It Takes Tuwo
See more suya skewers and soup and see how the tuwo is made in our behind-the-scenes slideshow.
Our journey to find Ghanian food had led my friend Steve and me into a section of Missouri City that I had never traversed in my entire 30 years in Houston. I was more and more excited to reach Ghana House, our destination, as the terrain became less and less familiar. Finally, we were there.
Except that Ghana House was gone, its spot at the end of a particularly dingy strip center replaced by a taqueria. Crestfallen, we sat and figured out what to do next.
"I'm still hungry for African food," I told him. "Are you?"
"Yes," came his emphatic reply. After all, our entire journey was inspired by Steve's time spent in Ghana — where he lived briefly before returning to the States — and his quest to find good West African food in Houston. "But where should we go?" he asked.
"Well, we're in Missouri City," I said. "I have an idea."
Fifteen minutes later, we were in the tiny dining room of Suya Hut, a restaurant that specializes in Northern Nigerian food. While Ghana is to the west of Nigeria, much of the food of the two countries is roughly the same — names of dishes change from region to region, and ingredients vary somewhat — but it was still exactly what Steve was looking for.
Over a bowl filled with egusi soup and a massive, doughy ball of tuwo, he sighed. "This is great." And it truly was.
How best to describe something like tuwo (also known more commonly as fufu)? Starchy root vegetables like cassava or yams are pounded into a thick paste, which is then formed into a softball-sized round that looks and tastes like the raw dough used to make dumplings in a pot of good, old-fashioned chicken and dumplings. Depending on the vegetable used, tuwo can be very sticky and somewhat difficult to swallow (you aren't technically supposed to chew the stuff, although I usually do).
That's where the soup comes in. Like injera is used with doro wot in Ethiopian cuisine, tuwo is a multipurpose foodstuff that serves as both a nutritious carbohydrate as well as a utensil to eat your soup. Steve was surprised to find our tuwo delivered to the table delicately swaddled in Saran Wrap. I told him that they served it like that everywhere else I've been in Houston. He chuckled, and said you'd never find it that way in Ghana, before heaving it into the egusi soup.
We pinched off thumb-sized pieces of the tuwo and dragged them through the soup, a mixture of bright orange and vibrant green that soaked into the bottom of the cassava-ball as we ate. Egusi is by far my favorite of the soups I've tried at Suya Hut, the nutty egusi melon seeds (which taste vaguely like pumpkin seeds) balancing out what could be an overly sweet soup, with spinach, peanut oil and tomatoes all contributing their own range of sweet notes to the mix. Lest you think it's a simple vegetable soup, though, beware the hearty goat chunks in the middle as well as that startlingly bright burn from some cleverly concealed habanero peppers. Our eyes watered happily as we ate, the burn lessened somewhat by a pleasantly skunky Heineken and nibbles from the quickly shrinking sphere of tuwo.
I like the tuwo at Suya Hut better than I do at any other African place in town, including that old standby Finger Licking Bukateria. It seems more well-pounded overall here, with a consistent feel and texture all the way through. As at other West African restaurants, you can order your tuwo in either cassava, yam, corn or rice. Be warned, however, that Suya Hut often has only one option.
And along with only one choice of tuwo, it also only has one choice of soup to accompany your tuwo ("soup" is used here to describe the main dishes, which are honestly more like very thick stew) and one choice of fish for your pepper soup (which is an appetizer, not a main course), and it generally runs out of menu items on a fairly regular basis. Far from being bothered by this, I just take it as a sign that the kitchen is working with whatever fresh ingredients it has available. To that end, the food also takes a long time to prepare, so don't come and think you'll be dining in a hurry. That wouldn't be very African after all, anyway. Meals are meant to be eaten slowly and enjoyed in the company of friends.
At around 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, a group of Nigerian men trickled into Suya Hut and started placing tables together. They gave hearty hugs and handshakes as each member came through the front door, while one man stood placing one order after another with the young man who runs the cash register.
"This is lunchtime in West Africa," Steve said as we nibbled on the dregs of our tuwo and suya. I was sad that we'd already eaten all of our suya — marinated meat grilled on a wooden skewer, similar to kebab — and even sadder when I saw the table of Nigerian men receive several giant platters of the stuff. I could sit and eat suya and drink beer all afternoon long (and would be especially happy to do so outside, in the sun, if Suya Hut had a patio), and it appeared these gentlemen had the very same idea.
Steve was beaming at them from our corner of the dining room. "I feel like I'm back in Ghana," he said.
The eponymous suya here is available with four different types of meat: beef, chicken, shrimp and gizzards. They're all marinated in the same spice that made Suya Hut possible; the owners were so inundated with requests from friends for authentic suya that they eventually decided to open their own restaurant. The meat starts off sweet, the vague taste of peanuts in the background of the marinade, before building to a crescendo of heat leading off with ginger, paprika and then a punch in the throat from habanero peppers. If you love spicy food, it's the exhilarating equivalent of a roller-coaster ride. If you don't, Nigerian food might simply not be for you.
Everything at Suya Hut has some level of spice associated with it, as the young man at the cash register warns me every time I go in.
"That's very spicy," he said with a raised eyebrow as I ordered pepper soup one afternoon, again visiting with my friend Steve.
"I know," I replied with a smile.
But while I might prefer the tuwo/fufu here, I was sad to taste the pepper soup and find it wanting compared to my favorite at Finger Licking Bukateria. It also wasn't quite as peppery as I'd hoped, and the tilapia floating in the thin, almost clear broth had barely absorbed any of the flavor from the soup itself.
Not to despair, the jollof rice and lansir were far better and — along with a meal of peanut soup and yam-based tuwo — made for a filling and delicious meal nevertheless.
"I don't like jollof rice," said Steve as it arrived at our table. Here at Suya Hut, it's usually served alongside suya and fried plantains, but I'd wanted it as a side item this afternoon. "You can get it in every roadside stand in Ghana, but I never found any I liked."
I scooped a fat forkful into my mouth and instantly liked it. Different strokes and such. It tastes like paella rice sans the saffron and seafood, and I imagined putting a fried egg on top of it to further coat the grains of tomato-saturated rice.
Along with the peanut-saturated lansir salad — diced chunks of tomato and onion and nearly an entire garden's worth of cilantro thrown together in a bowl — it made for a satisfying, if simple, summer meal. Steve contentedly ate every last bite of the miyan taushe, peanut soup thickened with spinach and goat meat, while I ate as much of the sweetly spicy jollof rice as I could, washing it down with a pint of Guinness as I went.
At the end of our meal, there was still plenty of the jollof rice left. I packed it in a Styrofoam box and hurried it home. A fried egg waited to crown it the next morning for breakfast.
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