Africa

Editorial StaffJanuary 10, 2024
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From Mozambique to Morocco, the Valley’s rising community of African restaurants has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Many national cuisines remain unrepresented, particularly from the southern part of the continent, but a welter of West African and Ethiopian eateries has taken deep root in Central Phoenix.

by Nikki Buchanan, Leah LeMoine, Craig Outhier & Madison Rutherford

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Egypt 

Outlawed in 10th-century Egypt for its alleged aphrodisiacal effects on women, deep-green, spinach-like molokhia (aka jute mallow) is the nutritious main ingredient in Wessen International Kitchen’s (wessen-kitchen.com) lemony, garlic-laced soup threaded with supple slivers of chicken. Led by dynamo chef and caterer Wessen Murad, the Tempe restaurant serves its molokhia with golden rice, hummus and pita. It’s cheap, healthy, delicious – and the only uniquely Egyptian dish we found in the Valley.

Molokhia at Wessen International Kitchen; photo by Rob Ballard
Molokhia at Wessen International Kitchen; photo by Rob Ballard
Shak Attack

Algeria, Libya and Tunisia were three African countries that baffled our food sleuthing in Greater Phoenix. The good news: All three claim to have invented shakshuka, a breakfast dish composed of eggs poached in a chunky tomato sauce fragrant with garlic, onions and spices. It’s gone mainstream here in Arizona. Find PHOENIX-approved offerings at Prep & Pastry (prepandpastry.com) and milk+honey espresso bar & eatery (milkandhoneyjcc.com).

glossary

seswaa /SEIS-suh/
We couldn’t find the national dish of Botswana in any Valley restaurant, but you could probably make it at home: It’s just beef rump braised in salty water.

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No Love for… Eritrea

Eritrean cuisine is often linked with that of neighboring Ethiopia, and for good reason: It’s extremely similar, based largely on injera and stews (Eritreans call them tsebhi). The Valley doesn’t have a dedicated Eritrean eatery, but if you can find a kai (beef stew) at an Ethiopian restaurant, know it’s very similar to the Eritrean zigni.

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Côte d’Ivoire 

Cassava is indispensable to the West African diet. In the Ivory Coast, its pulp is fermented, grated and dried to create a couscous-like texture and tangy taste. At African Kitchen, a pan-African eatery in West Phoenix (3543 W. Dunlap Ave., 480-532-5512), cassava provides the perfect foil for fried red snapper drenched at the table with attiéké, a soupy mixture of mayonnaise, tomato and onion. Heavenly. And perhaps the best culinary representation of this small nation in the Valley.

Cassava and torborgee at African Kitchen; photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Cassava and torborgee at African Kitchen; photo by Kyle Ledeboer
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Ethiopia 

Relatively well-represented in the Valley, Ethiopian cuisine is founded upon injera – a spongy, pancake-like flatbread made from fermented teff, an ancient grain. Injera serves as the platter for Ethiopian wots (spicy meat and vegetable stews). It’s also the vehicle (no silverware needed) for scooping up mounds of soft aromatic stew, seasoned with turmeric or berbere, the latter a blend of red chile peppers, fenugreek, ginger and other warming spices. A Valley institution for more than three decades, Café Lalibela (cafelalibela.com) in Tempe makes a platter for the ages.

photo courtesy Cafe Lalibela
photo courtesy Cafe Lalibela
3 More Wowza Wot Platters 

Authentic EthioAfrican

The Miracle Mile-area restaurant, now open a decade, serves meat and vegetable wots individually or as sampler plates. Great options for vegetarians and vegans here. authenticethioafrican.com

Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant

This East Phoenix restaurant serves allegedly the hottest/spiciest of the Valley’s wots, so make sure to mitigate the burn with an Asmara beer, from neighboring Eritrea. gojoethrestaurant.com

Abyssinia Restaurant and Café

Located in Midtown Phoenix, this lively mom-and-pop also serves tall, cooling glasses of avocado juice and is known for its excellent shiro, or spicy chickpea stew. facebook.com/ethiopianafrican

Ethiopian Extra
Breakfast

Quanta firfir, a breakfast dish, is Ethiopia’s favorite hangover cure, combining torn pieces of leftover injera with Ethiopia’s version of beef jerky: oven-dried beef seasoned with berbere. Kare Ethiopian Restaurant (kareethiopianrestaurant.com) near Papago Peak makes a mouth-glowing, pleasantly chewy version, embellished with jalapeño, tomato and hardboiled egg.

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Ghana 

Red red, a popular Ghanaian stew made with various types of cowpeas, gets its ruddy color from tomatoes and chiles cooked in spice-infused red palm oil. As is traditional, West Hut (west-hut.com) in Midtown Phoenix sprinkles this thick, hearty dish with gari (roasted cassava granules) and serves it with fried plantains. A West African classic.

red red; Photo Courtesy West Hut
red red; Photo Courtesy West Hut
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Liberia 

Although Liberians eat many of the same dishes other West Africans do, torborgee is a uniquely Liberian specialty – a thick, spicy meat-and-vegetable stew with many variations. African Kitchen in West Phoenix (3543 W. Dunlap Ave., 480-532-5512) gives it a flavor double whammy, using two kinds of eggplant – tiny kittley and larger bayla ball – both intensely bitter and medicinal-tasting. Go with an open mind and be forewarned: It has a laxative effect.

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Morocco

Only a small portion of Morocco’s real estate sits on the Mediterranean, but its foodways have been profoundly influenced by Mediterranean cuisine and the Arab cuisines of the Maghreb. Bastilla, a savory-sweet chicken pie from Alzohour Market & Restaurant (alzohour-market.business.site) makes a stunning example of cultural overlap. Wrapped in shatteringly crisp, buttery phyllo, this elegant meat pie is filled with saffron-scented shredded chicken, cooked egg and almonds, while its exterior is beautifully patterned with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

bastilla; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
bastilla; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Food for Thought

Couscous (small, steamed granules of rolled semolina) is so popular in North Africa that three countries – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – claim it as their national dish. Variations are endless. Tunisians like it with fish. Algerians eat it with meat and vegetables in tomato-tinted broth, while Moroccans make it spicy with ras el hanout or sweet with cinnamon and raisins.

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Mozambique

Invented by Portuguese colonizers in the 15th Century, piri-piri is a fiery vinegar-based marinade or sauce generally composed of the African bird’s eye chile, onions, garlic and oil. 2023 PHOENIX Best New Restaurant Top 10 pick Latha (lathaphx.com) serves a modern version of the classic: ultra-crunchy piri-piri chicken wings crusted with herbs and sesame seeds. Served with a chile-dusted lemon wedge, they’re perfectly balanced – simultaneously salty, tangy, hot and sweet.

Piri-piri chicken; Photo by Patrick Matheson
Piri-piri chicken; Photo by Patrick Matheson
Photo by Jonathan Cooper/Courtesy Latha
Photo by Jonathan Cooper/Courtesy Latha
Chef Chat
Digby Stridiron of Latha

St. Croix native Digby Stridiron has helmed award-winning restaurants in his homeland and earned praise from major publications such as Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine and Bon Appétit. He is now chef and partner with Evelia Davis at Latha, a Downtown sensation that retraces the African diaspora via food.

How did you become interested in the African Diaspora?
Learning more about the diaspora began with my passion for being a Virgin Islander and a Crucian. In the early 2000s, chefs were celebrating the great foods that came to the Americas, but I didn’t see any representation from Caribbean or West Indian chefs. I knew that if there was a chance to progress our cuisine, I needed to understand the whys. Traveling the Caribbean, researching old cookbooks [and] studying terrains and fauna have given me the insight to follow my passion.

Are there ingredients that thread through each of the cuisines you cook?
Our dishes are rooted in tradition, and ingredients like plantains, cassava and rice tell a story.

Found any interesting Phoenix restaurants?
Phoenix has amazing food. My favorites so far are Lom Wong, Phoenix Coquí, Chilte, Que Sazón, El Chullo and the taco truck at Barcoa Agaveria on Tuesdays, which makes my heart sing!

glossary

swallow /SWAH-low/
Eaten by hand and dipped into soups and stews, swallows are starchy vegetables and grains (cassava, yam, maize, rice) that are cooked, pounded and kneaded until soft and elastic. West Hut (west-hut.com) offers three types of swallow: fufu, banku and omo tuo.

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Nigeria

From her roaming food truck Lasgidi Café (lasgidicafe.com), Nigerian-born chef Patience Ogunbanjo dispenses popular pan-African dishes as well as Nigeria’s famous egusi soup, a 32-ounce bowl of thick, colorful stew brimming with assorted meats, spices, spinach and egusi – wild melon seeds that thicken the soup and add nutty, earthy flavor. It’s crazy-good with a big ball of doughy, mashed potato-like fufu.

Jollof Rice Wars

Jollof – a one-pot dish of rice, tomatoes, onions, chiles and spices – is eaten in endless variation throughout West Africa, prompting the Jollof Wars, an annual pan-African competition to determine who makes it best. Rivalry is particularly fierce between Ghana and Nigeria (both sides delight in throwing shade), but the differences between the two styles are minor. Ghanaian jollof, made with jasmine or basmati rice, is milder and sweeter than Nigerian jollof, made with long-grain rice. It must have been a blow when Gambia took the prize in 2023. 

Lasgidi Café’s egusi soup; Photo by Anneke Mitchell/Courtesy Lasgidi Café
Lasgidi Café’s egusi soup; Photo by Anneke Mitchell/Courtesy Lasgidi Café
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Somalia

You might be surprised and delighted to learn the Valley has exactly one restaurant specializing in the cuisine of this fractious East Africa nation: WaaMo in East Phoenix (5050 E. McDowell Rd., 602-244-1206), where owner Basheir Elmi serves sambusas (deep-fried pastries similar to samosas), hilib ari (braised goat in a clove-forward curry) and other traditional dishes. As a one-time Italian colony, Somalia also developed a fondness for spaghetti, and you’ll find a healthy knot of it on the WaaMo plate, alongside chicken sukhaar, a cumin-y stir-fry with bell pepper, onions and cilantro.

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No Love for…South Africa

Not known for its cuisine, SA does have one clear culinary passion, according to Valley pediatrician (and native South African) Raun Melmed: a dried and cured beef called biltong. “There is simply no South African I’ve ever met who doesn’t long for biltong,” he says. Alas, he says it’s no longer sold in the Valley.