By Todd A. Price | Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Sally Demba, 56, brought her family to the United States in 2007 from West Africa. For her new friends in America, she cooked food from her native Gambia. They told Demba she should have her own restaurant.
Last Saturday, Demba finally opened a restaurant, Sambou’s African Kitchen in Jackson, with her son, Joseph Sambou, 34, and her daughter, Bibian Sambou, 36.
“This will be an opportunity to talk to people about Africa and show them what we can offer,” Joseph Sambou said. “Let them come in and taste. Maybe this is where the journey to Africa starts.”
Sambou’s African Kitchen is a lively space, with red and blue walls decorated with bursts of brightly colored prints. A mural-sized photo in the back shows Gambia’s otherworldly-looking baobab trees. The bouncing music is loud. And the air smells of spices and sizzling meat.
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Gambia, on the western coast of Africa, is a sliver of a country clustered around the Gambian River and surrounded on three sides by Senegal.
“It’s basically the smallest country in mainland Africa. It’s a beautiful country,” Sambou said.
Demba spent 20 years working as a housekeeper at the U.S. embassy in Gambia, which earned her and her family a visa to emigrate to the United States.
The family eventually settled in Jackson. Demba, in 2012, started a hair braiding business, Vero Hair Braiding, next to where Sambou’s African Kitchen just opened. Sambou, at the time, found Mississippi too quiet for him.
“When we were back in Africa, you see the vibrant city of New York and think every city in the U.S. is like that,” he said.
So he moved to New York, studied public administration and worked for the state in economic development. When he and his girlfriend started talking about the cost of living in New York, they decided it made more sense to move back to Jackson.
For Sambou, it was an opportunity to finally start a restaurant where his mother could share her Gambian cooking.
“Maybe we could open something with the whole family involved,” he said.
Gambian food is heavily spiced and often slowly cooked to draw out the flavors. The menu at Sambou’s includes a shrimp soup with lime and tamarind, cassava fries that are crisp outside and fluffy inside and afra, a dish of lamb and onion cooked in a vibrant spice paste flavored with lemon and cumin.
“The taste is just amazing,” Sambou said of Gambian food.
Everything at Sambou’s African Kitchen is made from scratch daily. The meats often marinate for hours in lemon before they’re cooked.
The current menu at Sambou’s is small but will soon add more Gambian dishes. A few of the current items, like jerk chicken or oxtail stew, might be more familiar to Americans. Those Caribbean dishes are often made in Gambia.
“Those are foods we eat at home, but we didn’t know people love that here,” he said.
Sambou’s African Kitchen has also toned down the spice for American tastes. Anyone who thinks they can handle the heat should request their order “the Gambian way.”
“What we are serving is more controlled for the environment,” Sambou said. “We’d love for people to try it more spicy.”
Sambou knew there were fellow Africans in the Jackson area, but since opening the restaurant he has met even more people from Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia. Many of them before would drive to Atlanta or New Orleans for African food. And African students studying at local universities have welcomed the arrival of Sambou’s African Kitchen.
The response to Sambou’s African Kitchen from other people in Jackson has also been enthusiastic.
“That was one of my nervous moments. How will people react?” Sambou said. “But it’s been amazing.”