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Meanwhile, what used to be referred to simply as "southwest Houston" has become the Mahatma Gandhi District. It's here that people like the Patel family and Kaiser Lashkari have set up shop, catering to Houston's more than 100,000 Indian and Pakistani expats. The Patels run London Sizzler (6690 Southwest Fwy., 713-783-2754), an Indian restaurant with a twist: The Indian family with Zambian roots, educated in the United Kingdom, offers Indian dishes that mingle East African spices and British beers. In the same shopping center, the jovial Lashkari cooks jewel-toned cuisine from his native Pakistan at Himalaya (6652 Southwest Fwy., 713-532-2837), drenched in plenty of rich ghee.
Like the Arab community that Hala Daher encountered in Houston, the Filipino community is spread across the city. Dr. Richard Sucgang, a microbiologist who originally hails from the Philippines, knows what it's like to feel homesick. The only one of his family to leave the islands, he's worked hard over the years to lose his Filipino accent, but he's never lost his craving for the simple pleasures of home, such as sinigang.
"If I had to choose a dish to judge a Filipino restaurant by, I'd choose that," Sucgang says. "It's a sour, soupy stew, incorporating fish or meat, and has myriad variations, not only in the protein used, but also in the souring agents employed." It's a dish that — to him — represents the strong southeast Asian nature of what he calls "comfort food that reflects what was popular in the Manila region."
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It's this comfort food that you're most likely to encounter in Houston's Filipino restaurants, as that's what most Filipinos — and anyone who's feeling a longing for their homeland — are likely to cook. "Even if there were to be no restaurants serving ethnic Filipino fare, people will cook," Sucgang says.
"I had no inherent expectations of Filipino cuisine when I first moved to Houston, but there are large enclaves of Filipinos living here already, and you cannot have a gathering of Filipinos without food getting involved."
However, he says, "I was quite pleased to find that one of the largest distributors of imported Filipino goods is actually based out of Houston, and thus, we have a ready supply of many processed and packaged ingredients, from dried mangos to coconut vinegar, and surprisingly affordable prices."
Just a stone's throw from the Medical Center, Godo's Bakery (7235 Fannin, 713-797-0670) serves the same homestyle meals like adobo and desserts like brazo de mercedes to those Filipinos missing a taste of home — or adventurous Americans wishing to gorge themselves on the all-you-can-eat pork belly that beckons from the lunch buffet most days.
"It was quite a change," laughs Lillie Hunegan, of her first few years in America. She moved here from Ethiopia in 1998 to help her mother, Tina, run Blue Nile (9400 Richmond, 713-782-6882), one of Houston's only Ethiopian restaurants.
"For one, I didn't speak English," Lillie says, with an accent that makes it tough to believe she's from overseas. Finding a good Ethiopian restaurant besides Blue Nile? Difficult. Her mom's experience finding ingredients here to make the Ethiopian food the family serves in their restaurant? Nearly impossible.
To this day, 16 years after Tina Amedlue opened Blue Nile, not much has changed. "We still import most of our spices from back home," Lillie says. "We used to get the teff from a farm outside of Washington, D.C., but even that comes from Africa now." Despite the difficulty in obtaining authentically Ethiopian ingredients like niter kibbeh — the clarified butter infused with spices that's used as the base for most dishes — or berbere spice, Tina Amedlue was determined to forge ahead.
"She always loved cooking at home," her daughter reminisces. "Over here, she started cooking for friends, and they encouraged her to open a restaurant, so she did." Houstonians might initially balk at eating with their hands, using pieces of spongy injera bread — a sourdough-like bread made with teff, one of the most nutritious grains in the world — to scoop up spicy bites of deep red doro wot, but if they're willing to try it, Lillie says, "most of them fall in love."
Native Ethiopians, too, have continued to fall in love with Blue Nile over the years. "They're able to tell that we're using spices from back home," claims Lillie. "It's the butter, the berbere. Those things make all the difference."
But it isn't Ethiopians who make up the majority of expat Africans in Houston. That honor belongs to Nigerians. Although census data differ strongly from anecdotal estimates that place the population at 100,000 people, it is believed that Houston has the largest concentration of Nigerian immigrants in the entire United States. And along Bissonnet in southwest Houston, you'll find people from Lagos and Kano indulging in the root vegetable mash called fufu they thought they'd left behind when they left home. Fufu of a half-dozen varieties is available at Finger Licking Bukateria (9817 Bissonnet, 713-270-7070), which is improbably housed in an old Bennigan's. And a dozen soups are available to go with your choice of fufu, the better to make diners feel as if they'd never entirely left Nigeria — or even Ghana, Togo or Benin — behind in that long journey across the Atlantic Ocean.