East of Benin

May 18, 2005 at 12:00 am

Have a hamburger and fries, or explore the world. There’s a McDonald’s at the corner of Wyoming and Fenkell streets, but a couple of blocks away is a little storefront featuring the food of Nigeria.

Anytime you explore a new cuisine, there will be surprises, sometimes in good ways, sometimes not. I can’t think of any way to describe the bland taste of eba — made from the thick, white roots of the cassava plant, a major source of starch in tropical countries — other than faintly medicinal. But aren’t you tired of burgers?

Janet Sijuade Akintoroye, chef and owner, opened Squindles — her childhood nickname — on New Year’s Day. Six months later, on a recent Monday evening, there was a steady stream of customers, some chatting with Akintoroye in their native language, others looking for a quick snack of chicken wings or fried fish. One mom wanted dinner to take home, something her kids would eat, but different too.

The menu is organized around the starches: yams, cassava and rice. They can appear in very different forms. For example, the African yam, which looks woody on the outside and pure white inside, is more similar to a potato than a sweet potato — “But more solid than a potato,” Akintoroye says — and is prepared as asaro (a porridge) or iyan (pounded) or amala (flour). Asaro is made with diced cubes of yam, cooked with tomatoes and peppers until the edges have softened and absorbed the flavors of the herbs and spices. Iyan tastes much more similar to mashed potatoes. Cassava is made into eba (cooked in boiling water until it makes a thick paste) or fufu (dried into flour then reconstituted). Rice is fried in vegetable oil with carrots and peas or cooked with tomatoes and spices in a traditional recipe called jollof.

Whatever starch you choose, a “stew” is added. Akintoroye likens it to putting gravy on mashed potatoes. One popular dish, red stew, combines tomatoes, sweet red peppers, habanero chiles (these bonnet-shaped peppers are the hottest used in cooking) and onions, seasoned with ginger, thyme and curry powder — ingredients that repeat in Nigerian recipes, in various proportions. Efo egusi combines spinach and ground melon seeds with enough red stew to hold it together. Other stew options include okra, gbegiri (black-eyed peas cooked in red palm oil) and cassava leaf soup.

Finally, add in a meat. Nigerian food relies heavily on meats (often goat, also beef and pork), chicken and fish, along with legumes such as groundnuts (peanuts) and beans. Baked tilapia was presented whole, with a crisp skin and flaky, sweet flesh. Stockfish, made from salted and dried fish such as saithe, haddock or tusk, is a Nigerian delicacy.

One section of the menu lists snack foods. For the ridiculously low price of $1.25, try a meat, chicken or vegetable pie. A circle of dough is filled with chunks of meat, potatoes, and onions and seasoned with ginger and thyme, folded over and baked. It seems that every culture has a dish like this. Here, the dough is light and crispy, and it’s absolutely delicious as a snack or a light lunch. Sausage and fish are prepared similarly, but in the form of a roll.

Asun is grilled goat meat topped with raw chopped tomatoes, red onions and habanero. Fried plantains, called dodo, are featured in several dishes; not as intensely flavored as bananas, they’re served with several of the dishes. Moi-moi is a bean cake studded with tiny cubes of different types of meat and steamed; very filling. Chin-chin is a bit like a cookie, made of flour, butter and nutmeg and cut into irregular little squares. It’s dry, hard and not sweet, compared to the cookies we’re used to.

The little storefront on Wyoming Street is a sparse setting; thick Plexiglas, reminiscent of a bank or a gas station, separates customers from the kitchen, but everyone is friendly — several customers who were native speakers offered advice on what to order — and Janet Akintoroye’s enthusiasm for her native cuisine inspires exploration.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].