What do Americans know about Nigeria? Not much, to be frank, and sadly enough, a lot of what it isn’t good. Beyond Internet scammers with wacky schemes and Boko Haram terrorists, what do we know?
The most populous country in Africa, whose Yoruba culture goes back more than 1,000 years, and one of the world’s top producers of oil, Nigeria boasts coastal cities with glittering office towers and luxury living for the 1 percent. On the other hand, about 70 percent of Nigerians live in extreme poverty.
In other words, it sounds a little bit like Trump’s America! But let’s not go there today. Let’s focus instead on the warm and friendly people of a tropical nation with a hearty cuisine that’s well worth discovering.
Which brings us to Funmi Aderinokun and her crew, who’ve made Funmi’s Restaurant a welcoming place for the rest of us to discover Nigerian food and Nigerian hospitality since they came to Louisville in 2010.
Sunny light yellow, bright pumpkin and pale lavender walls give the small room a tropical feel, with attractive undraped blue-gray tables and a mix of black dinette chairs and simple wooden chairs. Unframed pictures of African scenes add splashes of color. Simple white stoneware plates and flatware wrapped in paper napkins set the tables.
Beverages include Coke products, tea, coffee and lemonade, but you really should try something more African as long as you’re sampling Nigerian goodies. Maltina, a sort of non-alcoholic African beer, is $2.50, but I recommend zobo (also $2.50), a tart-sweet and tangy Nigerian herb tea that may be served hot or cold. It’s good either way.
Funmi’s menu offers a good, quick introduction to the world of Nigerian cuisine, and it does take some introducing, as much of the fare is not widely known in the U.S. Happily, the menu clearly explains the ingredients in each dish, and Funmi and our friendly, helpful server, Lumi, are happy to go into more detail.
It’s a surprisingly extensive bill of fare, covering six menu pages, two of which offer entirely vegetarian and some vegan options. There are about 30 entrees overall, subdivided by the type of starch – and that requires some introduction, as fufu (a staple African dish of yam flour, cassava, corn flour and oat flour); asaro (a mash of potato, plantain and kale); tomato-filled jollof rice, African brown beans, and tuwo (a sort of corn flour mush) aren’t going to be familiar to most of us. All the entrees are closely clustered in price between $12.99 and $16.99.
The Nigerian appetizer combo plate ($9.99) offers a great way to get started, offering generous samples of four Nigerian goodies that you probably never heard of: Moin-moin, a round, fluffy bean cake with a haunting African-spice flavor, topped with mild red tomato-based “fried sauce”; ewa ati dodo, tender brown beans elevated by a savory, lightly salty sauce and accompanied by crisp fried sweet-plantain cubes; and a gift from India to Africa, a sambusa, a crisp pastry triangle filled with your choice of spicy chopped chicken, beef or green lentils.
Goat meat is a hard sell to many American palates, but it doesn’t get much better than you’ll have it here with asaro and kachumbari slaw ($16.99). The halal goat meat was excellent: Not gristly and bony but good-size, mostly boneless 2- by 3-inch chunks of tender meat, a few with bone on, juicy and gently gamey as goat should be, a step up from lamb but appropriate for the meat. A mild, deep-red, long-cooked tomato sauce accented and did not diminish the flavor of the goat.
We had a little harder time warming up to its accompanying potato-plantain-kale mash called asaro, not for any real flaw but because it seemed almost dessert-sweet to our American palates. The kachumbari was sweet, too, but that seemed more in place in a slaw that wasn’t all that unfamiliar: Crisp chopped green and red cabbage, onion and flat-leaf parsley were bathed in a sweet, lemony vinaigrette.
Another main dish, mushroom peanut-tomato stew ($12.99, plus $1.50 for the addition of spinach), is one of those not-so-beautiful presentations that you probably don’t want to post on Instagram, a thick, reddish-brown, lumpy stew with strands of long-cooked spinach in it, served in a white bowl and accompanied by a mound of tuwo, a thick ball of white cornflour meal vaguely reminiscent of very thick polenta. So close your eyes if you don’t like the look of it: It tastes delicious. The stew incorporates tender, thick-cut mushroom slices simmered with tomatoes, peanut butter and shredded greens until it’s thick and savory, kicked up a few notches with level-three fiery spice. Tasted alone, the tuwo seems as bland as un-salted, un-buttered grits. But drop it into your stew by the spoonful, and suddenly you see how it works.
A complimentary plate of puff-puffs, a powdered-sugar-dipped Nigerian fried pastry much like beignets, wrapped up an excellent African meal with leftovers, and our toll was a very reasonable $50 or so for two, plus a $10 tip.