Eating out: Statistically vital fare

WAZOBIA; 257 Royal College Street, London NW5 9LU. Tel: 0171 284 1059. Open Monday to Saturday from midday to midnight and Sunday from 6pm to 11pm. Average price pounds 13 per person with wine. Credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
WHAT MAKES us embrace one ethnic food culture, but reject another? Why is there now a curry house and a Chinese take-away in every provincial town with a population of more than 5,000? Of course, partial explanations can be found in our colonial history, and the demography of immigrant populations. But the numbers don't always add up. There are almost twice as many Afro-Caribbeans living in Britain as Asians, but there must be more than a hundred curry houses for every West Indian restaurant. There are three times as many Africans living in London as Chinese, but do you know anyone who ever pops out for an African?

The answer must lie in the fact that Chinese and Indians are both unusually evangelical and highly entrepreneurial about their food cultures. I have heard the statistic bandied about that over 90 per cent of Chinese people in this country are in the food industry. The figure may be spurious, but if it were true it would surprise nobody.

So what happens when a young Nigerian decides to be evangelical and entrepreneurial about the cooking of West Africa? Can he make a living? The new restaurant Wazobia, in Camden, may be seen as a test case. Ominously, when I went there on a Wednesday evening with my north London friend Caroline, who was keen to try it out, it was completely empty.

Normally an empty restaurant deflates all expectations and injects instant stress into the prospects for the evening ahead. But we were here and we were going to give it our best shot. We decided we liked the interior, with its warm new wood and plenty of pot plants - not at the cutting edge of restaurant design, but smart, relaxed, cosy and welcoming all the same. And you couldn't not like our young host, who was gently courteous, smiling and enthusiastically helpful about the menu. Being the only diners, we were pampered, but never pestered.

He suggested we have a plate of fried plantain with our drinks, and we acceded gratefully. I have become very partial to the bags of plantain chips you can find in health-food shops, but these pan-fresh slices, thicker, crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, were even better.

We began dinner by sharing two starters: the first of these, called moin- moin, was described enticingly on the menu as "a blend of ground black- eyed beans, ground onions, shrimps, chilli, tomatoes, seasoning and hot oil, stirred together and steamed on a low fire." We didn't quite know what to expect, but it wasn't what arrived: a soft doughy slab, of a homogenous bread-pudding-like texture - all the advertised ingredients had clearly been blended to a paste and incorporated into the pounded beans. Initial disappointment with the lack of identifiable "bits" was gradually replaced by an appreciation of the subtle flavourings that narrowly rescued the dish from blandness. Different, we decided, but rather good. The other starter, called puff-puff, was a variation on the same theme - the theme being "doughiness". This goose-egg-sized item was like an airless doughnut - fried, slightly sweet, and flavoured with nutmeg. Not bad, but not as good as the moin-moin.

The main courses showed more interesting juxtapositions of taste and texture. Efo stew is an intriguingly spiced mixture of spinach, onions, chillies and tomatoes, cooked together for an age to produce a sloppy, slimey but not unpleasant sauce with a curious citrusy tang and a nice kick of chilli. You can have it with meat, or fish, or both. We had both, as recommended by our host, and that turned out to include beef and salt fish, as well as other harder to identify morsels. It was unfamiliar stuff, but we liked it. Our second stew, egusi, had a more pungent, meaty gravy, apparently thickened with ground melon seeds. The meat here was goat - not as melting as the beef - and the whole dish had a bitter note, reminiscent of burnt nuts, which may have been something to do with the melon seeds. Caroline liked this, but I wasn't so sure - so we Jack Spratted, and she focused on the egusi while I got to work on the efo.

Both stews were served with more porridgy sticky bland stuff - the efo with pounded yam, the egusi with semolina paste. In Africa such starchy pastes, based on whatever happens to be the local carbohydrate (usually yam or maize meal) are a staple at every meal, and used instead of cutlery to scoop up the sauce and meat. Our host's demonstration of the technique was impressive; our own attempts, pathetic.

What we both liked about Wazobia was that it had the smack of authenticity about it. Not that I know much about Nigerian food. But everything we tasted was so different, so alien to the European approach, that one felt few compromises were being made to the Western palate. Of course, authenticity is a double edged sword, and those who live by it run the risk of dying by it. For the uninitiated, this is not the friendliest kind of food: strong tastes, strange textures, and a lot of unfamiliar ingredients - but there are some nice surprises in the mix.

As a nation which seems to be continually congratulating itself on a recent foodie emancipation and an increasingly cosmopolitan approach to dining out, we really ought to be able to rise to such a challenge. Yet I can't help suspecting that most of us are still too busy showing off with chopsticks, rolling our own sushi, or blowing our heads clean off with a vindaloo to spare much of a thought for West African food. As I said, Wazobia was empty when we arrived and it was empty when we left. Two couples popped in. One had a quick snack and left (contentedly, as far as one could tell). The other attempted, and failed, to buy a bottle of wine to take away.

It would be sad if Wazobia authenticated itself out of the market. But it would be even sadder if it compromised its merits in an attempt to please a bigger crowd. Happily there is no sign of any such intention - and Wazobia deserves the support of anyone who prides themselves on having an adventurous palate. Are you up for it?

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