West African food in the US gets personal

Cookbooks, restaurants and chefs who are making West African cuisine in the US about 'much more than mere recipes'

Chicken Mafe a West African stew with a peanut coconut sauce
Chicken mafe, a West African stew with a peanut coconut sauce
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It is a joke — rooted in truth as so much humor is — that many a United States citizen, when asked about Africa, might say something along the lines of, “Oh yeah. I’ve never been to that country.”

Well, American myopia has been receiving a personal geography lesson about the western part of the African continent recently, from the dinner plate and the kitchen stove, no less.

Writers, chefs and restaurateurs with familial ties to countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast are cooking or harnessing through recipes the food of their lineage. This West African embodiment is happening from Portland to New Orleans and New York City. 

Some, like Fatou Ouattara, a native of Ivory Coast, are using the restaurant format to serve dishes like queue de boeuf (oxtail stew) and mafe (peanut stew). Ouattara’s Portland, Oregon, restaurant, Akadi PDX, “boasts the type of compelling and unique menu that you must try,” said Jenni Moore in Portland Mercury. Others are using both restaurants and cookbooks to circulate the good word about the cuisines of West Africa. Senegal-born Pierre Thiam, for example, now has two New York City locations of his fast-casual concept Teranga, and his fourth and newest cookbook, "Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipe for Every Kitchen,” was released in September 2023.

From Lagos to the American kitchen

Yewande Komolafe is known in food-writing circles as one of the industry’s finest recipe developers. No surprise then that her debut cookbook, "My Everyday Lagos," is full of enticing recipes that work reliably in the home kitchen. The book, though, accomplishes more. According to Publishers Weekly, “this heartfelt and fascinating collection is an outstanding example of a cookbook that is so much more than mere recipes.”

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After more than 10 years in the United States, Komolafe returned to Lagos and, in doing so, returned to herself. The book documents her re-experience of classic Lagos dishes and dining rituals. There is eko tutu, a steamed fermented corn pudding, and roasted fish with ata lilo (pepper paste). In Mayukh Sen’s Eater profile of her, Komolafe noted that her point of view in her book and in her work as a columnist for The New York Times is hers and hers only. “She bristles at the notion of ‘authenticity’ and any litigation over it,” writes Sen. “When she writes about Nigerian cooking for the paper, she works from personal experience, from observation, from research, and she hopes that her humility is enough.”

Senegal meets New Orleans

Like Komolafe, Serigne Mbaye, the chef-owner of Dakar NOLA, employs food as a conduit to his roots. Mbaye was “born in Harlem, but when I was young, my parents sent me to a boarding school in Senegal. That’s one of the first places where I started to learn to cook Senegalese food,” he told Garden & Gun. His parents were from Senegal, so returning to the West African country was a homecoming of sorts. 

Mbaye worked in such fine-dining kitchens as Atelier Crenn and Atelier Joel Robuchon, along with a stint as the chef de cuisine of New Orleans’ beloved Cajun restaurant Mosquito Supper Club. Before and during the pandemic, Mbaye had a pop-up restaurant and to-go business that served his take on classic Senegalese dishes like chicken yassa. Then, in November 2022, he opened Dakar NOLA. 

The tasting-menu restaurant teases apart the threads that tie New Orleans  — and by extension, the entire United States — with the enslaved people who were forced across the Middle Passage to Louisiana and other U.S. ports of entry for the slave trade. One example from the multicourse menu: Last Meal, a course that pays homage to the black-eyed peas and palm oil used to fatten the enslaved before embarking west. As Brett Anderson said about the dish in The New York Times, “Chances are you’ll still be thinking about it days later. Last Meal is that delicious — and even more unsettling.”

Do not mistake a meal at Dakar NOLA for a downer, despite its eyes-wide-open approach to Black history. Dining is communal, with everyone seated at the same time. You will gab with your neighbors; you will gawk at the peerless food; you will marvel at Mbaye’s charisma as he works the room. This is intimate West African food, disseminated in the most joyous, personal manner.  

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