Buka Serves Up the Slimy Sauces and Goat Heads of Nigeria
Located in Clinton Hill, Buka ("Eating House") is a new Nigerian restaurant on Fulton Street, but it certainly isn't the first—there's been a constant national presence on the thoroughfare going back 30 years, to the aftermath of that country's oil boom and subsequent economic bust. While the presence has been mainly limited to shipping companies, art galleries, and boutiques selling West African togs, in the '80s there was a place called the Demu Café a few blocks west in Fort Greene, with a menu hilariously mixing bagels and fufu (white yam pounded to an elastic consistency).
Buka's premises are deep and high-ceilinged. There's a lounge up front with a comfy couch and bar, where a recently conferred liquor license makes Buka one of the few West African restaurants in town serving alcohol (most West African restaurants are run by observant Muslims). A narrow hallway leads past a kitchen to the rear dining room, which is sparsely decorated and contains only 10 tables despite its prodigious acreage; if you're tired of cramped restaurants, this is your place. The sole diner as we arrived was a woman eating fufu and stew, but later a group of 10 boisterous men in colorful caftans settled down to a leisurely and convivial meal.
On that first visit, I fell in love with tuwo ($10, pronounced "toe"), a cornmeal porridge. The brilliant yellow stodge flooded the shallow bowl, and a pair of Technicolor sauces had been chaotically spilled over the top: There was palava, a green slurry of shredded ewedu leaves displaying an intriguing sliminess, and gbegiri, locust beans puréed to the consistency of applesauce, flavored with tidbits of dried fish and tinted orange with palm oil.
Another highlight was goat stew ($7). Two shanks of strongly flavored meat rose up like rocky cliffs in the bowl with a mild tomato sauce splashing at their sides. In the traditional Nigerian fashion, we were offered a choice of "mashes" ($3) to go with the stew, which included fufu, amala (reconstituted yam flour, assuming a grayish-brown color), and eba (a fermented manioc-meal mash with a sour flavor). If you're a newcomer to West African food, pick the fufu. Two other stew options are available—chicken and fish—neither of which is as good as the goat.
Served separately, stew and mash is the most common Nigerian meal, often tendered with an extra sauce poured on top of the stew ($1 each) to provide textural contrast, though you can also have the sauces on the side. The palava and gbegiri mentioned above are two examples, but egusi is really a better choice. Looking like fine scrambled eggs, it's concocted of ground-up melon seeds, and is more mellow and less mucoidal than some of the other choices. (West Africans love slimy sauces, but they are something of a challenge to eat: As you lift a spoonful, they snap back like rubber bands into the bowl.)
Mounting an expansive menu, Buka is one of the city's rare West African restaurants where everything on the bill of fare is routinely available (most places list many dishes, but only manage to make three or four per day). Moreover, there are plenty of appetizers and sides, which can happily be assembled into a lunch or dinner. Two per order, suya ($5) are grilled beef kebabs dusted with spicy peanut powder associated with Muslim northern Nigeria; akara are labor-intensive fritters made with peeled black-eyed peas; and dodo are sweet rounds of fried ripe plantains. My favorite of these smaller dishes is designated on the menu simply as "beans" ($6), and consists of brown beans roughly mashed with palm oil, an elegant and tasty recipe typical of what impoverished rural West Africans still eat as a main course.
The most off-the-wall thing on the menu is isiewu ($14), a goat-head stew typical of the cooking of the Igbo tribe of eastern Nigeria. Strips of face flesh are mired in a thick, brown sauce at once creamy and spicy, flavored with onions, lemon, palm oil, and utazi leaves, which are dark green and bitter; one can buy them dried in most West African groceries here. The dish is unspeakably rich, and you can play a game with the rest of your table trying to identify each individual facial feature. "Here's a piece of lip," crowed a dining companion. "I think this must be forehead," roared another. But I won the prize when I pulled an eyeball out of the sand-colored goo.
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