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.
A companion had the goat curry, which is served with rice. To eat this dish, you must master the art of delicately removing inedible portions from your mouth. In fact, that art proved useful at all the restaurants I tried. The chefs suffered no part of an animal to be wasted, be it hoof, claw or bone. I often found myself gnawing a tidbit of meat off a gelatinous mass of fat, or biting down hard on a morsel I expected to be soft, and being surprised to find out it wasn't.
Too, menu items I expected to be vegetarian were almost invariably cooked with meat -- which probably won't surprise many Houstonians raised on Southern cooking. Moinmoin, a hearty side dish described as "black-eyed pea and boiled egg," turned out to be a stiff porridge flavored with chunks of tinned corned beef. Moinmoin is sort of crass, like Vienna sausages -- but in small doses I like Vienna sausages. And at $1.50 a serving, I was happy to sample a few bites.
What was missing from Mariam's menu was what attracted my notice in the first place: palm-nut soup. That I found in the smaller, brighter and cozier Restaurant Afrique.
The first time I was there, the palm-nut soup was a greasy brown emulsion filled with, in addition to some mystery meats, gumbo-style pieces of seafood. I rejoiced when I dredged up velvety mushrooms from the bottom of the bowl. The second time I ordered the soup, the restaurant had a new, very amiable Liberian chef. She gave me a choice of beef, goat or chicken -- I ended up with all three. This time the broth, made buttery by ground-up palm nuts, was more of one mellow mind. The meat had the perfect fall-apart texture it gets when it's cooked almost to the point of toughness, then patiently simmered into submission.
Afrique has many items available only by ordering ahead, including the tasty-sounding plantain fufu and the groundnut (peanut) soup. You can order as well a specialty of the Liberian chef, a delicious, softly grassy dish made from the dark green leaves of the cassava plant. Afrique also recently began serving a breakfast of fried fish with homemade sweetbread, which I intend to go back and try.
By now I had sampled so many new things that, back at Mariam's, I decided to go all the way: I ordered the isiewu, described on the menu as goat's head. I admit I was hoping the isiewu would be served in a skull, complete with crossed eyeballs. But when it arrived, it looked just like any other dish: chopped and simmered in a bright yellow curry with green spices. I poked around, hoping to find a morsel with a level of resistance to my fork. Finally I sampled the dish. It tasted just fine, though it carried a searing afterburn. My next bite was of something too rubbery to chew. I took it out of my mouth and examined it. It was dark gray and mottled looking.
I began to really wish that my goat's head was still intact. It's one thing to pluck out an eyeball and eat it; it's another to wonder with each bite if you'll be sinking your teeth into one. As I studied each curry-coated morsel, my imagination vanquished my appetite. Finally, I bowed out with a request for a takeaway carton.
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It was cowardly, I know. But it left me with a goal. There will be a next time. And besides, as I was quick to learn at Restaurant Afrique and Mariam's, one person's adventure is another person's comfort food.
Mariam's African Restaurant Quisine, 9725 Bissonnet, 778-0241; Restaurant Afrique, 9625 Bissonnet, 773-1400.
Mariam's African Restaurant Quisine: buffet, $8.99 and $9.99; moinmoin, $1.50; stockfish, egusi and fufu, $10.99.
Restaurant Afrique: palm-nut soup with rice, $6.99.