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Exploring foods from Mother Africa

Okra, chicken and rice, and black-eyed peas. Sounds like Southern country cooking, right? What about sautéed, matured plantains and mashed cassava (yucca or manioc)? Caribbean, right? Actually these dishes hail from the American South and from the Caribbean, but they are also dishes from sub-Saharan Africa.

But it's not surprising that West African dishes, such as chicken and rice, peas and rice, gumbo (okra stew) and greens have a familiar taste to Southerners. Our history and that of the peoples of West Africa are inextricably mixed. The cultures and cuisines of West Africa were brought here by enslaved people over 200 years ago. West Africans cooked the foods they knew and thus changed the culinary landscape here as well.

Most traditional West African dishes are simply prepared: boiled, stewed, fried or barbecued over direct heat. West African cuisine uses a base of indigenous roots, such as yucca and yams, plus rice, and then adds the ingredients of the Americas: the peanut, chili, tomato and pepper. Some dishes are finished with the sauces of colonial countries or with Indian and Malaysian herbs and spices.

Henry Smythe is a native of Sierra Leone, a country located on the western bump of the continent. He moved to Charlotte from Winston with the hopes of opening a restaurant that would be frequented by ex-pats and Americans alike. Last October, he opened the 243-seat Kilimanjaro Restaurant.

Smythe chose that name since no other icon symbolizes the continent of Africa more than the ice-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro, an image that cuts across ethnic, religious -- even linguistic -- boundaries to unite the peoples of Africa. Thus naming a restaurant after the most famous natural wonder of a continent works if you want to attract that continent's ex-pats -- even if the dishes served in the establishment do not reflect the exclusive culinary heritage of Tanzania, the Eastern African nation from which Mt. Kilimanjaro rises.

According to Smythe, the cuisines of sub-Saharan Africa are similar. In the kitchen at Kilimanjaro is a Nigerian cook, so many of the dishes have a Nigerian take. But Smythe notes that any item on the menu can be fixed according to regional tastes. He noted, for example, that although he prefers the joffof from Sierra Leone, which puts the vegetable stew to the side of the rice, his kitchen can create Nigerian joffof which is a "drier dish" with tomato paste and vegetables mixed into the rice.

Most West African dishes are one-dish stews. Many of these stews use efo, a multi-purpose name for greens, including cassava leaves, sorrel, spinach, mustard, collards, chard and turnip greens. The potato leaf stew at Kilimanjaro tasted much like Egyptian molokhia, or a fairly bland gelatinous spinach-esque stew with finely chopped tomatoes, onions and pepper. Quite frankly, it tasted too healthy, and the Southerner in me wanted some Tabasco or other hot sauce to boost the taste.

Palm oil is used in many of the restaurant's dishes. Palm oil is to African cuisine what olive oil is to Mediterranean cuisine and butter is to French cuisine. Palm nuts are about the same size as grapes and are reddish in color, lending a distinct flavor and color to many West African dishes. Such is true for the beef and fish stews. The croaker stew (other nights perch or red snapper) was flavorful, with large chunks of fish (flecked with bones), tomatoes, and spices.

Fufu (AKA foofoo) is a mixture of mashed yucca roots boiled into a mass and served in a small bowl. Although you can ladle the stews over rice, the authentic method is to pick up a dollop of warm -- almost snap your fingers hot -- fufu, mold it into a small disk with an indentation, then scoop some egusi, a stew with a ground melon seed base cooked with spinach and herbs, or edikan-kon, a Nigerian stew of many vegetables flavored with a cow's foreleg. (Fufu is thought to be the forerunner of the Southern hoecake.) Although the edikan-kon had an unusual, healthy feel, it also had a strong, almost bitter taste. To balance, we ate large, sweet slices of plantains, sautéed golden brown.

The interior of Kilimanjaro (once El Cancún) is brightly lit and quite busy at times. Late at night, the bar area gets packed because the spot also doubles as a music venue. During the dinner hours, Smythe keeps a watchful eye on his customers. After we stated our preference to eat the fufu with our fingers, he promptly had a large washing bowl and towels delivered so we could clean up afterwards.

Kilimanjaro offers a small list of domestic and international beers, including Jamaican Red Stripe, but no African ones. Also on hand is palm wine which is made from the sap of the palm trees, but you have to ask for this.

Smythe is not the first to bring West African cuisine to Charlotte. Charlotte has had a few outposts of this cuisine in the past. As someone who lived outside her country, I can understand how important it is to have a bit of culinary home nearby, and it seems the West African community has embraced Kilimanjaro. But even with dinner entrees less than $9, it is still a tough hill to climb, which is too bad since exploring the cuisine of humanity's mother continent is a worthy stop on any gastronomical adventure.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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