By MATTHEW KORFHAGETHE | VIRGINIAN-PILOT
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice Yendidi from the outside. The restaurant in Norfolk’s Norview Heights neighborhood is backed off of a flyby stretch of Chesapeake Boulevard, nestled into a mini-mall next to a church and a hair salon. Its parking lot amounts to a ribbon of rough pavement against the roadside.
But the second you walk into the 2-month-old Ghanaian spot, it announces itself more loudly. The first thing you will encounter is the spice. It will always be the spice — the wafting scent of aromatic herbs, pungent ginger, garlic and fennel seed, the earthy spike of Scotch bonnet peppers.
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Those aromas from the kitchen amount to a promise: Flavor lives here, in heartening complexity and variety.
The interior of Yendidi is both inviting and warmly domestic, with walls colored a deep mustard-gold, long wooden tables for diners, and bubbling tanks by the cash register filled with a sweet purple hibiscus drink, or a terrific pineapple-ginger tonic you might be invited to sample while you wait for your food.
Here, Ghana-born chef and owner Josephine Oteng-Appiah — who introduces herself as “Abena,” a day-name earned by merit of being born on a Tuesday — cooks much of the same food she’d make for her own family: a mix of grilled meats and comforting stews, and plantains fried to heartbreaking sweetness and tenderness.null
There is also a rainbow of takes on rice — truly, few restaurants in Hampton Roads have made me appreciate rice quite this much. There is the comforting and sweet jollof rice stewed with fresh tomatoes, the fried rice flavored with green and red peppers, a sweetly aromatic coconut rice, and a yellow rice made with medicinal turmeric and a hint of Christmas spice.
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If you’re here for the first time, Oteng-Appiah will likely take a moment to come out and explain the menu to you — and perhaps relay her love of waakye, the original rice and beans, made with black-eye peas and sorghum leaves into a savory dish of almost aching depth.
She’ll steer you, perhaps, to the gentle and comforting flavors of a tomato-basil stew, brimming with tender beef. She might sell you on a bofrot “puff puff,” a more dense and delicious Ghanaian take on funnel cake. Or maybe she’ll just brag a little about her chicken wings.
She won’t be wrong to do so. In all its various forms, the chicken at Yendidi tastes so good it will almost bother you.
The key is patience and layering of flavors. To make her grilled chicken plate, Oteng-Appiah marinates the meat for a day in oil and a complex blend of spices, which include the ginger, garlic, fennel seed and Scotch bonnet pepper customary in her home cuisine.
But like most culinary lives, Yendidi is a bit of a hybrid — a melding of the Ghanaian foods Oteng-Appiah grew up with and the flavors she’s encountered since arriving in Virginia eight years ago. And so she blended Ghanaian spices with the cilantro she encountered after meeting Mexican families here, and oregano discovered when watching an Italian-American family make marinara. Her food contains what she calls “an infusion of spice,” flavors picked up wherever she found them.
The chicken is grilled for nearly an hour until its skin is brown and gently crisped, glistening with just a touch of oil. It arrives juicy and tender, thickly encrusted in warming spice and aromatic herbs — an addictive mixture she also uses on the crispy wings she serves with sweetly starchy yam french fries.
Her fried chicken, which is loaded with spice and carries a slight kick, is steamed in buttermilk for hours before being fried up with light breading that fumes orange with its blend of spices.
Though the techniques she uses on her chicken are Ghanaian, she serves it with a “Yendidi sauce” modeled on the honey and cayenne notes in Chick-fil-A sauce. Apparently, Chick-fil-A is a particular favorite of her husband, and so she made her own version.
Though Yendidi is one of relatively few Ghanaian restaurants in the country, those chicken dishes will likely be a familiar comfort. This not without reason: Much of the basis of American Southern and Caribbean food was formed from the cooking traditions of West African slaves. And so our local traditions of comfort food resplendent with spice, stewed meats, an emphasis on rice and beans, the love of okra, and even the traditional meat and three platter can likely be traced to West Africa.
Oteng-Appiah sees her restaurant as a bit of a cultural bridge, an opportunity to teach Americans about Ghanaian foods. During the weekdays she cooks more casual fare: fried and buttered shrimp, that wonderful fried chicken, or fusion dishes like a gigantic burrito filled with jollof rice and black beans.
Her sauces, available with any dish, include a mild tomato basil and fiery green pepper. And especially, they include a black chili-oil sauce called shito that takes three days to prepare. It is made by slow-cooking onions, garlic, ginger, fish powder and dried shrimp until they blacken on the stove — a lightly fiery and addictive topper that deepens the restaurant’s spice-encrusted, whole grilled mackerel into a certain kind of heaven.
On the weekends, Oteng-Appiah cuts loose with much more traditional Ghanaian meals that may be a bit more adventurous for American palates — for example, a delicious peanut-butter soup made by stewing peanuts and tomatoes with a wealth of seasonings and mixing in proteins, from chicken to turkey to mackerel.
She also serves her weekend stews and soups with a menagerie of West African dumplings and doughs: pliable banku dough made with corn and cassava, a softball-sized rice-flour ball called omo tuo that recalls German knödel, and fluffy fufu made from pounded yams.
Each is a finger-food meant to sop up flavors, in the manner of Ethiopian injera. You just flatten a little bit of the dough and fold it around the sauces. In Ghana, says Oteng-Appiah, getting your right hand (eat only with your right hand, please!) full of the starch and spice of the food is part of the experience of eating; utensils, such as forks, mediate the experience and keep you too far from the feeling of the food.
That said, for those who don’t like sticky fingers, the fufu is also delicious when eaten with a fork and doused in the soup or stew.
Frankly, very few decisions go wrong here. Perhaps the turkey wings are tougher to eat than the chicken wings, though they arrive with that same beautifully aromatic and earthy blend of spices. A mackerel meat pie was a bit more pungent than I was ready for, blooming with the flavor of the famously oily fish.
And meals at Yendidi do tend to take a bit longer to prepare than at some restaurants, with each meal cooked to order. Those who want grilled mackerel or fried chicken should call ahead or be prepared to wait at last a half-hour for a fresh batch.
But that waiting time is also an advertisement. Yendidi’s dishes take hours of preparation, steaming and marinating, their flavors building and layering and seeping into the deep layers of the meat. It is food that cooks slow under the lid.
And when it arrives, it is worth the wait.
if you go
Yendidi, 5800 Chesapeake Blvd., Norfolk
Warm, yellow-toned, tiny Ghanaian restaurant with takeout options and about five dark-wood tables, serving slow-cooked, homestyle grilled meats, stews and starches
Any version of chicken from grilled to fried, any version of rice but especially the waakye, puff puff pastries, the pineapple-ginger drink, spicy kyinkyinga beef-kebab appetizer, grilled whole mackerel, peanut butter soup on weekends.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
COVID protocols: Takeout and delivery available, masked servers
Food prices: Most entrees $8-9; fried chicken $4.50 for two large pieces; sides and appetizers, $3-$8; puff pastries, $2
Drinks: Nonalcoholic only. Sodas, $1-$1.50; house-made hibiscus and pineapple-ginger drinks, $2.50
Vegan/veg/gluten: Almost every stew is prepared vegetarian, with meat added at the end of the process, which makes the menu very workable for vegetarians and vegans. The emphasis on rice and alternate grains, with plenty of simple grilled or stewed meats, also makes the menu largely amenable to the gluten-free, but ask in advance and steer clear of the fried chicken.
Read from source Pilotonline