Thus far, I’ve made some effort to maintain balance in the United Nations of Food quest. Over the past month or two, I’ve had meals from Oceania, North America, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and a decent cross-section of Western and Eastern Europe.
But I’ve pretty much ignored Africa. My last African food experience was Maima’s Liberian Bistro, more than 20 restaurants ago.
So I’ve been pretty damned lame with the African food, even though I know that I ultimately will eat about 53 African meals. The tricky thing is that there really aren’t all that many African restaurants in NYC that claim to serve the cuisine of any particular nation—most African restaurants call themselves “African,” with no further elaboration. Frankly, I’ve been a little bit intimidated: I’m trying to find food from all 53 nations in Africa, but I only have leads for about 15 of those nationalities. I guess that I’ve been waiting to eat African food until a magical African food tour guide magically appears in my life.
The other part of my African avoidance is purely physical: I really enjoyed the Liberian cuisine in Queens a couple of months ago, but my bowels ached for a couple of days. I’ve been irrationally reluctant to go back to a West African restaurant, knowing that my stomach might face a similar fate.
And I was partly correct. I definitely had a few minutes of intestinal burning after our trip to Abidjan, a Cote d’Ivorian spot in Bushwick. But the burning sensation was relatively mild—and more importantly, it was absolutely worth it.
Abidjan is an informal place with a cryptic, one-page laminated menu, consisting of about a dozen grainy pictures with ridiculously brief descriptions: “chicken tomato,” for example, didn’t really tell us all that much. We asked the server for recommendations, and ended up getting “okra,” “fish sauce,” and “peanut sauce” ($8 each) as our three entrees, accompanied by a side of attieke ($3) and some ginger juice ($2). We had no idea what we had just ordered, but we eventually figured out that we’d ordered three entrees for two people. Oh boy!
Good thing that the entrees were healthy, low-calorie dishes. The “peanut sauce” was Cote d’Ivoire’s rendition of groundnut stew, which is a staple in much of West Africa. Everybody knows that peanuts are low in fat and calories, especially when large quantities of the peanuts have been pureed and stewed with onions, spices, tomatoes, and bits of pleasantly fatty beef. My buddy Ryan, who is fortunately able to eat more than one meal in a sitting, was hopelessly addicted to the stuff.
I know that this sounds a little bit weird, but I got much more excited about the okra. I might scare you away with a picture of an oily, slimy bowl of smashed okra, lightly seasoned with onion, a not-too-overpowering suite of West African spices, and an occasional bit of cow. Sounds like hell, right? But if you appreciate okra, this particular dish was a dream. Unlike at Maima’s Liberian Bistro, the oil didn’t overpower the okra at Abidjan; the dish was dominated by slime, not grease. Squirm all you want, but I absolutely loved it.
As much as we enjoyed the “peanut sauce” and the okra, we got even more excited about attieke, our humble side dish, made from shaved cassava. Most meals served on this planet contain a huge helping of starchy stuff—rice, pasta, plantains, grits, injera, fufu, or whatever. I’m a huge carb lover and I mean this in the best possible way, but the aforementioned starchy staples are always dense, and usually somewhat thick and gooey.
Attieke? Not gooey or dense at all. It’s almost as if somebody took a hybrid of couscous and roasted quinoa, and then puffed it up with a little bit of air. I absolutely loved the stuff, and could easily eat it every damned day without getting sick of it.
My only issue with our meal was the demon pepper that I foolishly attacked. The “fish sauce” (bony whitefish served in a yellowish stew—tasty, but overshadowed by everything else we ordered) was accompanied by a colorful little pepper,
probably a semi-ripe habanero. It looked friendly and cute and small, but the little bastard kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile once it was in my stomach. It went perfectly with the “fish sauce,” but it continued to poke at my innards for about twelve hours. (You really wanted to know that, right? You’re welcome!)
I’m officially 1/7 of the way through the United Nations of Food quest, and this was only the third time that my stomach got cranky… and it was easily the mildest of the three cases. More importantly, the burning sensations were absolutely worth it. The pepper might not have been too kind, but the attieke and okra were among the best non-Russian treats I’ve eaten this side of The Islands (Jamaican) and Café Katja (Austrian). Abidjan might not get any style points at all, but the place will always have a place in my heart for introducing me to my new favorite carb.
1136 Broadway, Brooklyn
Subway: Kosciusko Street (J train)