Fiery stews and jollof rice: the chef giving San Francisco’s food scene a Nigerian flavor

By Luke Tsai in San Francisco

When Simileoluwa Adebajo was homesick for Nigeria, she started a restaurant to recreate her childhood home through traditional cuisine. Simileoluwa Adebajo missed the fiery stews she grew up eating in Nigeria. She missed her mother’s smoky jollof rice.

Adebajo lived in San Francisco, where dozens of stylish fast-casual restaurants churn out every kind of rice bowl and ethnically inspired sandwich you can imagine but there’s not a single jollof joint to speak of. So Adebajo had little choice but to follow in the footsteps of so many homesick expats before her: She opened a restaurant of her own.

 Eko Kitchen, San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant, serves traditional cuisine such as fiery pepper stews and jollof rice. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

Well, not right away, of course. When Adebajo first launched Eko Kitchen last summer, she still worked full-time as a financial analyst and spent her weekends hustling orders of suya chicken and fried plantains to customers via Postmates and Uber Eats. Before long, she was hosting pop-ups at a restaurant space in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, a few blocks away from Twitter’s headquarters and city hall. And two months ago, when she was presented with the opportunity to take over the space on a permanent basis – splitting the lease with a Mexican restaurant that serves lunch there on weekdays – Adebajo quit her day job and went all in.

Starting in May, Eko Kitchen became San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant. There isn’t any place quite like it in the city. It’s the kind of stylish spot where, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Afrobeats played infectiously over the speakers; a couple of twentysomethings flirted over a pot of jollof rice; and a family with two young children dressed in their Sunday finest, made short work of an order of puff-puffs, or fried dough dusted in cinnamon-sugar.

In some ways, Adebajo picked the perfect time to open the city’s first Nigerian restaurant. West African cuisine has probably never had more mainstream visibility in America than it does at this very moment. Millions of viewers have watched Eric Adjepong, a Ghanaian American chef, cook Ghanaian plantain-and-cassava fufu and other west African dishes during the most recent season of Top Chef. Meanwhile, Kwame Onwuachi, another former Top Chefcontestant who is of part-Nigerian descent, recently won a James Beard Award as the country’s Rising Star Chef of the Year. The menu at Kith and Kin, Onwuachi’s Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Washington DC, includes riffs on classic Nigerian dishes like egusi stew, suya, and jollof rice.

But Korsha Wilson, a New York City-based food writer who has covered the foods of the African diaspora for national publications such as Food & Wine, cautions against framing a culture’s traditional cuisine as the latest hot food trend. In that sense, it’s besides the point – if not downright unhelpful – to assert, in the parlance of glossy food magazines, that West African cuisine is “having a moment”.

“It’s not like Nigerian food isn’t being eaten anywhere. There are thousands of Nigerian people here eating it every day,” Wilson says. “When I’m talking about these chefs or about these cuisines, I try to not say, ‘it’s gaining steam’ or ‘it’s hot right now’. Because that implies that people who have been eating it for a long time [don’t] matter, that it only matters when white people eat it.”

 Simileoluwa Adebajo has recreated in her restaurant her experiences growing up in Nigeria. Photograph: Gabriela Hasbun/The Guardian

That’s not to discount the trickle-down effect that the success of high-profile chefs such as Adjepong and Onwuachi might have on smaller businesses like Eko Kitchen – the extent to which someone might see egusi stew on television or read a list of 10 essential Nigerian recipes in the New York Times and then decide to seek it out at a local restaurant.

It’s also not to dismiss the very real challenges that newly opened west African restaurants such as Eko Kitchen face – especially, Adebajo says, in a city like San Francisco that, quite frankly, “is just not as culturally diverse as you would think it is”.

That’s reflected in the fact that when she first moved to the city in 2016, as a 20-year-old graduate student, she could only find a single store, in the Fillmore district, that sold black hair products. And it’s reflected, of course, in the city’s dearth of west African and Afro-Caribbean restaurants. Little Baobab, which specializes in Senegalese peanut stew, is San Francisco’s only other west African dining establishment. In May, Isla Vida, one of the city’s only Afro-Caribbean restaurants, had to launch a crowdfunding campaign in a last-ditch effort to stay in business.

When Adebajo first announced her plans for Eko Kitchen on Twitter, the broader Nigerian and Nigerian American community were so excited about the news, the tweet quickly accumulated upwards of 55,000 likes. But social media virality doesn’t necessarily translate into a steady customer base, Adebajo says. For now, she says the restaurant is busy enough that it’s difficult for customers to just drop in for dinner on a Friday or Saturday night without a reservation – though not quite so busy that she’s ready to open on weeknights, too. (Right now, she spends weekdays doing corporate catering gigs.)

The reasons Adebajo has to try to overcome these obstacles are deeply personal. “I think we romanticize the places that we grow up in,” she says. A Bronx native, she moved back to Lagos with her Nigerian-born parents when she was seven. The fiery, intricately spiced local cuisine was at first too hot for her American palate to handle, but she grew to love it. And when she returned to the US to attend grad school in San Francisco, the food was what she missed the most about Nigeria: the weekend jaunts she and her father would make to Ghana High, a boka, or quick-service restaurant, that was legendary for its jollof rice, and her family’s occasional trips to nearby Ikenne Remo to eat a local specialty called ayamase – a green-pepper stew they all loved so much they’d buy 30 orders of it at a time.

Eko Kitchen prominently features versions of both dishes. Each night, the restaurant has a different theme, with its own distinct menu. On Fridays, Adebajo wanted to recreate the feeling of going out on the town in Lagos on a Friday night, so she cranks up Burna Boy on the speakers and serves bowls of fiery goat meat pepper soup and big platters of grilled meats rubbed with a suya spice mix. Saturdays are reserved for foods your mom might cook for you on a lazy weekend afternoon, with homey dishes like her mother’s recipe for fish stew. And on Sundays, the main attraction is what Adebajo calls her “rice spectacular”: three different rice dishes on a combo plate, highlighted by a version of Nigerian native rice that’s infused with a deep umami kick reminiscent of a dried-porcini risotto – a flavor the chef attributes to the use of fermented locust beans and unrefined palm oil.Advertisement

These are staple ingredients in any Nigerian kitchen, and they’re part of what makes it difficult to describe the cuisine, with its bold seasoning and distinctive textures, to someone who doesn’t have the reference points. Sure, you can liken the custardy, leaf-wrapped blackeyed-pea cake known as moin moin to a tamale, or you can say that the pounded yams, made with extra-starchy Nigerian tubers, are like sticky mashed potatoes you pick up with your hands. But ultimately, these kinds of comparisons don’t do justice to the cuisine. Moin moin is moin moin. Pounded yam is pounded yam.

Whatever else you might want to say about Eko Kitchen, the food is wildly delicious. There’s the intense spicy-savory quality of the efo riro, a thick spinach stew that you scoop up with hunks of pounded yam. There’s the smoky, tomatoey tinge of the jollof rice; the in-your-face heat blast of the pepper soup. There’s the ayamase, in which beef skin and tripe are slow-cooked to obscene tenderness in a rich, creamy, palm-oil-based sauce.

Foluso Alofe, a civil engineer by trade who makes the trek out from Union City on the weekends to moonlight as Eko Kitchen’s sous chef, says the ayamase is his favorite item on the menu – a dish he associates with parties back in Nigeria: “Every time I taste it, it’s new to me as well.”

In the end, Eko Kitchen’s launch, and its bid to achieve long-term success in San Francisco, is part of a larger conversation about which cuisines get a seat at the table when it comes to mainstream recognition and critical acclaim.

As Wilson puts it, “Historically, a lot of restaurants owned by people of color have gotten shortchanged with food media because [they cover] non-European food and dining with a lens of ‘this is so different and weird’ – that sort of tone, which is really disrespectful.”

But there is a sense that perhaps now, finally, the American dining public is ready to pay proper respect to jollof rice and goat-meat pepper soup. And why shouldn’t it be? Adebajo argues that Ghana High, her old favorite back in Lagos, is a restaurant that ought to have Michelin stars because of the way it has perfected the two dishes that it serves: “So why is Africa left out of that conversation?”

Adebajo says she doesn’t have any desire to chase after Michelin stars herself. Instead, she says, “My ultimate aspiration is that I want to take Nigerian food everywhere in the world.” Someday she’d like to host a Nigerian-centric food travel show. In each episode, she would visit a different country and cook a Nigerian meal using the local produce. “What I want to help people to understand, Anthony Bourdain style, is that we’re all the same.”

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