By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Africa cuisine romances taste bud travelers
The world may be shrinking for the young and the bold, but it’s starting to intimidate many others. Currently, 38 countries are under U.S. State Department travel alerts. After 9-11, I accepted that I might not make it to all the exotic places on my food bucket list. Fortunately young, bold immigrants are bringing the flavors of exotic places here. Just as the romantic novel created armchair travelers in the 19th century, ethnic cafés are creating taste bud travelers today. The strip mall at 2500 MLK bustles with a new tavern, a Southeast Asian video café, an African jewelry store and Jeylani Habib’s Africa Cuisine Restaurant (ACR). One name on his menu evokes romance. Barawa is an ancient port town in the Horn of Africa, notorious in lore for dervishes, freedom fighters and the female poet saint Dada Masiti. Its food history defined “fusion.” Barawa’s ancient sea trade with India was so successful the Romans thought cinnamon actually grew in what is now southern Somalia. Barawa was more recently in the news as the site of a U.S. raid that killed Al Qaida operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. So eating dishes named after that city is about as close as I want to get to it today.
First, some appetizers. Bajjand delivered little bean cakes made from mashed black eyed peas. Sambusas, the restaurant’s most popular dish, resembled Indian samosas, except without vegetarian options. ACR’s were laminated pastries stuffed with spicy ground beef, peppers and potatoes. There was no chutney as in Indian restaurants but ACR compensated with marvelous pickled pepper hot sauce plus dishes of sukhaar, a stew of onions and tomatoes with an array of spices including ginger and cinnamon. Delicious kebabs were made of sausage. Macasharo, served as an appetizer though it could pass as dessert, was made by fermenting rice with sugar until it began to convert into strands. The result looked like squares of sticky spaghetti but had the flavor of rice pudding. All were served with complimentary pitchers of a beverage that tasted like Tang, in guava or mango flavors.
Dinner entrées featured choices of East African starches, two named for Barawa. Muufo is a sweetened corn meal bread and “muufo Barawa” is usually cooked in a wok-shaped forno that is named after the city. “Anjera Barawa” was a minimalist take on “injera,” the spongy sourdough flatbread that Ethiopian restaurants serve as plates, and in lieu of silverware. Made with the flour of teff, an ancient grain indigenous to the Horn of Africa, injera is huge, table-sized sometimes. “Anjera Barawa” resembled its flavor and texture but was much smaller and served in breadbaskets. Chapattis were dead ringers for north Indian chapattis — pan-fried wheat flour tortillas. Rice was an epiphany, basmati grains perfectly cooked in saffron and curry.
ACR serves starches with liver for breakfast and with goat, lamb, beef steak, chicken legs, or fish for lunch and dinner. My chicken was braised in mild curry; my goat and lamb shanks were braised in milder stocks. Fish filets resembling Cajun blackened fish were the spiciest entrée. Usually described as mashed potato and egg fritters, “nafaqo” provides a vegetarian dinner option and a useful Scrabble word. Sandwiches and French fries were also offered. Everything was Halal.
Desserts were quite sweet. I tried one (“sisin”) made with sesame seeds and sugar. Another (“qumbe’) consisted of milk, sugar, coconut and cardamon cooked and gelled into squares. A third (“neenandi”) was a very sweet bread made with flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk and salt. A fourth (“zamandi”) was cylindrical and only slightly sweet.
Iowa led the nation in live animal and meat exports in 2008 with $1.5 billion nearly 16 percent of the national total and half again that of number two state Nebraska… Chef Nick Illingworth has left Bistro Montage. CV
Chicken and rice with sukhaar and salad at Africa Cuisine Restaurant, 2500 Martin Luther King Blvd., Ste. 3, 277-7784, Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.