If you’re into your food as much as I am, sometimes you read a menu that just gets your imagination going. Sometimes it’s the creativity, sometimes it’s the pairing of ingredients and sometimes it’s because you have to sit for a few minutes with Google in front of you searching out the names mentioned in the dishes.
This Neo African pop featured a little bit of all three – and it was hosted in Chuck Gallery, merely minutes from my office, that I had no idea existed.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore just a snippet of African cooking. I’ve dined – and made – a few Ethiopian dishes. I’ve visited South Africa, and so am no stranger to dishes such as bobotie and bunny chow, and I’m also no stranger to Jollof rice (though as anyone will tell you, everyone has their own recipe for the latter and nobody else’s is right). But Africa is a bloody big continent, and the ranges of dishes are vast, so I recognise that even with attending this dinner, I’ve still only dipped my toe in the water.
After this dinner, I’m ready to go diving.
Our host venue, Chuck Gallery, is based in Plymouth Grove, in an unassuming 1960s style building, and holds a range of artworks from African artists. As we arrived and sipped on our Champagne, we had the opportunity to walk around the exhibitions. From the mixed media exhibition of Christophew Ankeli (on til 2nd December), to vibrant abstract works, through to softer watercolours, we found ourselves drawn to different images. Ankeli’s love story told in a series of pieces, to a backstreet market, to the bright greens of palm trees and yellow sands.
Dinner drew us away from the artworks – at least physically. Our chef, O.O. Kukoyi has created dishes that featured both traditional British ingredients, with both techniques and ingredients from Africa, many with memories from his childhood, all beautifully paired with wines from Hanging Ditch.
Our first dish was entitled ‘Atlantis Rising’. At it’s base was a Molokhia soup, a dish eaten all over Africa, it features a green, slightly bitter leaf that when cooked has an almost unique texture. Somewhat akin to okra, it’s slimy, slightly gelatinous and when paired with a thick piece of poached cod, and the more intense flavour of the sundried cod flakes on top, and soft salty pop of the roe, was downright delicious. As we discovered via our fellow guests, molokhia is often accompanied with rice, and a spicy stew. Cue me quietly making mental notes for recipe research.
Our second course, was titled ‘Born into a New World’. Slow cooked honeycomb shaki – or tripe to you and I – with rainbow carrots, a black-eyed bean puree and spicy Nigerian tomato sauce.
This dish, doesn’t look like much, given it has tripe in it, it maybe doesn’t sound like much. It was bloody fantastic. The shaki (tripe) was cooked in such a way that it was soft, but crisp and smoky, I have never had tripe like it. I’ve cooked it a few times myself, mostly traditional Catalan and basque dishes, but this was something else. And something I would be very happy to revisit, especially when it was paired with the spice of the tomato sauce, and the creamy sweetness of the puree. The carrots and leaves were pretty, but I’m all about the centre pieces of this dish.
Course number three was ‘The Meshai Earns his First Michelin Star’. Slices of lamb and beef with traditional hausa spices, served with cherry tomatoes, pickled onion and salted cucumber. The vegetables cut through this hit of spice – hausa spices – or suya are a traditional Nigerian spices that can include cloves, mint, fenugreek, cinnamon chilli garlic, and a whole host more. After doing research, I’ve found lists including twenty different spices and even then, some are further blends that are added to create a hot peppery, herbal spice for the meat.
Here we paused. Sort of. Whilst I’d never thought of jollof rice as a palate cleanser, it was easy to see why we needed it. A blend of hot intense spices, was followed with a coconut bowl of smoky, spicy rice, bringing us somewhat more down to earth, ahead of our penultimate dish.
‘Deer Mother is that a Cougar?’ was far more westernised – and perhaps familiar looking. And yet still, not. Venison steaks, white yam mashed with butter and cream until velvety, kale, sauteed mushrooms, roasted parsnips and broad beans, with that northern essential, gravy. The venison was tender and soft, and delightfully rare. The kale was rich and bitter, the yam totally out of this world. Another dish I’ll need to practice, because I now need that as an alternative to mash with my roast dinner.
Finally, sadly, dessert loomed. And though our full tummies were relieved, my tastebuds were somewhat saddened.
Our final dish was ‘Yesterday I heard a Swan Song!’. Almond infused cream, with candied rhubarb and sweetened sweetcorn flakes, and a spoon of salty, caviar. It sounded odd, fish with an almond dessert, but the salty pop of the caviar along with the creamy almost amaretto flavour of the cream was just delightful and as far as I could see, there was no bowl left clean.
The food, the stunning wine pairings (Hanging Ditch, you really pulled it out of the bag pairing these) mean that I really want to do it all again.
So… Oluwaseun – when’s the next one?