We travel to a third continent via Route 1 this week: Africa. Rahama African Restaurant brings the cuisine of West Africa to Mount Vernon, though in some form or another, the cuisine has been here since the early days of the slave trade.
Traditionally, the West African diet included rice, peanuts, yams, and black-eyed peas. These foods became staples of the cuisine of the American South when they arrived with the slaves from West Africa. When trading ships returned to Africa with okra, plantains, and peppers from North America and the Caribbean, the plants adapted well to the climate as well as the palate of the people. Today the cuisine mixes all of these flavors with seafood and meat, often in very spicy sauces or soups.
At Rahama African Restaurant, the bright yellow walls and jangly Afro-pop music drew us in, and the smells from the kitchen intrigued us. While we perused the menu, we tried a couple of bottled drinks from the refrigerator. The first was Limongin, a very spicy lime and ginger drink that would probably be an excellent cure for an upset stomach. Next, a bottle marked “Fula” caught our eye. A milky mixture of granulated millet, milk, sugar and spices known as fura de nono, it was a bit gritty for drinking, but had a sweet and mild flavor.
We decided to try several stews and several different meats. We did not feel brave enough to try the dried fish or snails on this visit, but the goat and the tilapia were delicious. We found that while the flavors of the deeply spiced stews were wonderful, navigating the meat was a bit of an obstacle.
Banku with Tilapia in a spicy raw tomato sauce with onion and pepper garnish was our first choice. The banku — like a large polenta dumpling — was a wonderful sponge for the lively sauce. The fish was served whole, so navigating the bones was a little tricky, but it was perfectly cooked — crisp outside, with flaky white flesh.
White rice and palaver sauce was a nice stew of spinach, peppers and onions, which could also be ordered with fish or meat. An order of boiled white yams was just about as boring to taste as it was to look at — starchy, dry potatoes with no sauce. We should have known better.
The goat stew with fufuo was a great bowl of tender seasoned goat meet. The fufuo is a gummy, sticky dumpling of plantain or cassava flour. This was delicious stew, but not for the squeamish, as the meat arrived with skin on.
On every visit, the people in the restaurant chatted with us about the food, their home countries (as most of the customers we talked to came from western Africa), and what they like best about Rahama. For all, it was a taste of home.
Rahama African Restaurant is located at 8738 Richmond Highway, and is open daily for lunch and dinner.