Naija is a word we Nigerians guard jealously… It is about the food, the flamboyant dressing, the mannerisms, the boisterous – some say loud – interaction among complete strangers who on meeting immediately feel bonded by their “Naija-ness”. - Bilkisu Labaran
For a long time, it’s been my dream to create my own petite cucina (little restaurant). It would be an intimate space with delicious soul food, beautiful art on the walls, records playing nonstop and a little stage to welcome visiting musicians. I realise that this will take a lot of time and work but I’ve been brought up to dream big, and so to this particular vision, I am hopelessly devoted.
So, in light of spring arriving and new ventures blossoming over various parts of my life, I decided to launch the first step towards my cucina, and find out whether it’s something I could do well and really enjoy. Last weekend I turned my living room in to a pop-up pseudo restaurant and invited 8 guests to taste a 3-course West African inspired feast.
Tailoring my menu around Nigerian cuisine might have something to do with the fact that I’ve just finished re-reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Purple Hibiscus, and needed to satisfy a serious craving for moi-moi, egusi soup, jollof rice and all things Naija! But I also think that it’s time to put African food on the map as I find it to be wildly under-represented compared to other types of world cuisine. In Paris alone there are plenty of wonderful restaurants hidden all over the city, as I revealed in an article for Vingt Paris last year.
My preparation began on Friday evening after a trip to the Goutte d’or, a neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement that also goes by the name of “Little Africa.” I came home with a basketful of essentials – okra, plantains, black-eyed beans, chilli, Maggi and palm oil. While I soaked my beans (the star ingredient of my Akara starter), I got to work on my Chin-Chin Cheesecake dessert. I put a Nigerian twist on a classic lemon cheesecake recipe by making the biscuit base out of speculoos biscuits and chin-chin – a Nigerian crunchy sweet snack. It was a bit of a gamble but the spicy cinnamon in the speculoos was a perfect match for the chin-chin’s nutmeg flavours and, to balance out the sweetness, I decided to make quite a sharp cheesecake topping with very little sugar and lots of fresh lemon juice and zest. My cake chilled in the fridge overnight alongside some individual little cheesecake pots I’d made “in case of incase-ities” (Amina-ism).
Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early and head straight to the Marché d’Aligre in my neighbourhood for some fresh berries, garden herbs and a little bouquet of pink roses for my table setting. I also paid a visit to the butcher for some chicken thighs to go in the main course of Groundnut Stew, a spicy peanut-based dish for which I used my big sister’s secret recipe. While my stew was bubbling away, I made a hot pepper sauce of roasted bell peppers, tomatoes, coriander and chilli to serve with my starter. Akara are black-eyed bean fritters that are very popular from Nigeria to Sierra Leone. I prepared a light carrot and courgette salad to add an extra splash of colour, and fried the Akara when my guests arrived so that they were warm and crispy. After the starter, I steamed some rice and garden peas and fried up the dodo (sliced plantain) to serve with the main course.
I admit there were some timing issues with all the shallow frying before each course, so I might have to consider investing in a fryer for the next round. I also slightly underestimated my guest’s chilli pepper tolerance as I could have done with spicing up my Akara a little more. That said, it was quite an international party of diners, from Canada to Australia and America to Finland, all of whom had never before tasted West African cooking. I’m delighted to say that the food was a success, perhaps the biggest hit of the night being the cheesecake finale…
The wine selection also went down a treat. I’d visited wine store, La Dernière Goutte, in the 6th (by the same owners of Cosi, a lovely little café I used to work at) and they suggested a Sauvignon Blanc and a Languedoc that paired up perfectly with my menu.
All in all, it was a superb evening with wonderful company and lots of laughter. And now that I’ve had a taste for it, I can’t wait to plan the next Cucina Naija!
My petite cucina – and a special thank you to princess Jenny Zeng Zeng for her lovely photos.
What’s playing today?
Just when I think I’ve narrowed down my favourite Nina Simone record, another one resurfaces and slaps me in the face ♥
“I want a little sugar in my bowl… I need a little sweetness down in my soul”