Brother-and-Sister-Owned Bognan International Serves Food From Ghana and Togo, to Stay or to Go
Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock
Packed with peppered ground beef and pungent onions, Fousseni Alidou's meat hand-pies achieve a bulbous, flaky ideal. The 51-year-old Togolese American makes them from scratch daily at Bognan International, the West African restaurant he opened with his sister, Haga Kamal, four years ago on a discreet patch of 169th Street in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx. The crimped, doughy half-crescents are baked to an amber crisp and substantial enough that you only need one for a quick, filling lunch. They're kept in a heated glass case on top of the back counter where Alidou, who goes by "Ali," frequently holds court with a broad smile before darting into the kitchen to stir one pot or taste a spoonful from another.
Thirty years ago, Ali left Togo for New York City with a degree in economics. To support himself, he drove a limousine, though he'd always enjoyed cooking. "I love to cook because of my parents," he tells the Voice before pausing to hand a customer a duo of lamb liver kebabs wrapped in tinfoil. Without missing a beat, he cautiously adds, "And my wife. My wife is from Ghana." Offal skewers such as these, which Ali coats in a piquant paste of chile powder and pulverized peanuts, are a common sight at food stalls throughout Togo, Ghana, and much of the subcontinent. Bognan's come two per order for $4 and weave meaty hunks with layers of white onion.
In 1989, Ali turned his passion professional with the appropriately named African American & Caribbean Restaurant, which he ran for nineteen years from a corner space nearby. Closing it in 2011, he chose to downsize, narrowing not only his kitchen but also his focus — to West African cuisine. Of cooking Togolese and Ghanaian family recipes, he says, "This is my life. You have to love what you do. I love what I do." He beams when bringing up his history with the community, grateful to have indulged the locals — including staff from three neighboring hospitals — and anyone else interested in his fare.
Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock
The title "Bognan" is a Tchokossi colloquialism for a person who is overwhelmingly hospitable. Thanks to Ali and Kamal, the small restaurant — which sits across from 69-year-old church La Segunda Iglesia Cristiana Discípulos de Cristo — embraces its moniker wholeheartedly. Portions are "family sized" and substantial starches (stretchy cassava fufu and the fermented corn-cassava dumpling called banku, both eaten with one's hands) can accompany any order for a few extra dollars. The siblings might offer their strong homemade ginger drink to cool overworked palates or provide groups of diners with bowls of warm water for rinsing fufu-coated fingers.
Next to the goodies kept warm on the countertop, the heart of Bognan International is literally plastered on one of its exposed-brick walls. Photographs of dishes, labeled and marked with corresponding numbers, give you an idea of what the kitchen can do. Luck out, and you might receive bowls of sweet and earthy peanut-sauced lamb or viscous palaver sauce, a slurry of egusi seeds and taro greens.
Chicken comes fried or braised in tomato spiked with cumin and curry, and Kamal is quick to recommend the waakye, a deeply spiced mash of beans and rice served with beef and fish stewed with tomatoes. Smothered under a ladling of goat stew, Ali's jollof rice, one of West Africa's most popular dishes, is here rendered as a massive plate of spaghetti and tomato-spiked pilaf crowned with a hard-boiled egg. For these and other main courses, you'll want to get familiar with shito, a regional hot sauce that comes in a variety of colors. Ali prefers the darkest version, which is opaque with ginger, dried fish, and black pepper.
The menu here is fairly vast, but don't get too attached to any one item. And definitely make sure to ask what's available that day (our suggestion: call ahead). "You like fish?" Ali asks wryly before disappearing with his answer and returning with an off-menu special of carp head submerged in spectacularly gooey okra stew. If you can't decide, Ali will belt out numbers corresponding to what's available, and in the process possibly dash your dreams. Had your eye on that abunabunu? Bognan only serves the seafood stew, brimming with crab, snails, and leafy greens, in the summer. But be thankful that koko, a sour grain porridge served with black-eyed pea fritters called koose, is available for breakfast every day.
590 East 169th Street, the Bronx
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