From the outside, Abuja International in Union looks like a typical corner tavern, right down to the neon beer signs in the window. Inside, the dim light, wood paneling and old bar seem straight out of the 1950s. Then you notice that one of the TVs is playing African music videos, and the patrons are not eating with knife and fork but are scooping up food with pieces of a kind of pancake.
The pancake-like stuff, which is pale yellow and comes in a thick mass, is called fufu. Since there are no utensils, you tear off a chunk of fufu, form it into a scoop with your thumb, and dip. Most of the dishes are from Nigeria and Cameroon. I tried one of the Nigerian basics—“Okra-Ladies finger” stew. The stew, green with okra and red with tomato, was loaded with chunks of goat meat on the bone. Salty, spicy with cayenne, and yes, a bit slippery from the okra, it takes you to Africa in just a few mouthfuls.
African restaurants are starting to pop up in New Jersey, featuring the cuisines of Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ethiopia and Morocco. Some, like Abuja, are modest; others are more upscale. The subtle differences in the cuisines are worth exploring. Ethiopian food is scooped up with injera, a crêpe-like bread with a slightly sour taste, made from a grain called teff. Nigeria and Ghana offer fufu, made from yams. For starch, Morocco, which uses standard utensils, has its tiny-grain dish called couscous.
My next stop, Garden City in Union, was far brighter than Abuja, and even though John, the chef, who wouldn’t give his last name, described the food as Ghanaian, many items were similar to Nigerian, including groundnut pepper soup and egusi (spicy melon seed soup with goat, chicken or fish). I ordered the $5.99 lunch special: spicy stewed chicken (you can also get goat or fish), fried sweet plantains, stewed bell peppers and jollof rice (with tomato flavor). The food came with a knife and fork.
Moving to East Africa and Ethiopia, I visited Lalibela in South Orange. There I ate gored gored (spicy marinated beef), gomen (made from chopped collard greens) and misir wat (spicy stewed red lentils). All are made with berbere, a traditional spice mixture made from ginger, coriander, cardamom, fenugreek, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt and other ingredients. All dishes come with house-made injera. Ethiopian has always reminded me of Indian with an extra acid tang. Meklit Nwankwo, the cook, hostess and owner, will answer questions and provide a gentle introduction to the cuisine.
At Marakesh, a Moroccan restaurant in Parsippany, customers sit on comfortable couches and eat at tables with linen napkins. Moroccan cuisine is part African, part Arabic and more than a bit French. My meal there included couscous steamed with vegetables and lamb; Moroccan cigars—filo-wrapped, ground-beef appetizers; a very French braised lamb shoulder with prunes; and, for dessert, sweet orange-blossom bastila, which are crisp wafers with sweet pistachio sauce. As is customary, dessert was accompanied by Morocco’s national drink, mint tea.
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