For the last decade Senegalese, Ghanaian, and Ivory Coast restaurants have held sway over the city’s West African food. Now it’s Nigeria’s turn. While earlier establishments offered a handful of toned-down dishes, African Village Cafe mounts the most sophisticated Nigerian menu to date, not pulling punches when it comes to strong flavors and strange textures.
Thank Legba, this café’s not done up like a village. On one wall, the gravity-defying endowments of several carved female statues would make Hugh Hefner pop another Viagra. Across the room, a recumbent lion folds his paws like human hands. The room culminates in a bar that actually serves alcoholic beverages, a rarity among the town’s mainly Islamic West African eateries. Select your drink from the adjacent refrigerator case; the assortment includes Legend Extra Stout (“It Makes You Feel Real Good”) and Star Lager, both brewed in Lagos, and a slightly carbonated palm-wine cooler called Omu-Iya. While clearly not the intoxicant of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, it tastes good in a tart and creamy way.
Probably the first plant cultivated in Africa, the indigenous yam underpins much Nigerian cooking. For those accustomed to fufu that arrives in a foil-wrapped cylinder, African Village Cafe’s pounded yam comes as a pleasant surprise. The recently pummeled white tuber forms a fluffy and amorphous mound, so light it might blow away. Other mashes might include amala, cooked up from a dried cassava meal that’s like Brazilian farinha de mandioca. The arresting gray-brown color and musky odor goes well with nearly all of the strongly flavored soups.
Cultivated only since the Second World War, rice has been eagerly assimilated into the Nigerian diet. Rice-flour mash is mild-tasting and glows with a pellucid whiteness that makes you want to take it home and back-light it on the mantel. On the other hand, jollof rice is one of the restaurant’s few bummers, a forerunner of Senegalese cheb that tastes mainly of tomato paste and frozen mixed vegetables. This is the standard recipe, apparently, but one more redolent of Nebraska than Nigeria nevertheless.
A mash must be paired with a soup to make a meal ($7.99). The country’s signature soup, egusi, is thickened with dehusked and crushed melon seeds that generate a color and texture like fine scrambled eggs. The astringent dried leaves of the shrub Vernonia anyadalina (called “ugu”) sharpen the nutty flavor of this wonderful sauce. Demonstrating their genius as food chemists, Nigerian cooks make a soup of chopped greens and agbono, the seeds of the bush mango. These impart a viscosity more powerful than okra, so that the sauce pulls away from the bowl in oozy tendrils.
Another intriguing oddity is suya ($3), lamb or beef skewers associated with the Muslim Hausa of northern Nigeria and probably inspired by the Middle Eastern kebab. Dense and dry, they’re unremarkable by themselves. But dip suya in the powdered condiment of ground peanuts, salt, and black pepper, and they come alive. Many of the dishes at African Village Cafe are pleasantly spicy, but for those who like to scald their mouths, a pepper soup is in order ($5.99). These really are soups, and not just mash sauces. Goat is my favorite, crammed with rich meat and improved with a bonus of chitterlings and kidney. Responding to a challenge of the cook, I was able to eat the whole thing. My face turned scarlet in the process.