Tackling Nigerian cuisine so early in the Here, Eat This series? Why not? 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.
"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.
"I think a lot of these ethnic restaurants [in Houston] underwent a general resistance by the populace until time changed their palates," agreed Edebor. And even if time doesn't, perhaps population density will: Houston is the undisputed American city with the most Nigerian expats (thanks the oil and gas industries) -- expats with the highest education level of any other immigrant group in the United States. As demonstrated in Little India, wherever there's a concentration of immigrant residents -- especially well-educated expats with strong ties to their home communities -- restaurants and grocery stores will spring up to feed them.
That said, Edebor advises that "it would be wise to start out with something familiar like rice with plantains and stew, because that's a familiar thing to the palate." Today, however, we're starting out with 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 eaten either 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 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.
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.
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.
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 via 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.
Whole grilled fish
Whole grilled fish is pretty much what it sounds like. Nigerian restaurants in Houston typically serve tilapia or catfish, so it's not like you're going to get a sheepshead on your plate -- that fish whose mouth is filled with human teeth and is the stuff that horrorshow nightmares are made of. This is standard stuff.
Wondering what Nigerians eat for breakfast? (Aside from scrambled eggs? Because: scrambled eggs, mostly.) This is one popular item, a fritter that's made with ground black-eyed peas. Akara puffs up when it's fried, and has the same texture and consistency of falafel, but with a very mild flavor. This breakfast pastry is fine on its own, but is at its best when dipped in akamu.
Ogi / akamu
If you've eaten grits, you've eaten akamu (a.k.a. ogi). The two breakfast porridges are virtually identical, save for the way that they're served. Whereas Texans and Southerners flavor their grits with salt and butter, akamu is sweetened every so slightly with the addition of condensed milk. The resulting hot cereal is extra creamy and delicious when scooped up with fluffy bites of akara.
I hope you like lagers, because Heineken basically runs the beer game in Nigeria. Beer is a popular beverage in the country owing to its colonial heritage and the fact that a cold pilsner tastes really fantastic on a hot, humid day. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you Houston?
Where to start:
Finger Licking Bukateria: The "home base" for West Africans in Houston, operated out of an old Bennigan's by the same people who also run two Nigerian community newspapers and Houston's Nigerian Foundation. FLB turns into a full-on club with a DJ and drink specials by night and has awesomely late hours, but also a great breakfast.
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Afrikiko: Afrikiko is about as close to a bona fide African experience (an experience, by the way, that usually includes soccer on the eatery's satellite TV) as you're going to get here in the States. Owned by a Ghanaian family, Afrikiko will tone down the spice if you're an obruni (the Twi language term for "white person") -- so just ask if you want your food hot.
Suya Hut: Suya Hut specializes in suya, as the name would imply. But here, prepare for your mouth to be set afire with the sweetly spicy ginger-habanero marinade on the meat and order it with a side of jollof rice and plantains to keep your tongue from blistering. Just order a Heineken if you need to cool off.