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Here, Eat This

A beginner's guide to Nigerian cuisine.

On the Menu

Nigerian food is some of the most accessible "ethnic" food out there — or at least it will be for anyone who grew up eating Cajun, Southern or soul food. I'm looking at you, Houston.

Nigerian cooking is the mother of many American cuisines. Tina Edebor — the friendly woman who runs Nigerian restaurant Finger Licking Bukateria with her husband, Eghosa — admits that despite this, Nigerian cooking can be a little daunting for newcomers. Especially the dishes spiked with Guinea peppers, alligator peppers and a whole host of spices that make Nigerian dishes ideal for heat-seeking diners.

Grilled tilapia in pepper sauce at Finger Licking Bukateria.
Troy Fields
Grilled tilapia in pepper sauce at Finger Licking Bukateria.
Fufu, like this example at Suya Hut, is usually served in plastic wrap that keeps the dough moist and keeps the balls of fufu from sticking to each other.
Troy Fields
Fufu, like this example at Suya Hut, is usually served in plastic wrap that keeps the dough moist and keeps the balls of fufu from sticking to each other.

"Our food is not mainstream," Edebor once explained. "So you have to be willing to come in and taste it."

The good news is that most Nigerian restaurants — Finger Licking included — are equally willing to help you. Indeed, I've gently argued with many a waiter who wanted to direct me to the "beginner's dishes" on Nigerian menus, but this same attribute is what makes dining out in Houston's West African restaurants so approachable for newcomers. And perhaps in a few years, as Little Nigeria continues expanding into its little triangle between Bissonnet, Highway 59 and Beltway 8, the cuisine will no longer be considered so eccentric.

"It would be wise to start out with something familiar," advises Edebor of your first Nigerian meal, "like rice with plantains and stew, because that's a familiar thing to the palate." Today, however, we're starting out with fufu.

Fufu

Much like injera bread in Ethiopian cuisine, fufu — which is typically made from pounded yam flour — is used as both a starchy side dish and a utensil. It's served in a large, soft, white mound that looks and feels like raw dumpling dough. Fufu (also called tuwo in other West African restaurants) is used to scoop up the so-called "eating soups" in Nigerian cuisine, while "drinking soups" such as pepper soup are either eaten with a spoon or drunk straight from the bowl. Tear off a piece of fufu and fashion it into a small, edible spoon, then dunk it into your "eating soup" — like egusi — and swallow the entire bite whole.

Egusi

Egusi is the classic example of an eating soup and my personal favorite. The thick stew is accessible in its basic flavors and comforting in its odd familiarity — yes, even if you've never eaten it before. The soft, fatty seeds of the egusi melon (a sort of wild African watermelon) thicken the tomato-based broth and add a sweetly nutty flavor to the greens and onions underneath. Another thickener — okra — is also found in egusi, and its spider-silk strands will stretch playfully as you scoop up bites with your fufu. Don't worry about making a mess; just lick it off your fingers (as Finger Licking Bukateria's name would imply) and keep eating.

Pepper soup

If egusi doesn't appeal to you, try the spicy pepper soup — a typical drinking soup and the long-lost cousin to gumbo. Like the Creole version of gumbo, pepper soup is based on a meat and tomato broth flavored with thyme, onion and pepper. The traditional African utazi leaves used to flavor it further even taste a lot like filé, which is made from ground sassafras leaves. Goat is the standard protein for Nigerian pepper soup, but you can also choose from oxtail, catfish and tilapia. The goat will certainly be too gamy for most mainstream palates (especially since Nigerians tend to leave the rough hide intact on the chunks of goat cooked down in the soup), but the catfish is both highly approachable and highly delicious. Pepper soup is also named for the fact that it's saturated with ground chile pepper powder, so beware if you have a low tolerance for spicy food.

Meat pies and sausage rolls

An interesting aspect of Nigerian cuisine is the vestigial English influence left from colonial British occupation of the country that lasted for more than 100 years (or only 60, if you're being super technical about it). You'll find that influence in everything from oatmeal to beer and in the popular British snacks that are now as common in Nigeria as fufu. Meat pies, sausage rolls and Scotch eggs are standard lunchtime dishes, and your British friends may be surprised to find that while few "British pubs" in Houston make any of these three from scratch, almost all of the Nigerian restaurants do.

Jollof rice

The mainstay dish of jollof rice is usually served alongside fried plantains and skewers of suya. Think of it as paella sans the seafood or as the West African version of fried rice: The rice is cooked down with tomatoes, tomato paste, onions and red peppers. From there, you can add nearly anything else — vegetables, meat, fish, spices — and make your jollof rice into a proper meal.

Suya

Do you like kebabs? Then you'll like suya. You'll like them even better if you like Thai food and/or peanut butter. Ground peanuts and spices coat the chicken and beef pieces that are skewered onto long wooden sticks and grilled. Just as the tomato was brought from the New World to the Old, so was the peanut brought from South America to Africa along the same routes that shipped slaves back and forth over the oceans. Peanuts grow incredibly well in West Africa and are a now popular ingredient in many Nigerian and Ghanaian dishes.

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1 comments
MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Jollof rice takes some effort to cook but it is worth it. Warning:  ADDICTIVE. Thanks, Ms. S this is fun.

 
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