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Oh Shito!

Two competing cuisines snuggle up in a single African bistro

Real estate makes strange bedfellows. I rediscovered this quintessential New York fact one Friday afternoon when I decamped the No. 2 train at 110th Street, as Christo's orange curtains were flapping alarmingly in a high wind, tangling themselves on their stanchions, causing uniformed munchkins to run around using tennis balls on long poles to dislodge them. I'd gone on one of my periodic checks of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, onto which the city's premier African strip has begun to spill, after turning the corner on 116th Street. There was a new Senegalese bank, a store selling products from Guinea called, logically enough, Guinean Store, and Salimata, a halal café of indeterminate nationality. In the center of the action was Florence's Restaurant. The pulled-tight lace curtains signaled an African eatery, even without "African American Food" stenciled on the windowpane.

I stepped inside to find a lively lunch scene: a dozen African men animatedly conversing in a tribal language, allowing a few English words to slip in from time to time. Needless to say, the premises were unprepossessing, a combination of neatness and clutter, with boxes oozing palm oil—a very good sign—stacked on opposite sides of the room, threatening to topple and inundate the kibitzers in odoriferous red oil. What a surprise when the menu was presented—not only because there actually was a menu, but because it contained both Ghanaian and Ivory Coast fare. That's a pair of strange culinary bedfellows if ever there was one.

Also in contrast to other West African restaurants, most of the things on the menu were available. I requested omo tuo, a mash of white rice. Soup choices included palm oil, okra, spinach, egusi (crushed melon seeds), and peanut. Like a kid craving a peanut butter sandwich, I dove for the latter, with goat as my meat option ($9 together). Proud of my mash-eating technique, I picked up a wad of omo tuo with my right hand, dipped it deep into the soup, then launched the bolus mouthward.

Lady in waiting: Florence
photo: Tamara Rosenblum
Lady in waiting: Florence

On several subsequent visits, my crew and I explored other mashes, which ran to banku (fermented cassava meal), yam fufu (mild and lovable), and waakye, a mushed-up mingling of dirty rice and black-eyed peas, forerunner of Jamaican rice 'n' peas and African American hoppin' John. The menu also featured Ghanaian snacks, including kelewele ($3)—sweet plantain slices with a salty, fishy rub. But it wasn't long until we were deep into the Ivorian side of the menu. Many of the choices seemed to exploit the overlap between Ghanaian and Ivorian food, including okra and peanut soups, which are designated gombo frais and arachide, respectively.

Côte d'Ivoire's national dish, attieke poisson braise ($10), is a whole sea bass smothered in a dice of tomatoes, onions, and green chiles. The cassava stodge called attieke comes on a separate plate, tender and slightly sour grains of white cassava meal. Lapping the sides of the fish were two condiments. The pungent, dryish one of smoked fish, ginger, and chile I recognized as shito ("sheeh-toe"). The other looked like a darker version of applesauce, cool and refreshing. I asked the cook, who was doubling as the waiter, what it was. "That's shito too," he replied, a twinkle in his eye. So now you know what I know—shito comes in at least two distinct varieties.

 
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