Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Fun with peanuts and Jack Abramoff's chef

February 22

Jack Abramoff, corrupt lobbyist extraordinaire, owned Signatures restaurant in our nation's capital. Apparently that's common knowledge in the Washington food community, but I had no idea. I learned that yesterday when I went out to dinner with Signatures' former chef, Morou Ouattara. Apart from being the capital of the United States, Washington also is the American capital of West African food, so while I was in town talking to the potato people (see the post below), I took the opportunity to inform myself about that cuisine, which has had so little exposure in the States.
Food writer Joan Nathan joined us as we went first to Bokum Cafe in Adams Morgan, which specializes in Ghanaian food, and then to Chez Aunty Libe, way out on Georgia Avenue on the way to Silver Spring, which serves mostly food from Gambia and Senegal.
The night before I had been to Ghana Cafe in Adams Morgan, which seemed to be frequented predominantly by Peace Corps veterans and college students majoring in African studies. One Ghanaian was there, however, and he asked if the Orange Fanta was “from home,” which apparently it was. Owner Tony Opare explained to me that, although Fanta's a Coke product, it tastes different in Ghana, so he imports it from there.
Morou said the same thing about Coke in Ivory Coast, which he says tastes more like the Vanilla Coke that's sold here. I'll have to look into that.
My taxi driver on the way to Ghana Cafe happened to be from Ghana, and he insisted that I drink Club Beer with my meal. Which I did. Tony Opare pointed out to me that the Peace Corps-niks, who had learned to stomach it at African room temperature, delighted in the fact that he served it not only ice cold, but with a frosted mug.
Morou's a gentleman, disinclined to gossip about his former boss, although he did say that they had a special kosher section of the kitchen set aside for Abramoff's dietary needs.
Instead of talking about political intrigue — on the record, anyway — we talked about West African food. “Food,” Morou said, is what they call the starch in a meal. The other stuff — stews and sauces and soups, mostly, is added merely for flavoring. He's hoping to open a restaurant featuring his own interpretation of West African food, probably in a DC suburb that recently lost a steakhouse. When the steakhouse closed it left behind a brand new, fancy kitchen which Morou hopes to use.
He said West African food has a PR problem in the United States because here people pay for the protein. They don't want it to be hidden in sauces and added as an afterthought to a big pile of starch. So his food will likely feature the large, beautifully garnished pieces of protein we're used to seeing, dressed in West African sauces, with the starch on the side.
It’s true that West African food can look terrifying: a large pile of brown mush on a plate. But if you don't worry about it and just eat it, the lively interplay of onion, ginger, grains of paradise, tomato, melon seeds (called egusi), callaloo and an array of ingredients I know nothing about can be really extraordinary. And the things they do with peanuts!
Aunty Libe served us a soft drink made from sorrel, and another from ginger and pineapple like the ngamakou my friend Fatou served me in Bangkok years ago.
The next day I took the red line of the Metro to Silver Spring to eat at Roger Miller's Restaurant, named for a Cameroonian soccer player, and on the way to the train station made the taxi driver stop at Sumah's, where I picked up my third peanut chicken in two days, to eat on the train.
I find that eating multiple iterations of a dish is a great way to understand it. Besides, as I said, West Africans can do extraordinary things with peanuts.

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