The Taste of Tomorrow
  • African Cuisines
  • December6th

     “If it’s food, and it’s from south of the Sahara, buy it.

    The Taste of Tomorrow editorial memo, May 2011

    As regular TofT readers know, in addition to trying to persuade you to eat genetically engineered Hawaiian papaya, warehouse-raised barramundi, cricket quesadillas, and cultured beef burgers,  we are very much committed to searching N. American grocery stores, restaurants, bars, food trucks, farmers markets, street vendors  and strip malls for foods from the 37 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

    We do this not only because we want to find the elusive yaji or the ingredients necessary to make a sublime chicken yassa or Nigerian goat pepper soup, but because we are eager to say, “I told you so,” and, especially, “I told you so, Dad.”

    Recall the post publication days of 2012. That guy who came up to us at a lakeside barbecue only to say “I liked the book… But African food?” The college professor who told us The African Inevitability Thesis was preposterous.   The  man who declared, after one (one!) visit to one (one!) Nigerian restaurant,  “African food is not going to be popular in the United States.”

    Well, we dedicate this post to those nattering nabobs of negativism, which include a very high ranking member of the Schonwald family.

    It was a very good 60 days for The African Inevitability Thesis.

    African Maafe with Roasted Bananas in Evanston!

    It all started in Sept. when the weekly email from Meez Meals, our favorite local vegetarian/vegan prepared meals maker —a frequent go-to option when we are too lazy too cook featured a maafe-based dish: African Maafe with Roasted Bananas.  Meez, which is often creative fusion-wise and does a great job heating up vegetarian meals,  built a whole spread around the classic W. African peanut-based sauce — adding lots of ginger and cardamom,  sautéed broccoli, kidney beans, brown rice, & roasted bananas.

    The Meez take on maafe, which we paired with a Red Hook, was delicious. Two points for African fusion.

    Then, a few days later, still giddy after the discovery that a foodmaker based here in our hometown of Evanston had discovered the wonders of maafe, a dish as common in West Africa as tomato sauce is in Italy – we were doing a routine search of our favorite trend-tracking sites and found this:

    Now,  why was it so pleasing to see Baobabest Fruit Cubes, featured beneath a box of Quinoa Milk,  on a blog?  

    Well…. as TofT readers know,  last year,  given the chance to opine in one of the end-of-the-year food futurist stories (What’s the next Kale) we laid down the gauntlet and went with baobab.The TofT predicts that baobab — the iconic tree of sub-Saharan Africa, the producer of a fruit with an extraordinary range of health properties – was destined, for next acai/pomegranate/blueberry — aka superfruit status.   We were also pleased to see that a post about the emergence of baobab-derived products at Natural Products Expo West was on Kara Nielsen’s trend-tracking blog (Kara Nielsen is one of our favorite trend trackers, and, ultimately, is the one who really started our curiosity in African foods.)

    But the super big news started coming a week later — when we were alerted to the exciting news that Zingerman’s was also hot for maafe.  In fact, one of Zingerman’s food trackers declared a maffe, from The Gambia, to be his “food find of the year.”

    Zingerman’s Chooses Maafe as “Food Find of the Year”

    Now many foodies will instantly know why it’s a huge deal to the TofT that Zingerman’s is enthusing about maafe.  But for those who have never heard of Z’s— it’s  a legendary Ann Arbor, Michigan food store (the NY Times journo/gastronome RW Apple called it the “deli of my dreams”) that routinely attracts gushing praise,  long lines and has a loyal, cult-like following that will buy whatever Ari (co-founder) loves at whatever cost he charges.(For more on the cult of Z’s, read here, or watch this) In short, Z’s is a trend-maker  — they were pushing olive oil and good coffee 20 years before everyone cared about artisanal olive oil and coffee, they were ahead of the pack, nerding out early on balsamic vinegar,  high-end chocolate, and ancient grains and  artisanal bacon.

    So the fact that Brad of Zingerman’s,  a guy who surely tastes hundreds – maybe thousands — of products from all over the world, went ga-ga over a take on maafe,  calling it his  “food find of the year,”  explaining it’s significance in West African culture (Brad likened it to an Italian grandma’s pasta sauce or a Louisianan’s gumbo), and then introducing us to The Gambian version of said Italian grandma (Jainaba Janga of The Gambia) before concluding  with this seductive how-can-i-not-try-it description:

    It’s made from garlic, vegetables and spices all cooked in a peanut and tomato sauce. In Jainaba’s version she adds lots of fresh ginger and garlic as well as habanero peppers and lime juice. It’s bright, tangy, spicy and nutty all at the same time—totally delicious to palates from any country.

    Well…. it’s a big, big moment for people who believe that the pleasures — and potential — of sub-Saharan African food have been overlooked.

    We are very excited that Zingerman’s is now exploring sub-Saharan African cuisines.  In recent years, Zingerman’s has been on a north African exploration, and they’ve featured some wonderful Tunisian foods —  harissa, couscous, preserved lemons. They even had a pop-up Tunisian restaurant called “Café Memmi” Given Z’s past, its track record of finding unbelievable stuff, its creativity, and consistent quality, it is hard not to wonder what’s next. Could a delightful egusi recipe be coming next spring?  Could Zingerman’s Bakehouse experiment with fufu? Will Zingerman’s Roadhouse offer baobab juice?).

    IF you’re interested in more info on the maker of this maffe, check out the Kitchens of Africa site – they also make a yassa sauce, which we are hoping to try soon.

     

    More Spicy African Ketchup, More Smoky Baobab Barbecue Sauce — Taste the Future at… TJ Maxx.

    Last but not at all least… the final good news of the good news era…. 

    Just last week, we got an email from James “Bim” Adedeji of Bim’s Kitchen, maker of perhaps the world’s first collection of modern African – or African fusion — sauces with the pleasing news that ANOTHER major shipment of Bim’s is en route to the US. See photographic evidence here:

    Why is this a big deal? Well, as TofT readers know, we fell very much under the spell of Bim’s Kitchen last year — see earlier posts . Basically, we believe that Bim’s is a taste of the future — and are hopeful that more folks will get a chance to experiment as we did last summer with lemon piri piri chicken wings, baby back ribs in a smoky baobab barbecue sauce, French fries dipped in a spicy African ketchup.

    Last year that simply wasn’t possible for most Americans.  Bim’s distribution was overwhelmingly in the UK.  But that’s changing.

    TJ Maxx (yes, that TJ Maxx) tested Bim’s, with a small North American debut last spring. And not surprisingly, the sauces, which incorporate sub-Saharan African flavors into familiar condiments (egusi paired with curry, ketchup spiced with African peppers, a barbecue sauce infused with baobab)  have proved to be very popular.

    TJ Maxx is doubling its order! That means, Bim’s will be available in select TJ Maxx (they have a small food section), Marshalls, and Homegoods stores.

    James sent us a list of the sauces coming (Smoky Baobab BBQ Sauce,  Hot Tangy BBQ Sauce,  African Lemony Piri Piri,  Hot African Lemony Piri Piri,  Smokin’ Red Hot Sauce, Fiery Hot Sauce) and the general location where they’ll be available, but it’s hard to tell from the list. Call ahead!

    We’ll keep you posted if we get confirmation of Chicago-area stores that offer Bim’s…. Meantime, here’s a short interview with Bim (audio and production quality are poor — our first attempt — BUT… you’ll learn the back-story of Bim’s which is quite interesting.)

  • March15th

    Wilbert Jones

    Sub-Saharan African food needs a Rick Bayless-figure.  Bayless, the celebrity chef, founder of Frontera Grill, PBS star, host of the series Mexico: One Plate at a Time, helped introduce millions of gringos to the vast range of possibilities of traditional Mexican foods – and how they could be interpreted.

    Who will be the maverick culinary mind who helps introduce North Americans to the vast possibilities of sub-Saharan African cuisines and ingredients??

    One of the most promising candidates for Rick Bayless of African food is based here in Chicago, and he’s giving a public talk on March 23 at Kendall College titled “The Flavor of Africa.”

    Wilbert Jones, chef, food scientist, author of two books, and president of a food product development company, is currently working on cable television series titled a “A Taste of Africa.” You can watch a clip here. Jones has had a long fascination with African cuisine — he’s written about African foods for the trade Prepared Foods — here’s an interesting piece on street foods of Africa. He also gave a fascinating-sounding lecture series at Kendall College last year that looked at several African cuisines.

    His March 23rd talk “The Flavor of Africa” hosted by the Culinary Historians of Chicago will cover a lot of ground —he’ll talk about the daily diets of the ancient Egyptians and will introduce folks to the national dishes of several countries, Jones will also showcase some of the current food and beverage trends emerging out of Africa  and talk about how they might manifest themselves in American cuisines.

    We are very excited about the event. There will be tastings, including samples of sauces from Bim’s Kitchen. Here are the details from the Culinary Historians Site:

    “The Flavor of Africa” – Wilbert Jones – 
    Saturday, March 23, 2013 — 10 a.m. to Noon
    Kendall College, School of Culinary Arts, 900 N. North Branch Street, Chicago
    Cost of the lecture program is $5, $3 for students.
    To reserve, please e-mail your reservation to: Culinary.Historians@gmail.com.

    We’re also very excited to have a chance to sit down with Wilbert for a talk about his thoughts on African cuisines.  We’ll obviously post an update as soon as that’s schedule.

  • March9th

    It's coming.

    Lemon piri piri chicken wings, baby back ribs barbecued in a smoky  baobab sauce,  a salad drizzled with a baobab pepper vinaigrette, French fries dipped in African ketchup.

    If you’ve been in the orbit of The Taste of Tomorrow — hung around my kitchen, listened to TofT podcasts, gone sledding with me— you’ve heard this before.  In fact, you’ve been subjected to so much enthusing about these sauces, and the maker of these condiments, that you may have thought,  “Easy on the hype.”  Or “Dude, do you work for Bim’s Kitchen?” (No)

    Well…. I have recently learned that I am not alone in my  over-the-top enthusiasm the work of James “BIm” Adedeji.

    Apparently, some other American fellow has fallen under the spell of Bim’s, as well.

    Which brings me to some very, very good news.

    The other Bim’s Kitchen enthusiast is a food importer.

     

    Remember how I was whining about how you can’t get Bim’s anywhere in North America?

    Well, those days will soon be over.

    By end of April, eight of Bim’s sauces will be stocked at 50 Homegoods and TJ Maxx stores. (Yes, that TJ Maxx; I didn’t even know TJ Maxx had food).  Here’s a passage from the press release.

    2,400 units of small artisan producer Bim’s Kitchen award-winning handmade African-inspired food products have been snapped up by American company, TJX, for sale in the gourmet food sections of selected T.J. Maxx and Homegoods department stores across the USA.

    Why are we so off-the-charts pleased about this news that Bim’s will be available at TJ Maxx/Homegoods?

    First, the T of T Headquarters is about a 3-minute drive from a TJ Maxx.  (James said can’t confirm that the sauces will be at TJ Maxx Evanston, as the importer doesn’t know exactly which stores they are destined for.)

    Second, as much as I love Bim’s, having it airmailed here was not sustainable. At last, we look forward to being able to use our stash of sauces without extreme rationing.  The 2013 Memorial Day Wing Fest & Max Schonwald Birthday will be an African-Flavored wing fest. (contact me if  you want to attend)

    Third, and most important….

    Having Bim’s sauces stocked at TJ Maxx — or at some TJ Maxx or Homegoods in Chicagoland —gives me the ability to swiftly and forcefully respond to The Doubters.  See this earlier post. These skeptics  — even the author of The Taste of Tomorrow’s very own father — doubt that sub-Saharan African foods can be wonderful, and question the African Food Inevitability  Thesis.

    Now, we can drive over to TJ Maxx, stock up some Bim’s, and quickly counter with an African-inspired feast.

    Again, James said that he doesn’t yet know what TJ Maxx and Homegoods stores will carry Bim’s products. That apparently will be decided by the TJX grocery team when the goods arrive in the States.

    We will post a list of the stores that have the goods, as soon as that information becomes available.

    For those of you who are eager to get an early taste of Bim’s, there might be a preview opportunity coming up….

  • January24th

    If you’re visiting The Taste of Tomorrow site for the first time, it’s probably because you just read “A Taste of Tomorrow, Today,” Bill Daley’s story in the Chicago Tribune.

    After reading Bill’s excellent piece, you might want to know a little more about who the hell is this Josh Schonwald guy in Evanston, why does he love goat pepper soup, why does he want to try every African restaurant in Chicago.

    Or maybe you don’t care about any of that..  Maybe you’re just looking for more information on sub-Saharan African restaurants and tips on how you can make Kenyan appetizers,  South African barbecues, or a four-course Nigerian feast.

    Well, you’ve come to the right place.

    Let’s start this week with Post #1 — an FAQ for TofT first-timers.

    1. Why are you eating this Giant African Snail and how did you become interested in exploring Chicago’s African food?

    Bill succinctly addresses my curiosity in the Tribunebut the full-blown story of how I became interested in sub-Saharan African food — which started more than 20 years ago at a Chinese restaurant in Zion, Il —is chronicled in detail in  The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches from the Future of Food.  Please read the whole book — don’t miss The Culinary Potential of Frankenfood — and buy two copies for friends.

    But if you’re really only interested in African food, check out the chapter.  “The Last Culinary Frontier.”

     2. What are your Four Favorite Sub-Saharan African Food Items at Chicago Restaurants? 

    Bill did a great job reviewing six of Chicago’s African restaurants — check out his take on Yassa African restaurant, Qaato, Palace Gate, Nigerian Kitchen, Iyanze, and Bolat African cuisine.  My personal faves?

    Grilled lamb chops & jollof rice —Yassa.   Yassa couldn’t be more inconveniently located for someone in Evanston— it’s  on 79th Street on the south side— but it’s well-worth the 2-hour (seemingly) trip.     The Senegalese know how to prepare lamb (Joe Perillo is right). The jollof rice has no rival in Chicago.  The Afro-pop,  the friendly staff, & the drinks make the food taste even better. Make sure you ask Madieye Gueye, the friendly and highly entertaining owner, to tell you the Joe Perillo/lamb story.

    Goat pepper soup — Bolat. There no better place in Chicago for a general introduction to sub-Saharan African foods, and there’s no place, I’ve found, that has better goat pepper soup. If you like hot and sour soup, and intensely peppered foods, it’s a must-try.  Also, I love Bolat’s suya and shrimp piri piri.

    Best Egusi — Qaato.  Egusi is the stew/soup that is to Nigerians what bouillabaisse is to the French, or Tom Yum is to the Thai.  Egusi done right is an insanely spicy broth of ground melon or mango seeds, shrimp (sometimes), spinach, peppers, and a protein (fish, oxtail, goat).  It just so happens that there is a terrific purveyor of egusi on north Clark Street in Rogers Park about 15 minutes from my house. It’s an unassuming place. It’s poorly lit (you’ll think it’s closed) but Qaato is a great place to try egusi and explore other Nigerian favorites. Here’s an earlier post about Qaato’s sublime egusi — Qaato is, by the way, the only place in Chicago that offers escargot made with giant African land snails.

    Best Drinks — Yassa.. Tamarind, bissap, hibiscus, baobab.    I love Yassa’s drink offerings.  In fact, we’re going to devote an upcoming TofT podcast to the baobab — it’s taste, uses, and why it’s almost inevitably on its way to “next superfruit” status.  Note: make sure you call ahead to make sure the juices are available at Yassa.

    3.  What’s Your Favorite African Cookbook?

    The Tribune story focuses on dining out — Chicago’s African restaurants.  But my “gateway experience” was inspired by a cookbook, Marcus Samuellson’s The Soul of a New CuisineOther helpful books include Jessica B. Harris’s The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent  Laurens van Der Post’s African-Cooking (part of the Time-Life “Food of the World” Series), and an excellent overview of cookbooks posted  here on the Congo Cookbook web site. Many of the ingredients are available at a good grocery story, but if you’re looking for an elusive Nigerian pepper or want to make your own fufu or garri, you can check out the Old World Market at 5129 N Broadway in Uptown.

    4.   Why are you so certain that sub-Saharan African foods will become a much bigger part of US food offerings in the next 20 years?

    There’s a long, detailed answer, complete with an algorithm, some theorizing about economic development and globalization and the food movement in the book (around p230), but the short, and far more enjoyable answer is three words long.

    Try Bim’s Kitchen

    You can’t get Bim’s at a store in Chicago. You’ll have to pay a premium shipping fee to get it. But if you really want to find out right now why African food is coming, how it might taste,  what Wolfgang Puck might do when he enhances his menu with African ingredients, well then your best best is to go to www.bimskitchen.com.

    Here’s a piece I wrote about Bim’s a few months ago titled “Senaglese Take-Out & Baobab-Infused Vinaigrette—Sooner.” 

    Apply some of Bim’s marinades —try a salad with a baobab pepper vinaigrette,  maybe some grilled chicken in a lemon piri piri sauce, or some baby back ribs in a smoky baobab-barbecue sauce.  Definitely try the African chili coconut relish, do something — maybe eggs — with the curry egusi, and, by all means, try some French fries with Bim’s distinctively African ketchup. You’ll get a taste of the future. 

    ALSO,  if you want to hear more about James Adedeji, aka Bim, the Nigerian Londoner, and pioneer of “modern African”  check out the Taste of Tomorrow podcast from earlier this year. Warning: Chris Bentley (the co-host, and now a blogger on environmental issues for WBEZ) and I are doing our FIRST podcast. We’re just figuring things out here, testing out the mic, Nonetheless,  bear with us, and you’ll learn some interesting things about Nigerian foods, London’s African food scene, and Bim’s thoughts on what could be the African equivalent of pad Thai — ie: the “gateway” food. Here it is.

    And one final request….  Even if you have no intention of have a curry egusi marinade air-mailed to you from Bim’s Kitchen in London, go visit the site,  email Bim, and tell him that you would like to try Modern African cuisine in Chicago.   I’m hoping that he’ll start selling it in the US, or will find a US distributor… and the price will fall. It’s a long shot, but the point:  his sauces are great, easy-to-use, and they demonstrate the potential of African flavors.

    5. Where Can I get More Info on African Foods?

    If you’re interested in more on African foods in Chicago, and beyond, please come back!  In coming months,  our irregularly updated web site vows to become more regular.  We’ll post updates on our latest African food experiences, we’ll tell you about new articles about African food — such as Plate magazine’s feature “Undiscovered Africa,” which has a terrific feature on African desserts. We’ll point you to blogs, such as DC-blogger Chef Afrik’s chronicle of her quest to cook her way through Africa one country at a time.

    If you subscribe to the TofT newsletter or like our Facebook pages, we’ll let you know about any new updates. The next planned update: The Baobab Show. Chris and I will devote an entire hour to the baobab.   Everything you need to know about baobab, and why it will be a bigger hit than acai, pomegranate, goji berries combined.

    Thanks again for stopping by. And please stay in touch — we’d love to hear about other African foods/restaurants you’ve tried, both locally and abroad.

  • July2nd


    Prince Charles meets modern African food.

    It’s highly satisfying to be proved right, especially in the face of nattering nabobs of negativism who ridicule you for being nuts and suggest that you are irresponsible, or possibly stoned.  I’m not saying that I am, for sure, right, but there’s some encouraging evidence in support of my African Inevitability Thesis.

    A few weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Wall Street Journal, a radically summarized version of my argument in the book that Americans will be eating more foods and flavors from sub-Saharan Africa in the future.  I wrote:

    Get ready for a Nigerian P.F. Chang’s and Lean Cuisine Lamb Yassa. Prepare to find the foods of sub-Saharan Africa in your strip malls and Safeways. It’s inevitable.

    A common reaction to my African Food Inevitability Thesis has been a furrowed brow, a scoff, or a “no effing way.”  To date, my retort to the doubters has been “WAIT,” and then I remind them of the time-stamp on my prognostication —2035 —and then I start trying to explain the dynamics behind my prediction.

    Over the past weeks, however, I have found some encouraging evidence that suggests I might be right sooner.

    Visitors to my home over the past month have tasted such evidence — grilled chicken marinated in a lemon piri piri sauce, scrambled eggs turbo-charged with a curried egusi sauce, pasta topped with African chili coconut relish.  I’ve discovered the joys of french fries dipped in African ketchup. For our July 4th barbecue,  we’ll start with a mesclun salad mix, spiced with sea salt, olive oil, and a pepper mix that’s flavored with alligator pepper, cubeb, and Ethiopian pepper. And for our main course, we’ll have baby back ribs bathed in a smoky baobab barbecue sauce.

    Yes, that’s baobab barbecue sauce— baobab, the signature tree of sub-Saharan Africa.

    I have not gone on some rare binge of culinary productivity; all of these sauces are ready-made, available in a jar, from a store.

    Unfortunately, that store was not Dominick’s or a Whole Foods here in the Chicago area.  And none of the more adventurous foodie stores — like Williams-Sonoma, or even Zingerman’s or Corti Brothers — offer it.  In fact, you can’t get the sublime African chickpea melon seed anywhere in the United States. To get my fix, I had to wait a week for a package to arrive from London.

    It’s not at all surprising that a baobab-enhanced jam or  curry with egusi is coming from a London-based food maker.  The home of Big Ben and Wimbledon is home to the largest African expat community in the world —there’s a “Little Lagos,” a huge Ghanaian community, tens of thousands of Londoners call Jo’burg and Cape Town home.  There’s regional Nigerian food in London, rankings of South African restaurants.    And it makes perfect sense that London — one of the foodie cities of the moment, home of Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, and tons of culinary adventurers — would be one of the birthplaces of “African fusion” cuisine.

    But James “Bim” Adedeji is an unlikely candidate for the role of Rick Bayless or Wolfgang Puck of sub-Saharan African food.

    He’s not a restauranteur, culinary school grad, he never worked in a kitchen or food service of any kind. The idea for his Bim’s Kitchen —quite possibly the first African fusion specialist in the world— came while he was working at the United Kingdom’s Department of Health.

    Not only did I have the pleasure of trying some of Bim’s most popular sauces – which are now available at more than 40 stores and markets throughout the UK— I also had a chance to learn about how a civil servant, who spent his teenage years in Nigeria, became committed to introducing Brits to the flavors of sub-Saharan Africa.  James (“Bim” is his Nigerian name) has an approach that mark him as unusual in the UK’s African burgeoning food scene — Bim’s Kitchen is not about authenticity.  As James points out, it’s not about “replicating Grandma’s long lost recipes.” James and his wife, Nicola, create versions of familiar favorites — barbecue sauces, curry sauces, ketchup —drawing from a palette of African flavors.

    Next week, in the T of T’s Second Podcast Ever, we will talk with one of the pioneers of  modern African-inspired cuisine — we’ll hear Bim’s story, talk about the African food scene in London, learn about the candidates for African Gateway Dish (the dish that could be the Pad Thai of  African cuisine), get a sense of what’s happening in restaurants in sub-Saharan Africa. And…. we’ll hear about why James “Bim” Adedeji agrees enthusiastically with The African Food Inevitability Thesis.

    Meantime, to get ready for the talk, here are five of Bim’s core spices for sub-Saharan Cuisine, as featured in a British food magazine.

    Alligator Pepper.   Sometimes known as mbongo spice, and a close relative of grains of paradise, it’s a key ingredient of West African food. The Igbo Spices site describes alligator pepper “as having a pungent, spicy taste with hazelnut, butter and citrus.”

    Cubeb. A close relative of black pepper, sometimes called “tailed pepper,” it’s commonly grown in marshy areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Taste: slightly hot, fruity, with hints of cinnamon.  (Part of the reason, we’re not eating more cubeb — the Portuguese. In 1600s, the Portuguese prohibited its sale because they were promoting black pepper.)

    Birds Eye Chili. You can also find this spicy chili pepper in Southeast Asian and South Indian cuisine It’s the defining ingredient in piri piri aka pilli pilli aka peri peri (which we’ll learn about in our talk with Bim)

    Hibiscus Flower. Hibiscus, often used in the UK and US in team, is an important ingredient in African cuisines.   In Senegal and other West African cuisines, flowers from a type of hibiscus plant are used to make a pleasant tart-sweet beverage (sometimes called bissap, roselle, or red sorrel). But West Africans don’t only use it for drinking — sometimes the leaves are not uses, it’s just extracted for color.

    More coming.

  • January12th

    The TofT's favorite spot for egusi stew.

     The range of West African food options in Chicago, USA is not great.  As we’ve lamented in earlier posts, if you’re a Cubs fan looking for Nigerian food – or Ghanaian or Senegalese – your best is probably to jump on a flight to NYC or DC or maybe  LA.

    Experiences with W. African in Chi-town have been mixed at best (the one notable exception is Yassa, a wonderful Senegalese place.) But Yassa is on the southside; it is an epic commute from the T of T’s Evanston (north suburb) headquarters.  One must pass through the gauntlet (aka the Loop) to get there. And the T of T’s author has a short attention for traffic jams, and is still struggling with his road rage problem.

    That’s why we are so pleased to announce that we have discovered an excellent Nigerian restaurant in Rogers Park, a northside neighborhood, roughly 15 minutes from T of T headquarters.

    The maker of the egusi, the Qaato Restaurant, is easy to miss – I’ve probably driven past it 20 times before noticing the  “Authentic Nigerian & West African restaurant” sign.  Qaato is on a strip of a north Clark that’s a blur of down-in-the-mouth  retail (taco joints, Chinese take-out, pawn shops, dollar stores)  And when you enter the dark, nearly barren restaurant, which reminded me of a friend’s basement during the disco years, you might have the some anxious thoughts. But resist these thoughts.  Savor the high-volume Afro pop, and make that order.

    What makes Qaato worthy of an eccentrically-long T of T post is their mind-expanding egusi – that’s the soup that is to Nigerians what bouillabaisse is to the French, or Tom Yum is to the Thai.

    Egusi done right is an insanely spicy broth (stew, really) of ground melon or mango seeds, shrimp (sometimes), spinach, peppers, and a protein (fish, oxtail, goat)

    Egusi soup? It's more stew-like.

    Qaato’s fish egusi, which was served in a shallow bowl, (it’s really more stew, than soup) is not for everyone.  It’s for the type who favors vindaloo over curry & only orders the “blazin” option at Buffalo Wild Wings.

    For the weak-stomached, korma-favoring reader: another way of coping with the hotness of egusi is to make smart use of your sides – jollof rice and garri. We’ve had our share of jollof rice at the T of T – often it tastes like nightmare-quality cheap Chinese restaurant fried rice (due to abuse of palm oil and salt. But Qaato’s jollof (rice, tomatoes, onions, light palm oil, spinach free) is wonderful In fact, if you throw some jollof rice in your egusi stew, you’ll mitigate the spice, and you’ll have thoughts of gumbo.

    A big blog of fermented cassava known as garri.

    The other side dish we tried is garri  which is a big blob of mashed fermented cassava.  It has the faint smell of wet socks,  and, unadorned, it doesn’t taste much better than wet socks. But the garri isn’t supposed to be eaten plain – it’s your dipping tool.   To eat like a Nigerian, pinch off the fermented cassava, roll it into a ball, and then dip it in your egusi.  It functions like pita bread or the Ethiopian injera, and is an excellent way of managing the heat.

    Qaato is so temptingly close to The Taste of Tomorrow headquarters that we’ll have a chance for regular egusi runs (next up: oxtail); we’re also hoping to persuade the friendly-proprietor (who is said to be open to customer suggestions) to make us some suya – that’s the barbecued meat kebab, coated with groundnuts and chili pepper and other spices that is served throughout Nigeria, but is no where to be found in Chi-town.  My idea for a spicy feast: egusi, suya, tempered with Star (a West African beer). Will keep you apprised.

    Meantime,  if you live in a Nigerian-restaurant deprived community, and are jonesing for egusi, check out this excellent how-to-egusi video from Yeti on the indispensable web site AfroFoodTv.Com. There’s also a good egusi recipe on this UK-based African foods site.