The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis
Wave of African restaurants gaining attention in the South
When he moved to New Orleans, the food of Louisiana reminded chef Serigne Mbaye of Senegal, where he grew up. The aroma of slow-cooked dishes, the acidity of the food and the premixed Creole seasoning, heavy on cayenne and a staple of every local kitchen, were all familiar to Mbaye.
The West African influence on Southern cooking has been well established. Enslaved Africans often ran kitchens before emancipation. The way they cooked and the flavors they favored form the bedrock of Southern cuisine.
Slow cooked, one pot dishes, like gumbo or greens, where layers of ingredients slowly fuse into one satisfying bite, can be traced back to West African traditions. The rice dishes beloved by many Southerners, like jambalaya in Louisiana or perloo in Lowcountry, are not so different from brick-red jollof rice, a staple across West Africa. And both West Africans and Southerners happily devour the slimy mallow called okra.
Across the South today, West African chefs and restaurateurs are gaining attention. Mbaye, who opened his restaurant Dakar NOLA in November after years of running pop-ups, was a finalist in 2022 for the James Beard Award for emerging chef. He is in the running again this year for the award.
“My hope is West African food being respected like any other cuisine,” Mbaye said.
Do Southerners recognize the roots of their own cooking in contemporary West African cooking? Will they embrace this cuisine?
Mbaye, who worked for top restaurants in New Orleans and San Francisco, takes a high-end approach to Senegalese food at Dakar NOLA, located on a stretch of Uptown New Orleans known for upscale boutiques and bistros. The prix fixe dinner at Dakar NOLA costs $150, but the meal is more like a performance.
Each night begins with an introduction from Mbaye, tall, handsome and emanating calm. The first dish is called “The Last Meal.” Mbaye took inspiration from the simple dish of black-eyed peas and palm oil fed to enslaved Africans before they boarded ships for America. At Dakar NOLA, Mbaye re-imagines the dish with crab meat from Louisiana, crispy rice for texture and a deep, rich
Some people taste the dish and think of gumbo. Others of turtle soup, still popular in New Orleans. Some Italian Americans say it reminds them of their family’s red sauce. Mbaye turned a dish with roots in trauma into a nourishing bowl that reaches across cultures.
“As long as people connect that dish to somewhere else, at that moment you know you’ve got something special going,” Mbaye said.
One taste will convince
Bala Tounkara, now 44, immigrated from Mali, a landlocked country east of Senegal, to the United States when he was 23. He lived in New York for a year, but after one winter he found his way to Memphis.
When he first ate grits, they didn’t seem so different from the millet he ate in Mali.
He got a job at a hotel kitchen. As he learned to cook, he decided to start sharing the food of Mali with his new friends. Their reaction convinced him to open Bala’s Bistro, now located on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
At the front of Bala’s Bistro, in a converted fast food restaurant, is a glowing glass case with rows of steam trays filled with okra stew, plantains and chicken yassa, a dish popular across West Africa flavored with onions, lime and ginger.
The buffet was a strategic choice to accommodate customers unfamiliar with West African cooking. Before, they would read the menu, wonder about the unfamiliar names, like fufu or maafe, and not know what to order. Now they can see the dishes and even get a sample.
“They feel more comfortable buying the food,” Tounkara said.
Joseph Sambou also made some adjustments for local diners to the Gambian food his family serves at Sambou’s African Kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, which opened last March. The biggest change was toning down the heat.
“Instead of a cup-and-a-half of jerk chicken seasoning, for example, we’ll use just one cup,” Sambou said. “If we
were cooking for ourselves, we’d probably do two cups.”
Growing interest in Africa
Sambou gets all kinds of customers at Sambou’s: Black, white and Africans studying at the local universities.
Since the restaurant appeared on the ESPN show “True South” and was named a semifinalist this year for the James Beard Award for best new restaurant, Sambou has seen more white customers, who often come prepared with notes on what to order.
He also has many African American customers who have tried to cook at home African dishes like fufu, a starchy dough used to scoop stews.
“They come to try our food just to compare,” he said.
Ndeye Ndir opened Ndindy African Cuisine, her Senegalese restaurant in New Orleans, at the urging of friends. They couldn’t find Senegalese food in the city.
Ndindy African Cuisine, which opened in July, is across town from Dakar NOLA, Mbaye’s restaurant, and aimed at different customers. Ndindy, located in the Central City neighborhood, is set up for takeout, with only a few tables inside.
The small restaurant is basically a one-woman operation.
“I’m a really picky cook and nobody can cook for me,” Ndir said. “That’s why I’m so exhausted, because I need perfection.”
The food is served in Styrofoam containers, although what is inside is anything but basic, such as braised whole fish under a tangle of onion with a side of grated, fermented cassava.
Ndir, who came to the United States in 2000, does not alter her cooking for American tastes.
“The only way I know how to cook is the African way, the way my parents taught me, the way my aunts taught me, the way our ancestors taught them,” she said.
While Ndir has met other African immigrants in New Orleans through her restaurant, she is also discovering many locals who want to try her Senegalese cooking.
“Americans are really curious about Africa now,” she said.
Todd A. Price writes about food and culture across the South for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.