Tea