Steamed into swollen, oblong bundles, Wazobia’s moimoi bear a striking resemblance to giant tamales, or maybe tubes of polenta. Break the Nigerian staple open, though, and the spongy dumplings — made from ground ewa oloyin, a type of brown cowpea also known as the “honey bean” — look more like Chinese lo mai gai, those parcels of vapor-cooked sticky rice, dotted with various meats and vegetables, so popular at dim sum establishments. Served as an appetizer, the moimoi come streaked with ground beef and hiding a whole hard-boiled egg; what follows is something like a fork-aided treasure hunt. Moimoi elsewhere sometimes take on a rusty hue from an onslaught of blended bell peppers, but these are much lighter, almost tan, allowing the fillings and sweet-earthy beans to shine. At $5, they belong to a shrinking pantheon of cheap eats that actually constitute a meal on their own.
Lara Adesuyi, Wazobia’s Nigerian-born chef-owner, left a career as a registered nurse to open this relaxed corner spot in Staten Island’s bayside neighborhood of Stapleton in 2013. Here she cares for New Yorkers in a different way, offering the borough’s close-knit West African community a taste of home in tandem with a soul food menu full of dishes (black-eyed peas, fried and jerk chicken) that trace their origins back to the region. When not stirring things up in the kitchen, Adesuyi presides over a small counter at the back of the maroon dining room with her daughter Edith, flanked by shelves of wood carvings, an hourglass-shaped drum, and a fridge filled with beverages both commercial and homemade.
Diners gather around this area during lunch, chatting up the two women while awaiting takeout orders or tucking into daily specials like braised oxtail. At night, the most popular spot is an adjacent table sandwiched between a wall-mounted corkboard posted with photos of family and friends and an elongated ceremonial wood mask. The seats provide a clear view of the massive flat-screen TV near the front entrance, which on one evening showed such West African music videos as Ghanaian recording artist Atom’s pop anthem “Ye Wo Krom.” But whenever you show up, and wherever you’ve traveled from, Adesuyi’s cooking remains the main draw. “There’s a man who orders big platters to take home to his family in Connecticut,” the chef says one night while packing up leftovers of chewy stewed land snails, known as igbin in her native tongue of Yoruba. “Cooking is just her God-given talent,” Edith later tells the Voice.
Start with some moimoi or their fritter counterpart, akara, which comes with a spicy tomato-based dipping sauce. Or — if you feel like exploring — there’s nothing like probing through a $13 bowl of isi ewu, chopped goat head in a rich sauce buzzing with nutmeg and chile peppers. Even fierier are Adesuyi’s pepper soups, which find whole tilapia or fatty chunks of goat meat submerged in thinner broths that likewise rely on nutmeg’s sweet, warming essence, only with noticeably ratcheted-up heat. They’re especially wonderful eaten alongside starches like fufu, the gummy dough balls that are as integral to West Africa as mashed potatoes are to America’s heartland. If you so choose, you can tear off pieces for dipping and scooping, as is the custom. Wazobia prepares three varieties: a smooth, mild fufu made from pounded white yams; eba, made with dried and ground cassava root for a sturdier mound and slightly fermented flavor; and amala, a dull-brown mix of dried yam flour with a pungent earthiness.
It’s not all intense spice, though. Move on to gentler but no less deeply flavored stews, including those snails, or versions starring slow-simmered goat, chicken, or red snapper in the same vibrant, tomato-based sauce. Pair these with heaping portions of jollof rice, another West African favorite, in which the seasoned grains are stained red from tomatoes. Suya kebabs, which can sometimes be quite spicy, are fairly mild as rendered by this kitchen, but thankfully the beef has been marinated into tender submission. Adesuyi also fries something fierce. Her whole tilapia arrives brittle and crunchy on the outside, skin puffed and bubbled like chicharrón, the fish obscured by a hillock of fried sweet plantains and a generously ladled light sauce of chopped sweet peppers. Dig in to uncover meat that’s soft, flaky, and plainly fresh. Meanwhile, hailing from the soul food section, thin fillets of cornmeal-crusted fried whiting are pitch-perfect, too, with a light crackle to their black-pepper-dappled coating.
No meal at Wazobia is complete without an order of one of Adesuyi’s sauces (also meant to be enjoyed with starches), which showcase the textural diversity of Nigerian cuisine. Nutty melon seeds thicken a sauce with steamed spinach, while the ground ogbono pods (from wild mangoes) cooked in dried fish broth is as delightfully gluey as the forest-green jute leaf soup and a dish of okra with locust beans. They complement whatever you spoon them over.
Looking for dessert? You’re out of luck there — but a glass of Adesuyi’s floral zobo, an iced tea combining hibiscus, mint, and orange blossom, offers a refreshing end nonetheless.
611 Bay Street