Filling A Void With Flavours From Home: New Eateries Bring West African Dishes To Growing Nigerian Community

Elizabeth Lawal and her daughter Anne Ogidan with a plate of jollof rice, served with chicken, salad and dodo (fried plantain), at their new Nigerian-inspired eatery Akin's African Restaurant. (Ian Froese/CBC)

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA (CBC)--Elizabeth Lawal loves to bring Nigerians in Winnipeg together, and now she's doing it over flavourful dishes of pounded yam or jollof rice.

"That is the joy I have — to see something that is not in the city I created," she said.

Lawal is the first to admit she was taking on a challenge in opening Akin's African Restaurant and Bar on Sargent Avenue, in the Spence neighbourhood — the entrepreneur, who has been in Canada since 1986, already runs a successful grocery store, salon and employment agency, and owns rental properties.

The gregarious host, wearing a purple apron reading "adorable," acknowledges she's busy enough, but she saw a need: Winnipeg has plenty of East African establishments, but not enough restaurants dishing out the West African cuisine her fellow Nigerians are after.

The new restaurant caters to a swelling Nigerian community in Winnipeg — one which has more than doubled in size from 1,340 people of Nigerian origin in 2011 to 3,450 people by 2016, according to Statistics Canada data.

"I don't think I did it to make an income — I did it because the city needs it," she said.
Filling a niche

New restaurants run by Nigerians are sprouting up in Winnipeg to meet that need.

Lawal's opened last December.

And then there's Victor Alozie, who is behind two new ventures that started serving customers in November: the Fort Rogue-area One Stop African Restaurant,at the corner of Ebby and Pembina, and Yellow Chili Restaurant, on Main Street in North Point Douglas.

The key to his business, Alozie says, "lies in locating what is not there, why it's not there and how to fill the vacuum."

He previously collaborated with another cook to open a joint West African/Indian eatery in the city's south end, which gave him the confidence to strike out on his own.

"I decided it was important, necessary, to establish a Nigerian restaurant so Nigerians here in Winnipeg can feel at home."

He didn't intend to open two outlets at once, but he's confident he can make them both work. His Point Douglas location, Yellow Chili Restaurant, has adopted some of the conventional flavours of the neighbourhood, like bannock and burgers, alongside Nigerian favourites such as puff puff — a lightly-sweetened doughnut — or akara, spiced fritters made with bean flour.

"He understands that this business is in an area that needs to have other things served," said Holly Dyck, who came in as a cook without experience.

"I was learning a bit from the best Nigerian educational videos, you could say."

Most of their African food is sold through delivery.

In the south end of Winnipeg, meanwhile, Shade Akin-Akinbulumo turned her takeout business into a kiosk at the University of Manitoba, and is gratified by the support she's received from the post-secondary lunch crowd.

"It's gone beyond your community," she remembers a manager telling her. The realization delighted her.

Nigerian food, she says, is flavourful — that's how her customers describe it. Conventional rice dishes are often blended with varied spices.

At her Sargent Avenue restaurant, Lawal says she always liked to cook West African dishes at home, where her kids eat as they would if they were in Nigeria. But she was convinced to bring her cooking to the masses after enough of her grocery customers asked her to start.

She said their restaurant's top-selling item is pounded yam — similar in texture to mashed potatoes, but heavier. Another favourite is jollof rice, a dish teeming with rice, tomatoes and any number of meats and spices. It's a good introductory dish for those new to West African cuisine, Lawal said.

The early customer rush prompted her to hire another chef earlier than she imagined.

When the restaurant opened, "All the West [Africans] just bombard us with demand," she said. "It's not a regret we open, but it's too much work for one person."

Even with the help, it's a lot of work, Lawal says — but it's also, as she says, her joy.

"Sometimes I ask God: why you make me crazy like this?" she said, chuckling. "Right now, I don't really need to open the restaurant to live, but I just like to take challenges in my life."