West African Cuisine Steps Into The Spotlight In 2020

Amarachi, located in downtown Brooklyn, serves many of Nigeria’s most famous dishes. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG/WTOV) - I made a couple of mistakes when I went to a Ghanaian restaurant called Akwaaba for lunch.

Located on a quiet street in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, Akwaaba’s unassuming storefront is not one that would attract much attention from passersby. The front door is often locked, requiring the ringing of a bell in order to gain entry into the small seating area. If you’re coming to dine at Akwaaba, it’s likely that you either have a personal connection to West Africa, or, like me, you discovered the positively glowing Yelp reviews and immediately had to try the highly praised dishes for yourself.

The first of my errors involved a simple question: “Can I sit down?” This was admittedly a clumsy way of asking for a table at a restaurant, but some of the reviews had explained that Akwaaba didn’t have an actual menu, and that detail threw me off in my approach. There was a long pause as the two men standing around the counter stared back at me, and I wondered for a moment if I should clarify my question, but before I could continue to pile onto my awkwardness, one of them responded.

“How many hours would you like to sit for?” he asked.

It was my turn to hesitate. Several reviews had also mentioned that the food could take quite some time to prepare. One customer recommended calling an hour ahead to place your order, while another suggested settling in and enjoying a cold Ghanaian beer until your meal arrived. I had poured overall of those reviews in an attempt to prepare myself for the unfamiliar experience, but standing inside the restaurant, I felt wildly unprepared. Was it possible that he was referring to the wait time for the food with his question? Or had I completely misunderstood?

Not sure of how to answer, I laughed, and he laughed back. I felt more comfortable but no less confused. “I guess I have about two hours,” I said, and he motioned for me to take a seat.

I sat down at one of the four tables, and the two men went back to chatting with each other at the counter. With each passing minute, the thought began to creep into my head that perhaps they thought I was literally only asking to sit down and nothing more. Did they realize that I wanted to eat? They had to have realized that I wanted to eat, right? As they continued their conversation, I honestly wasn’t sure.

The one who had originally responded to me turned to leave. “See you in two hours,” he said with a straight face.

“Wait, do you have any food right now?” I asked, and they both started to laugh again, in a way that was absolutely at my expense. Yet at the same time, their laughter was undeniably friendly, bringing me into their joke; the restaurant’s name, which is a way of saying “you are welcome” in the Akan language of Twi, suddenly seemed particularly applicable. Feeling a bit embarrassed but much more at ease, I placed my order for the dish that had drawn me in, a West African classic called jollof rice.

I didn’t realize that I had made a second mistake until I was speaking with food writer and culinary historian Michael W. Twitty a few days later. I had asked Twitty, author of "The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South," what someone who’s brand new to West African food should know about the cuisine and the culture surrounding it.

“I think people need to understand that West African food is a communal food tradition. It’s something that you always eat with other people. It’s about family; it’s about friends. It’s about sharing your resources,” he said.

My mind immediately flashed back to my solo dining experience at Akwaaba, accompanied by a hint of shame. I had also made this same mistake at Le Baobab in Harlem, where I ate, surrounded by tables full of large groups sharing platters of food. I was served a delicious plate of thieboudienne, Senegal’s national dish of fish and rice, that was so enormous that I could never have finished it on my own; I ended up taking it to go, and it fed me for two more meals, both of those also alone.

To be fair, my dive into West African cuisine was only very recently sparked by its inclusion in Whole Foods’ 2020 trend report, where it landed a top 10 spot alongside zero-proof drinks and refrigerated snack options. And for anyone who’s just beginning to discover West African cuisine, there is plenty to learn. To start, there’s the extremely elementary but sometimes overlooked fact that Africa is an entire continent; the food that you’ll find in West Africa is markedly different from that of other regions. But even within West Africa, the flavors and preparations of dishes can change drastically from one country to the next, or from one area of one country to another.

The rest of Twitty’s response to my question reflected that complexity. “It’s peppery, it’s spicy, it’s gingery, it’s garlicky. It has that bouillon flavor, that dried fish flavor; it has fermented proteins that provide a umami basis. There are grilled foods, barbecued foods, steamed foods, and dried foods. There are starches with sauces and soups, starches made out of yams, cassava, rice, and plantains. It really runs the gamut of all forms of either preserving or cooking food,” he said.

For anyone looking to explore the wider world of West African food, Twitty recommends first trying the three cuisines that he believes have been the most successful in terms of achieving popularity: Senegalese, Ghanian, and Nigerian.

When it comes to regional differences in West African cuisine, jollof rice is often at the forefront of the conversation, and it’s not so much a “conversation” as it is an all-out war.

It’s generally believed that jollof rice originated in Senegal, tracing its roots and its name to the Wolof Empire. But the voices in Ghana and Nigeria are some of the loudest in the debate, each believing that their country serves the best jollof rice. Several famous people have weighed in on the debate, from Mark Zuckerberg to Keri Hilson, and there's plenty of talk about jollof rice on social media. There's even a music video by Ghanaian musical artist Sister Deborah in support of her country's jollof rice.

You can find cooking competitions and blindfolded taste tests aplenty, but a definitive winner may never be crowned. However, all of West Africa can agree that British chef Jamie Oliver isn’t even deserving of the very bottom spot on the ranking. Oliver’s 2014 recipe for jollof rice so thoroughly missed the mark that it managed to unite all sides of the jollof wars in a combined backlash against his blasphemous interpretation.

When I visited Berber Street Food in the West Village, chef and owner Diana Tandia sat down at the table and pulled out a fork for herself as she served me her version of jollof rice. “In Africa, we don’t eat alone,” she said.

Tandia, a native of Mauritania, came to New York City to study political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College. To pay rent, she began working at a French restaurant and soon discovered that she had far more passion for food than for her intended career path. Realizing that she had a connection with food that went all the way back to her childhood, Tandia picked up the phone and called her mom to tell her that she had changed her mind about her future.

Throughout years of working in fine dining, Tandia tried to learn as much about the techniques as she could. But when she decided to open her own restaurant, it was primarily her love of street food that shaped her plans.

“I took a big leap of faith. I said I was going to open something very casual and affordable but then use fine dining techniques. That’s how Berber Street Food was born,” she said. “And since I was very grateful to have been exposed to different cuisines, I wanted to do fusion, where the main ingredients would be African but I’d incorporate French and Asian influences.”

Tandia cooks only with fresh ingredients, receiving plantains, peppers, and other vegetables every morning. The menu changes every four months or so to keep her regulars engaged. Right now, the Nomad Camel Kofta is one of the most popular dishes, giving diners the chance to try ground sirloin camel meat. Her jollof rice is also a crowd favorite.

Listed on the menu as “Djolof Fried Rice” and cooked in a wok, Tandia’s rendition of the West African dish draws some of its inspiration from Asian fried rice, a clear reflection on her travels throughout Asia and all of the street food she tried along the way. Alongside these Asian influences are decidedly African techniques and ingredients, including the broken rice typical of Senegalese jollof rice, a rich tomato base, and oil flavored with bay leaves and thyme. Berber Street Food offers diners the choice of chicken, tempeh, or vegetables to accompany the rice dish.

Each time she cooks the Djolof Fried Rice, Tandia burns the bottom of the rice on purpose to give it a smokier flavor. It reminds her of eating the bottom of the pot during her childhood, and she views the crispy bit of burned rice that she serves atop each order as a special treat.

“I do have a lot of Nigerian customers, and they’ll tell me that my jollof rice is different from their jollof rice,” said Tandia, “and I just say, ‘I know.’”

In downtown Brooklyn, Joseph Adewumi is adding a modern spin to Nigerian recipes at his restaurant. Amarachi, which is named after Adewumi’s mother and means “God’s Grace” in Nigeria’s Igbo language, serves many of Nigeria’s most famous dishes. There’s jollof rice, of course, but you’ll also find suya, or grilled meat with a spicy peanut rub, as well as eba, a staple made of cassava that’s eaten in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

The fusion menu also has Caribbean and American influences. “My heritage is Nigerian, my wife is from Trinidad, and we live in America, so we have a place where people from all of those parts of the world can come and find something nice to eat, socialize, and be entertained,” Adewumi said. “It’s a place where a lot of young, progressive Nigerians can bring their co-workers or friends. They can take pride in their heritage, but their co-workers and friends can still find things on the menu that they can eat.”

In Adewumi’s opinion, there’s plenty of room for customization in the dishes; he believes that there’s a general system when it comes to cooking Nigerian cuisine, but it’s important for someone to modify the food to their liking.

“Everyone has their own unique spin on how to cook certain things, so you may face criticism. People might say it doesn’t taste exactly like it should. Listen, we’re in an age where we customize our tastes. A lot of Nigerians like jollof rice to be really spicy, but maybe you don’t want it as spicy. It’s still good,” Adewumi said.

At the newly opened Ginjan Cafe in East Harlem, brothers Mohammed and Rahim Diallo are trying to create an environment that is accessible and inviting to Westerners, while simultaneously staying true to the West African flavors that they grew up with.

“You always get nervous when someone who is actually African walks in here,” said Mohammed. “There was a guy who came here and said, ‘My wife makes the best ginger drink, and I’m sure it’s better than yours.’ But then he tried ours and realized it was good, so he bought a bottle for his wife. Later, he came back and said that his wife admitted that ours was better.”

The brothers, originally from Guinea, moved to the United States separately in their teens; Mohammad arrived first at age 13, followed by Rahim four years later. After persevering through a series of unstable living environments and difficult setbacks, the siblings both ultimately ended up living in New York City.

New York City is often lauded for its incredibly diverse food scene, and it’s true that you can find authentic spots serving almost any cuisine your heart desires. But when Rahim and Mohammed tried to find a beloved ginger drink from their childhood, they came up empty-handed. “We had this dilemma where you could only get a ginger ale, which had basically no ginger, or a ginger shot, which is pretty harsh and not that enjoyable,” Mohammed said.

Fueled by their own nostalgia and their desire to share the tasty beverage with New Yorkers, the two brothers began experimenting with creating the ginger drink for themselves. They started out by using their mother’s recipe as a blueprint, but it took a good amount of trial and error to perfect the drink and find the optimal strength for the ginger. Their persistence paid off when Ginjan expanded into Whole Foods stores across New York City and Long Island in August 2018.

The work didn’t stop there. When they decided to open a cafe in East Harlem, people told them that they were insane. “It’s a rough-looking area on the outside, and the building was vacant for so long. But we knew what we were getting ourselves into, and we were willing to face that challenge,” said Mohammed.

But now that Ginjan Cafe is open, Mohammed says that the neighborhood is ecstatic.

“People tell us that as soon as they walk into the cafe, they forget about everything that’s out there. And that’s what we wanted to do. We cannot control all the things that happen outside, but once you walk-in here, we want you to give you a haven in East Harlem,” he said.

At all three businesses, it’s obvious to the owners that Whole Foods’ inclusion of West African food as a 2020 food trend was warranted.

“When we started this four years ago, it was not anywhere on the food trends. People thought we were making something for Africans only," said Mohammed. But he’s noticing a recent shift, and he attributes it to the fact that consumers are trying to eat healthier, better food.

Many of the ingredients used in West African cooking, like ginger and moringa, are already said to have health benefits, and fresh vegetables are an important component of most dishes. Based on this, Adewumi thinks the recent interest in the cuisine makes sense, saying that he can “definitely” see that it’s trending. “As humans, we all need to eat more vegetables,” he added.

Chris Manca, Northeast Region Local Program Coordinator at Whole Foods, also connected the trend to the rise of plant-based diets.

“I think there are a variety of factors influencing the rise of this trend, but a big one in my mind is how easily West African cuisine can be adapted to a plant-based diet. So many of the traditional dishes from this area are plant-based to begin with, and many of the dishes featuring animal proteins are generally very easy to adapt as vegan or vegetarian,” Manca said.

While vegans can find options at most West African restaurants, they’ll feel right at home at Berber Street Food, where an entire portion of the menu is dedicated to “African Vegan Land.”

Through the amount of careful consideration given to presentation, location, and decor, Ginjan Cafe, Berber Street Food, and Amarachi have all been successful in breaking through the barrier of reaching a wider audience.

“If you sit in our cafe and look around, you’ll see that the crowd is very eclectic. It’s everyone from everyday commuters that are coming down from Connecticut to Africans who know the beverage that we’re selling to people who are just coming in for a latte,” said Rahim. The cafe offers a bright, contemporary space with ample seating, custom-made wood furniture, and geometric wallpaper created by South African designer Ruen Ellis. Behind the counter, the menu gives a thorough description of each drink to assist customers who are unfamiliar with names like “bissap” and “kinkeliba.”

Further down the line, the brothers plan to expand their menu to include West African food as well and hope to make it just as accessible by serving ready-made bowls.

“Most of us haven’t really done a good enough job of presenting our dishes in ways that would appeal to people who don’t know much about the food or the culture,” said Mohammed. “There’s an African buffet on 26th Street, and any time I walk in there, I watch people who have never eaten our food, and they mix things that should not be mixed at all. So we want to take that hard part out of the equation.”

While the interior of Berber Street Food is far smaller than that of Ginjan Cafe, it’s just as inviting.

“I wanted something bright, because I cook with energy. I wanted to uplift people,” said Tandia. The walls are yellow, and the cushions are red. Pillows in all different hues add both color and comfort. A single booth at the front of the space is the most highly coveted spot, particularly when the weather is warm and the large windows are opened to let in a gentle breeze.

The West Village location has enabled Berber Street Food to stand out in an area with plenty of foot traffic and an absence of African cuisine, and it’s Tandia’s hope that more restaurants like her own will open in the area. “Right now, I feel like African food is still a mystery to Westerners,” she said. “It’s about time for Africa to show what we have. We have great cuisine, and we have the warmness of the heart. I’m excited that 2020 is about African cuisine.”

Mohammed is optimistic about the future. “In 20 years, I think you’ll have African restaurants all over the place,” he said.

And while Adewumi is similarly excited about the increased exposure that Nigeria is getting right now, he hopes that all of the excitement surrounding the culture and the food can eventually translate into opportunities for travel, making the country a more accessible place for people to visit.

When Twitty traveled to West Africa, he knew that he needed to work to bring that same experience to chefs of African descent who had not had that same opportunity.

“For a lot of people, it’s very daunting to go. It’s not just the money. It’s the time, it’s the effort, it’s getting a passport,” he said. “It can also be very challenging to travel in West Africa, unless you know someone who can show you the ropes.”

Through a partnership with Roots to Glory Tours, Twitty is trying to make a pilgrimage to Africa possible for people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to visit the continent and connect with their heritage. With two previous trips under his belt, he's currently fundraising for his 2020 pilgrimage to Senegal and Gambia, and he hopes to secure a more sustainable means of obtaining funding going forward.

"In the food world, 'trend' means that something’s happening, and you should probably be availed to it. The ingredients may not be new to some people, but they’re new to other people, and it’s getting people out of their comfort zone. But we’re also doing something particularly pointed by saying this isn’t a trend — this is our heritage," said Twitty. "It’s not a total pushback against Whole Foods, but as far as it being something consumable, we’ve been on this journey. The evolution of that so-called trend is all the impact that our ancestors and our cousins have had on the food experience in this country since the very beginning, and we just want people to understand that."