Finger Licking Good
Check out the colorful kitchen and interior of Finger Licking Bukateria, housed in a charming old Bennigan's.
I laughed at my own inelegance as I sucked the last of the fufu from my fingers at the aptly named Finger Licking Bukateria one Sunday afternoon, the dough clinging stubbornly to the thumb and index finger on my right hand. Sure, there was a metal bowl of water to my right I could have used to clean the fufu off — but that's missing the point here. The restaurant is called "Finger Licking" for a reason, and I didn't want to waste any of the precious yam dough by washing it off.
Across the table, my coworker Steve — who once lived in Ghana, the birthplace of fufu — was licking the dough off his own fingers in more practiced movements, then quickly dunking his hand back into the warm soup for another round. Forget double-dipping; the true test of friendship is eating food that everyone at the table keeps dipping their fingers into.
Dark green coins of okra had been cooked down in a simple base of tomatoes and onion for the soup, a few assorted beef parts thrown in for added flavor. Much like injera bread in Ethiopian cuisine, fufu is used as both a starchy side dish and a utensil, served in a large, soft, white mound that looks and feels like raw dumpling dough, but is made from pounded yam flour. Tear off a piece and fashion a small, edible spoon, then dunk it into your soup and swallow the entire bite whole.
The soup was getting everywhere, spider-silk threads of boiled okra stretching from the bowl almost to our faces before snapping and breaking. We were having so much fun that afternoon, messy hands and faces calling to mind toddlers, that I suddenly was sorry it'd taken me so long to get back here again.
It had been over a year, but walking into the funky old revamped Bennigan's that houses Finger Licking was nothing like my last visit; there was a palpable difference in the atmosphere of the ten-year-old restaurant: fresh paint, pared-down decor, a friendly smile from the man who greeted us and took our group to a table in a sunny corner.
The restaurant had only opened an hour before, but was already out of many breakfast items. It didn't surprise me. In addition to being the flagship West African restaurant in the area, Finger Licking is also the largest and the most popular. By the time we left, the churches in the neighborhood had let out, and it was packed to its stained-glass ceilings with customers.
Along with the bowls of fufu and soup, we'd ordered up a West African feast that Sunday: beef and chicken suya, or Nigerian kebabs seasoned with ground peanuts, paprika, garlic and other spices; jollof rice, a tomato-stewed rice with a signature Guinea pepper kick to it; and a breakfast dish of briny scrambled eggs mixed with sautéed onions and delicate flakes of catfish, served alongside a pile of chewy plantains, all of it recommended by our helpful waiter.
With the exception of the Guinea pepper (also called alligator pepper for its powerful, sneaky bite), none of those ingredients is particularly exotic to most Texans. Yet Nigerian cuisine in Houston — and Finger Licking Bukateria, ground zero for West African food in the city — has been mostly ignored over the years, even by those who proclaim to be "adventurous" "foodies" willing to eat nearly anything. It's shunned for being "too exotic," despite its similarities to well-loved Cajun and Southern cuisines, despite the friendliness of the people who eagerly serve and explain the food.
It's a conundrum Tina Edebor knows all about.
Edebor and her husband, Eghosa, are the new partners at Finger Licking Bukateria. The Edebors took over Finger Licking Bukateria in November, and the place already seems different under their stewardship, even if the ownership itself is still the same.
Owners Bola Ogunjinmi and his wife Funke, who developed the menu, split their time between Lagos and Houston. Without daily guidance from the Ogunjinmis, Finger Licking had been suffering — the service was inconsistent and so was the food, and the old Bennigan's building had started to look worse for the wear. And that wasn't something Tina Edebor was going to stand for, having been a steadfast fan of Finger Licking since it opened in 2002.
Edebor and her husband were already busy — they run two community newspapers between them, and Eghosa serves as president of Houston's Nigerian Foundation — but were eager to help their old friends, the Ogunjinmis, revamp their old business. "We want to be the go-to restaurant for African food," she explains. Both husband and wife seem determined to change the way African food is viewed in Houston
"Our food is not mainstream," admits Edebor. "So you have to be willing to come in and taste it." But she's optimistic that — as with many cuisines once thought terribly and terrifyingly exotic, like sushi — it will eventually find a foothold of its own. "I think a lot of these ethnic restaurants [in Houston] underwent a general resistance by the populace until time changed their palates."
In the month and a half since they've taken over, Edebor has gotten serious about her role at the restaurant and the changes they've made: "Our number one concern is customer satisfaction," she says. "We try to make sure customers have what they need — personal interactions so that they know we care."
She and her husband both make it a point to stop by each table, offering tips on eating and ordering, at one point even promising to make a Ghanian stew for Steve and to help us locate some Senegalese food in town. Another visit, Tina gave me pointers for purchasing and making fufu from Southwest Farmers Market, an African grocery store across the parking lot.
Unsurprisingly, Finger Licking already has an enormous West African customer base, many of whom line up at the to-go window off the bar to pick up meat pies and sausage rolls in the evenings, or take in relaxed meals with their families on weekends. Where Edebor wants to expand is into other, non-African clientele. She even has a plan for newcomers.
"It would be wise to start out with something familiar like rice with plantains and stew," she says, "because that's a familiar thing to the palate." Edebor's great-great-grandfather was a Nigerian slave taken to Brazil, who eventually returned to his country. She's quick to point out that many of the delicacies of Cajun and Southern food are just the great-great-grandchildren of West African dishes themselves as a result of those old slave trade routes.
The best example of this phenomenon is pepper soup, one of the signature dishes of West Africa. A friend of mine once termed it "primordial gumbo" after tasting the dark, spicy soup with a familiar hint of crawfish in the thin, chicken-based broth. (Pepper soup, with its thin broth, is considered a "drinking" soup, to be eaten with a spoon; "eating" soups like egusi are meant to be eaten with fufu and your hands.) Powdered, crushed crawfish is one of the most important ingredients in Nigerian cuisine, so much so that the little crustacean itself has been called "our beautiful, curvy Nigerian lady." It's this briny flavor that's instantly recognizable in the pepper soup, even if you ordered it with chicken, beef or catfish.
On my last visit to Finger Licking Bukateria, I ordered it for my dining companion, a local baker and Cajun food aficionado who'd never had Nigerian food before.
"If you put a blindfold on me and sat me in front of this to eat it," she said between gulps of soup, "I'd never know it was Nigerian food. It tastes so familiar!" The food had been a success for her virgin palate that night — but I'd had to cajole her into coming, of course. With only a few exceptions, I've had to cajole nearly everyone into trying Finger Licking Bukateria with me. Whether it's the name or the cuisine, trepidation runs high. And after each meal, like a kid stepping off a much-feared roller coaster, every one of them has asked: "When can we go again?"
It didn't hurt matters that the same cheerful waiter, Luc, was taking care of us again. When my friend corralled Luc to tell him how much she was enjoying the fufu, he laughed a bit and shook his head.
"I'm from Togo," he said. "We don't eat that stuff there." It's a mistake to think that everyone here is Nigerian; the waiters are from all over the world, while the kitchen crew and line cooks hail from Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.
After the pepper soup was finished and hesitations cast aside, my dining companion dove into the fufu. Her nimble baker's hands made quick work of the dough as she dunked it repeatedly into our egusi soup, the soft, fatty seeds of the egusi melon adding a sweetly nutty flavor to the greens, tomatoes and onions underneath.
As we waited to pay our bill later that night, my friend gazed at two Nigerian men across the way from us. "Look at the two of them," she said. "Breaking bread together. They're really breaking bread together," she chuckled as she pointed to the ball of fufu and bowl of soup they were sharing. "Now that's communal eating."
"Sharing a bowl with someone like that? Putting your fingers into each other's food all night?" she said. "That's from the heart. That's truly from the heart."
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