International African Cuisine is a rare gem3/19/2014
These days caterers who cook in other people’s houses are called “nomadic chefs.” That’s either a cheap appropriation of those words or a redundancy. Historically all nomads moved about in order to either eat or to feed their flocks. Since modern warfare began, a new class of nomads has traveled to escape oppression and to avoid starvation. Tigel Chuol is a nomad and a chef with pure credentials.
“My parents were Sudanese. I was raised in Ethiopia and educated in Kenya,” she explained. “Then I moved to Las Vegas. So my menu is all over the place.”
Chuol opened International African Cuisine recently in an appropriate building that has, in the last decade, also been home to a Bosnian café, a soul food joint, Des Moines’ first Burmese restaurant and a Greek café. Her menu introduces Des Moines to a few classic dishes from several different countries. Key wot is a beef stew in an Ethiopian berbere sauce made with a combination of familiar spices like chilies, garlic, ginger, rue, basil and fenugreek, plus the Ethiopian natives korarima (from the ginger family) and Indian imports ajwain seeds (caraway-like), radhuni (similar to celery seeds) and Egyptian native nigella seeds (also known as black caraway). One day Chuol was out of key wot, but she had doro wat, which substitutes dark chicken meat for beef. In both cases the dishes were served on injera (an elastic, spongy flat bread made with teff flour) with sides of yellow lentils, salad and stewed collard greens. Kenyan veteran Cleo Appleton reminded me that such greens are called “sukuma wiki” in Kiswahili meaning “pushing the week,” because they stretch a weekly food budget.
Also from Ethiopia, ailcha wot is a milder stew made without chilies. Chuol makes it with or without meat but always with potatoes and carrots and served on injera with similar sides as key wot. Tibs was served the same way but was prepared more like a stir-fry of beef tips, peppers, tomatoes and caramelized onions.
Despite the heavy Indian influence on Kenyan cuisine, “Kenyan chapattis” resemble Chinese egg rolls more than Indian chapattis. Shorbo resembles Indian chicken-vegetable soups and was served with Kenyan bread. Poole is a Sudanese dish of fava beans, tomatoes, boiled egg and garlic. It was served with leavened African bread with ajwain seeds. Aiisde was described as thick bread served with creamy catfish stew, but it was not available on my visits. A divine kope delivered braised beef with collard greens, tomatoes and onions on top of a huge bed of golden polenta (kope), which looked more like cous cous than grits. Kombo is a Sudanese name for okra or gumbo. That dish included beef, onion and peanut butter and was served on Sudanese flat bread called kisra, made with sorghum flour and lacking the sponginess of injera.
Two dishes were served with West African fried rice, a saffron colored dish. One is called “jello fries,” which likely derives from “jollof rice” — a homonym if you talk fast. It was a beef stew on rice. The other was called tulpa fish — my favorite fish dish all winter. It was presented like a steak cut from the middle ribs of a giant tilapia. It had been blackened, breaded and fried with the skin on and was served with shredded cooked cabbage, tomatoes and onions on the same rice.
Bottom line: This is a startup café, and dishes are cooked completely from scratch when ordered. Service is not quick, but the food is very much worth the wait — one of the most exciting new menus to hit town in many years.
Side Dishes Emily Anderson, a manager at Saints Pub in Beaverdale, bought Chuck’s Italian-American Restaurant and plans to change very little… David and Bonnie Bartels, original owners of Cosi Cucina, bought the restaurant back after more than 16 years. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.