Nice Rice

Leaf sauces and matzo ball soup from the West African coast

Guinea is one of the world's great rice-loving nations, and most meals at Fatima begin with a huge serving of it. The grain isn't tossed onto the plate pell-mell, but carefully sculpted into a mound that extends all the way to the edge. This isn't ordinary rice, either, but the African equivalent of Uncle Ben's, and each plump kernel glistens. The rice would be reason enough to return again and again.

The commendably plain interior of Fatima—a new Guinean café on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights—focuses on a series of spacious tables leading to a food window. A TV near the ceiling is perpetually tuned to CNN, and patrons pay close attention—maybe anticipating another police murder of a West African immigrant. Halfway to the window you'll encounter a water cooler; and nearby there's a tub filled with metal mugs, looking like they were salvaged from the California gold rush. Take a cool drink before sidling up to the window. The menu posted at the end of the room possesses one unusual feature: It's printed in English, making Fatima the perfect place for a first encounter with Guinean cuisine.

Not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, Ghana, or New Guinea, Guinea is an arc-shaped country on the southwest coast of West Africa with a verdant and mountainous interior that gives rise to the sobriquet "the Switzerland of Africa." Partly derived from this area, but also representing a pan-national cuisine, Fatima's menu is largely a series of sauces to be ladled over rice. Demonstrating French underpinnings, "beef soup" ($6) is a dead ringer for beef bourguignonne—big chunks of rich meat in a tomatoey brown gravy. In contrast to Senegalese food, the chile heat is kept to a minimum. If you seek spiciness, reach for one of the chile condiments scattered on the tables. One minces uncooked jalapeños, while another offers steamed whole habaneros. If you want the tears to stream down your face, pick the latter.

Blurring the traditional rice dish
photo: Shiho Fukada
Blurring the traditional rice dish

I recommend enjoying your rice with sauce de feuilles ("leaf sauce"), the national dish of Guinea. At Fatima, it comes in two varieties: potato and manioc. The potato leaf version (really made from sweet potato leaves) is a shade of green found only in the deepest part of the forest, a dark puree with even darker oil oozing around the edges. Dotted with chunks of beef, it tastes of scallions and, sometimes, stockfish, the sun-dried seafood used to flavor many West African recipes. The manioc version is subtly different, with less oxalic tang. (Oxalates are what make your mouth feel funny when you eat spinach.) Both have an intriguing taste that will leave you licking your lips, and both are tendered in such quantities that you won't be hungry for a good long while.

Other over-rice sauces (all $6) include chicken legs in a reddish palm gravy in which the bones have been thoughtfully cracked to enhance the flavor, and a peanut sauce that's thinner and less peanutty than its Senegalese counterpart. In addition, there are a couple of non-rice choices often eaten for breakfast or early lunch, including a beef sandwich that wads sliced meat into a hollowed-out roll, and a Guinean version of fufu that deposits baseball-sized dumplings in a broad metal bowl of yellow broth. Let's call it African matzo ball soup.

 
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