Out of Africa

Near Westwood Mall, a taste of the mother continent is brewing

Had I not been looking for an Islamic veil, I might never have found the food of Africa. Or, to be more exact, I might never have found what may, one day, become the African equivalent of the stretch of Indo-Pakistani restaurants on Hillcroft.

My search had taken me to far Bissonnet, near Westwood Mall. There, amid the Middle Eastern grocers, an African clothing store and a Ping-Pong hall, I stumbled across Restaurant Afrique. The cafe itself hardly stood out, but posted on its door was the handwritten notice, "We have palm-nut soup." In a city where culinary variety is the order of the day, where you can lunch on sushi and dine on jerk chicken without thinking twice, one can easily become a jaded eater. But the words "palm-nut soup" promised a surprise. I'd not only never tasted it, I'd never even heard of it.

The strip mall next door also promised revelations. There I found Mariam's African Restaurant Quisine (as it's called in the phone book; the sign actually reads Mariam's Seafood Restaurant). Later, I found a few more such restaurants nearby. Using traditional West African ingredients -- pumpkin leaf, pounded cassava, stockfish -- they cater to a homesick clientele of mostly Nigerians and Ghanaians.

The appeal is obviously food from home; these places aren't much for atmosphere. The centerpiece of the decorative scheme is invariably a big-screen TV. Still, at Mariam's, I preferred the TV room to the hinterland of a dining room sectioned off by a steam table buffet. Entering the restaurant, I was unprepared for the melange of altogether foreign odors. But the smells, fortified by a sour perfume I would later recognize as stockfish, merely egged me on. And once I learned my way around Mariam's menu, I was glad it did.

At the suggestion of my waitress -- who was also the proprietress -- I tried the buffet, which is laden with jollof rice (a bland tomato-based pilaf), black-eyed peas, chewy chunks of fried plantain (called dodo), soups and a meat dish that my hostess told me was "hen, not chicken." The curled toes of a bird claw attached to a long, thick leg jutting out of the mixture illustrated her meaning. She instructed me to begin with a tear-wringing hot pepper soup flavored with the juices of organ meats. Tidbits of honeycombed or gill-like flesh swayed gently at the bottom of my bowl.

The soup was so hot I could only finish half of it, but that was enough to fire my appetite. My guide opened a cooler at the head of the steam table and handed me a warm mound of what looked like raw dough wrapped in Saran Wrap. It was fufu -- as far as starch components of a diet go, the oddest I've ever seen. Your basic version is made from pounded yam; however, there are specialty types available. I went for the pounded cassava, which has a grittier texture and a tannic, yeasty flavor. What you do with your fufu is, according to my hostess, your own business.

After loading up my plate, I copied my fellow diners by tearing off a little ball of fufu and swirling it around in one of what are termed "soups." When balled up, fufu is smooth, and these mixtures don't readily adhere to it. After giving your ball of fufu a few aggressive stirs, you have to scoop the soup against it with your thumb and hold it there until you get it up to your mouth. (Though I did meet one Nigerian who unapologetically ate his fufu-and-soup with a fork.) Egusi, my favorite of the soups, is a mixture of finely chopped greens simmered in a meat broth; it's also thick enough to eat off a plate. As a dish of greens it's good, but it's also graced with the bittersweet bite of cream-colored melon seeds. I also liked the ogbono, a mixture of vegetables and seafood spicy enough to require a fufu-to-soup proportion of two to one. Like much of what I tasted, the ogbono had a mysterious, faint bitterness that grew on me. However, I avoided the okra, which when boiled secretes copious amounts of slime. In gumbo it's fine; mixed with tomatoes it's okay; but alone, for me at least, it was too much.

At Mariam's, the straight meat dishes weren't as good as the stews, soups and sauces I tried. Picking gingerly at the artlessly spicy hen dish, I decided the amount of food I'd scooped from the steam table onto my plate had been a bit enthusiastic. At Mariam's the gradual approach is preferable to the headlong dive. It was then that I noticed a sign that warned of an extra charge -- three dollars! -- for wasted food. Apparently, though, that levy isn't meant for first timers; my hostess graciously waived it.

On another visit to Mariam's, I skipped the buffet to order stockfish, a dried Norwegian import, sort of like a fish jerky, that's sold by the bushel in African groceries. I had it in a bowl surrounded by egusi, with fufu on the side. I have yet to figure out how a Scandinavian product came to be a Nigerian delicacy, but I can see why it did. I was so thoroughly occupied by its strong flavor, more sour than fishy, that I was happy to take the time required to chew it; the egusi was the perfect antidote for its aridity.

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