Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Nigerian Cuisine
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.
Photo by Troy Fields A typical Nigerian supper at Finger Licking Bukateria, with egusi and fufu up front and meat pies in the back.
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.
Photo by Troy Fields Nigerian women man the kitchen at Finger Licking Bukateria.
"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.
Photo by 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.
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.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt A pot of egusi simmers on the stove at Suya Hut.
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.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt Oxtail pepper soup was a personal favorite at Peppersoup Cafe before it closed last year.
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.