Tuesday 23 October 2007

The Nigerian restaurant kaleidoscope - Part 1

Dining in Beirut

It probably should be a narrative but it was an experience and one would be untrue to oneself if this were not shared in the same vein as what was written before.

Just over 6 years ago, with 2 other Nigerian colleagues, one of whom knew the lay of the land went for a meal, we got off the train at Bijlmer in South-East Amsterdam and for once the buildings looked so good, my friend George say he would not mind living in the area - Amsterdamsepoort.

Chris who knew where we were going said nothing as we walked through what eventually were fancy props concealing a decrepit, desolate and downcast estate that would not have looked too distinguished if the town sign said – “Welcome to Beirut” in 1982; basically, Bijlmer never became the idealistic middle-class paradise they planned it to be.

I looked and felt out of place, I was in a bowler hat, a winter coat, a black umbrella and the Daily Telegraph under my arm as we arrived at a Nigerian restaurant ringing the bell to get in.

Show me the money for food

We settled in, and I found we had to pay before we were served, I had to ask for a glass for my drink and though the food was very good – we looked respectable enough not to be suffered indignities and when I paid with a generous tip the cashier was about to swoon.

It was in the times that I have seen Africans congregate in Europe probably the most depressing atmosphere to realise that there were people who visited to rough up the place, dine without paying up or idle without any purpose, stuck in Europe an unable to return home - I was marked by that experience. It reinforced my inclination to attempt to mentor people who decide make a radical change in their lives.

A palate for Nigerian food

I must say, the quest for good Nigerian food in restaurants is unrelenting, especially, I remember a few years ago when I tried my hands at moimoi; I was in the kitchen for the best part of 4 hours, 2 of which was getting the beans ready, best let someone else do the hard work.

I can also be a constructive critic because I am a really good cook in my own right and know exactly how our food should look and taste. I have been in certain restaurants where gentlemanly restraint was the only thing that stood between me asking for an apron to conduct some stern cooking lessons – it gets reflected in the tips and hardly touched food.

Back to the future

On Sunday evening, a colleague/friend at work who had just returned from Nigeria invited me to another restaurant other than the African Kitchen we regularly frequented, I was game.

As we got off at Vensepolder in the upper South-East of Amsterdam, we descended the stairs and I wondered aloud, these neighbourhoods – very different and full of colour – it was a comment as loaded as a double-barrelled gun, just a 10-minute walk it was.

It all came back to me, this was the place I visited those many years ago, the old restaurant was now a church for Sisters in Christ and then there was a Cherubim & Seraphim Church - I saw no Caspers (worshippers wear long white garments the only thing left is for them to float like Casper the ghost) with the new restaurant only 4 months old sandwiched in the middle of "restaurants" offering “food for the spirit and soul”.

The unscripted menu

We stepped in and settled down, my friend, Bayo, for this narrative asked for the menu, they had none, we were to make requests and the waitress inquired if those demands could be met.

No pepper soup, but there was suya and the suya was good, I even had a take-away portion, we settled for amala with gbegiri stew and beef for Bayo and I, lafun with ewedu (corchorus) stew and beef and got down to savouring a wonderfully prepared meal.

There was no sign of the depressing atmosphere of years ago, but I still find that in literally all African restaurants I have been to, I still have to ask for a glass for my drinks, it is just not so to swill from a bottle or sip from a can if you are in restaurant, I suppose people are not as particular.

As we finished our meal, I washed my hands and suddenly realised that in the middle of the tables were soap and hand lotion as part of the set table, it made one wonder if we were going to have a manicure soon afterwards.

The only complaint I had about the meals was that there was too much tripe given as beef, I had enough for the ceremonial shawl that high chiefs wore at festivals called shaki.

A guest arrived and the evening had just begun with talk. Continued … in Part 2

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