TV Show Celebrates Houston’s West African Community

Chef Marcus Samuelsson, Dr. Crystal Obih, and high school principal Peter Uwalaka discuss Houston's African diaspora, its culture, and its cuisine, after Beats + Brunch, a weekend dance class and community gathering founded by Uwalaka and Obih. Houston's West African foods and culture are featured in an episode of Season 2 of "No Passport


--Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s face betrays a hint of trepidation when Kavachi Ukegbu asks this question as he puts a wad of fufu (pounded yam) swamped with Nigerian egusi soup in his mouth at Safari Restaurant in Houston’s southwest side.

Samuelsson’s intent was to swallow quickly — a nod of respect to Nigerian foodways. But the viscous stew of okra, goat and fish made that difficult.

“I’m chewing it because there’s big bones in this stew!,” he said.

A fail? Hardly. Not when there’s such an eager student intent on shining a well-deserved light on Houston’s West African food culture. The scene at Safari plays out during Season 2 of “No Passport Required,” Samuelsson’s PBS series exploring the food traditions and flavors of America’s immigrant cultures. The new season’s second episode, airing Monday, shows a side of the Houston food scene that might be unfamiliar to the everyday foodie. The city’s West African community — heavily Nigerian but also embracing Senegalese, Ghanaian and Cameroonian peoples — is rapidly growing, reflected by the businesses Samuelsson visits during the hour-long episode.

While one of the largest populations of Nigerians outside of Nigeria has made Houston home, the food of Nigeria “has yet to hit the mainstream,” he says. And after a short introduction to the city that he calls “the number one, most diverse city in the country,” Samuelsson jackknifes into the West African food scene.

First there’s a visit to Wazobia African Market, 16203 Westheimer, where Ukegbur, the chef/founder of The Art of Fufu, shows him produce, meats, fish and pantry staples of the West African diet, as well as the joys of jollof rice. Then it’s off to Safari Restaurant, 10014 Bissonnet, run by Margaret “Safari” Jason.

“You’re no longer in Houston, you’re in Lagos,” Samuelsson says of one of the city’s first Nigerian restaurants. It’s in Jason’s kitchen that Samuelsson learns how to make a few Nigerian dishes and then sits down to break bread — well, the starchy dough that is fufu — with one of the many voices of the West African diaspora.

Samuelsson is an ideal narrator to share the immigrant experience stories in “No Passport.”Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson and his sisters were separated from their family during civil unrest in Ethiopia and were eventually adopted and raised in Sweden. He trained as a chef in Europe before moving to the United States where he made his name at Aquavit in New York; his work there earned him two James Beard Awards. In “Yes Chef: A Memoir,” Samuelsson — perhaps best known for his Harlem-born Red Rooster restaurant — details his childhood and rise to the top of the culinary world.

The Houston episode is an education for anyone wanting to better understand the city’s multi-ethnic food culture. Samuelsson takes viewers inside the doors of Suya Hut, 11720 W. Airport, where grilled beef and chicken skewers are coated with peanut sauce (suya is a Nigerian staple); Jolly Jolly Bakery, 6275 S. Highway 6, offering Nigerian bread; and Taste of Nigeria, 5959 Richmond, where he dines on Senegalese dishes. At the critically-acclaimed “neo-soul” Indigo restaurant, Samuelsson talks with chef/owner Jonny Rhodes about the contributions African slaves made to American food culture.

Sharing stories from Houston’s West African community is what “No Passport” is all about, Samuelsson said. And those stories are important at a “very divisive moment” in America, he added.

“America is about hope. Imagine what all these people left to jump borders to get here,” Samuelsson said. “I chose to come to America because it’s a beacon of hope. These stories are just as important today as they were 25 years ago when I got here. They’re all unique and different.”

Samuelsson said he hopes his PBS series not only continues to tell immigrant stories but surprise viewers by the depth and breadth of them. While in Houston, Samuelsson attended a pop-up dinner filled with music, dance, and food that perfectly illustrates the city’s melting pot palate: he was served a soup of Vietnamese rice noodles in a Nigerian pepper broth with goat meat. It was an only-in-Houston moment that makes “No Passport” an essential watch.