In an aging strip mall on the corner of NW 23 Street and MacArthur Boulevard, African flavor is taking root.
Between a West Indian/African market and the Ethiopian destination Queen of Sheba, a new restaurant serving West African fare recently opened. The restaurant is Mama Sinmi's Chop House, 2312 N MacArthur Blvd., specializing in all-natural, authentic cuisine from West Africa.
In a small room off the kitchen at Mama Sinmi's, owner/chef Ijeoma Popoola straddles a large wooden mortar carved from the trunk of a tree and works it with a pestle carved from a limb of the same tree.
Wearing a traditional African skirt and a star-quality smile, Popoola is making traditional fufu, a staple of her home country of Nigeria. She is Mama Sinmi, a name that comes from the Nigerian tradition of a mother honoring her firstborn by taking their name.
Her husband, Andrew Popoola, who also was born in Nigeria, likes to talk about how they come from the same place but from wildly different cultures. Andrew Popoola, who moved to this country at the age of 12 and was educated in Florida and the United States Air Force, says there are hundreds of languages in use today in Nigeria alone. He describes a scene which doesn't sound too different from the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel.
“That's why we had to adopt English so there would be one language we all understood,” he said. “Even though it's pidgin English.”
In this 22-seat cafe adorned with a beautiful mural by Bob Palmer on the south wall, the Popoolas are sharing the story of a couple born in Africa and raised to contribute to Western civilization. Andrew Popoola served in the Air Force as an Air Battle Manager. Though not in active duty now, he maintains reserve status, meaning he still devotes a good portion of his time to the security of the United States at Tinker Air Force Base.
While he's protecting our freedoms, Ijeoma Popoola is back at her wood-carved mortar spinning their story through the simple dish called fufu.
You'll see restaurants advertise rustic Italian cuisine or rustic Southern cuisine. It doesn't get anymore rustic than fufu.
“The food in West Africa is truly natural and organic,” Ijeoma Popoola says with an enthusiasm impossible to prefabricate.
In her mortar are boiled yams and cassavas with dried oats and banku, a blend of ground, fermented corn and cassavas. The ingredients are ground and worked into a tacky paste hand-rolled into balls and served with a variety of dishes. Diners pinch pieces away from the balls of fufu and tamp them into discs fit for scoop or swiping. The fufu offers little flavor as it is built to balance the intensely spicy flavors of the dishes they partner with on the table.
Those dishes include egusi, which is derived from shelled gourd seeds mashed with palm oil, and broth. The texture is similar to hummus. Ijeoma mixes in fresh spinach leaves and as much Scotch bonnet pepper as you can handle.
The fufu menu also includes okra, which is served with spinach in a spicy tomato sauce with hot peppers, onion and palm oil.
Ogbono is similar to egusi but rather than gourd seeds, mango seeds are used. Efo is a sauteed spinach dish and spicy broth.
Mama Sinmi's also serves a variety of pepper soups, which feature braised meats and bold, earthy flavors.
For starters, Mama Sinmi's offers suya, which is beef marinated in a ginger-peanut mixture and grilled. Moin-moin is a dish that's similar to tamales, made with mashed beans rather than corn. Ijeoma Popoola also offers savory pastries filled with ground beef, potatoes and carrots. The menu also includes a variety of fried rice dishes for less adventurous diners.
Andrew Popoola's contributions to the menu are the beverages.
“We've got some bottled drinks imported from Africa, and I also make some mixed fruit drinks,” he said. “We've got cappuccino on the menu. It's not from Africa, I just make a killer cappuccino.”
If you like ginger, try a Vita Malt Ginger drink. Like so much of the flavors at Mama Sinmi's, there is no subtlety or bashfulness in these bottles. Malted drinks are preferred in West Africa over soda pop. Guinness even makes a nonalcoholic version of its stout in Nigeria called Malta Guinness.
Mama Sinmi's is called a Chop House not because they serve steaks but because “chop” is a generic term for food in Nigeria. You can get your chop on from noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays.
The Popoolas warn you that West Africans like to commiserate, and aren't shy about striking up conversation with strangers.
“We are a little loud, and we like to have fun,” Andrew Popoola said.
My kind of people ... and they cook.