The spicy, starchy soul food of Nigeria

Posted: August 05, 2007

For an African-immigrant cabdriver tasked with negotiating the streets of Philadelphia, it is advisable to keep two sets of maps in mind.

One, of course, is of the city's orderly, historic grid. But the other, its importance sharpening toward mealtime, is of the locations of the more-haphazard-seeming kitchens that offer the spicy goat stews, viscous greens, and yam-based starches that feed the hunger for home.

Come to Wazobia, one of those kitchens, two blocks north of Spring Garden, at 11th and Mount Vernon, and you get a quick tutorial on the geography of the latter: Near 45th and Baltimore is good for Ivory Coast food; on 52d between Spruce and Pine, decent Senegalese; at 55th or so and Woodland, the mood, it is said, tends toward Burkina Faso.

If you are Nigerian, however, and east of the Schuylkill, you'd best pull over at Wazobia, its awning long gone from the still- arching ribs, next door to the big, stone Ruffin Nichols Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church.

With chef Abu's lunch counter at Ninth and Noble closed, and the Bukateria, at 40th and Lancaster, several meter clicks away, there's a certain last-exit-before-toll quality regarding Wazobia. (The word, I am told, is a sort of ecumenical African Esperanto meaning "come in" in the three tribal languages of Nigeria, Wa in Yoruba, Zo in Hausa, and Bia in Ibo.)

There is, at a glance, a makeshift, improvisational quality here, the roaring floor fans occasionally blowing the toothpick holders off the tables, the aroma of African sofrito in the air, a single, detachable stove knob urgently slipped on and off several knobless burner stems.

But you can get - besides the standards of West African cookery (a bright, soupy spinach dish flavored with the nutty egusi-melon seed, and a spicy, tomato-y jollof rice, and chile-spiked chicken stews) - soul foods of Nigeria unavailable at its sister cafes. There is, in addition to the gummy balls of fufu, which you pinch off and use to scoop up gravies, another yam-based starch called amala, served with chewy, deep-fried (and tomato-sauced) hunks of goat, beef, chicken or fish.

It is these homey starches that reel in the Nigerian cabbies, engineering students, and occasional office workers. Owner Risikat Bola Jamiu shows me a leathery tuber, explaining how, to make a proper amala, it must be long-simmered, fermented, sundried, and only then ground to the floury powder that will be boiled and patted into mashed-potatolike loaves.

Bola, as she calls herself, attended the Restaurant School in the mid-'80s when she arrived with her husband from Nigeria. (He is a Muslim chaplain at the federal prison at Seventh and Arch.) Then, for more than 15 years she cooked the chicken marsala, ratatouille, and European-inspired fare at Palladium, the now-closed restaurant on the Penn campus.

It was after its closing, and a short-lived stab at a lunch truck, that she opened Wazobia three years ago in a white-tiled former fried-chicken joint. On hot days, the front door is typically propped open with a tile of flat stone.

Bola is scarified, three slashes on each cheek, in the tradition of her family and region, and favors ankle-length African skirts and, often, a soft beaded black headdress.

And while she and her cook, Christine Raji, are practiced at building down-home flavor in pots sizzling with cooking oil, tomato paste (and hand-sliced fresh tomato), turkey stock, ginger, garlic, and red bell pepper and onion they whip in the blender, the geography of the cluttered kitchen is not always agreeable turf.

"When it is cold, it is too cold," Bola says with a sigh. "When it is hot, it is too hot."

At Wazobia, unfortunately, there is no alternate route.


Wazobia

616 N. 11th St.

215-769-3800



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. View his recent work, along with a video on a Chinese vegetable farmer, at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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