Cafe Society: African yam session

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The African yam is a bit like a lump of wood. Nonetheless, human ingenuity has found a way of consuming it: you have to wonder who ate the first oyster, worked out how to turn olives into cocktail snacks, and which member of the Ibo (or was it the Yoruba?) came to the elders and said, "I've found out a use for the yam. Pound it and pound it, and keep pounding it for several hours. You'll get something like mashed potato with tapioca". I have a friend whose grandmother used to make her pound yams when she'd been naughty. She was, by all acounts, an unnaturally well-behaved child.

Calabash, the basement restaurant attached to the Africa Centre, at the other end of a corridor from the Africa bar, a delightfully low-lit place where people bounce around saying "So what are you studying? I'm studying engineering", serves pounded yam and other unfamiliar delicacies. You can do a culinary tour of the continent without seeing even one backpacker in a flatbed truck. You do, however have to steel yourself to get past the entrance, which looks like a school corridor - all noticeboards and non-slip plastic flooring.

Once you're down there, though, your surroundings turn homey: rows of tables scattered among the pillars supporting the house, bright cloths which seem to be patterned with spermatozoa and vulvas and bear the mysterious legend common to many African fabrics, "genuine English pattern", and a small knot of people sitting on a corner bench watching telly.

Portions are enormous: huge black-eyed bean salads, chicken wings, stews and pastries, with side-dishes that would make a meal in themselves, and whoever picked the short new world wine list did a good job. Sadly, they seem to have adjusted spices to the British palate: having heard tales of the heat of Nigerian food, I was disappointed to have to play hunt- the-chilli in my stew. The fried plantain, though, was the best I've had, the yam had certainly been thoroughly pounded, and the polite if leisurely service is a soothing contrast to the American-style freneticism that seems to be de rigueur in town these days. A shared starter, main courses, plonk and sundries was about pounds 17 each: a bargain for Covent Garden.

Calabash, Africa Centre, 38 King St, WC2 (0171-836 1976)

EXPLORATIONS

Africa is astonishingly diverse in culture, and the foods of its peoples are correspondingly so. Yet for traditional peoples at least (fast foods have made inroads there as everywhere else), the underlying principle is the same - a basic starch (yam, plantain, couscous, rice, various breads), accompanied by vegetables, fish or meat. For all but the the poorest people in this famine-prone continent, Africans enjoy a huge range of superb cuisines - rich, complex, highly spiced, nutritious and luxurious.

In addition to the Calabash restaurant in the Africa Centre (see main story) which serves dishes from all over Africa, here are some other ways to experience African flavours in London.

North African/Maghrebi

Couscous is the basis of the cuisine of this region. Spicy vegetable and meat stews are served on top of a pile of fluffy grains. Try the Royal Couscous House, Holloway Road, N5 (0171-700 2188).

Ethiopian

Fiery stews of meat and vegetables are accompanied by the classic Ethiopian bread, injera, which resembles a damp pancake, but which tastes delicious. Try the newly opened Merkata, 193a Caledonian Road, N1 (0171-2782662).

Do it yourself

Ridley Road Market in Dalston, E1 has a bewildering range of African and Caribbean ingredients. Explore and ask, and see what you can turn up.

Rick Bouwman

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