Fu-Fu Cuisine: Where Africa Meets the Caribbean
Imagine mashed potatoes. Then imagine a pile of mashed potatoes — smooth and sticky — shaped into a starchy dome. You pull a piece and mold it into an indented marble-size ball, a flat disc, or perhaps a thumb-pressed oval to scoop up a richly flavored soup or stew. The experience, personal and comforting, seems to have been born of a sculptor, a baker, or a precocious 6-year-old with an aversion to utensils.
Esther Mbaikambey serves this fun-to-say-and-eat centerpiece, fufu, the starchy staple of Africa, at Fu-Fu Cuisine, her months-old restaurant on the city's west side. Traditionally, when preparing fufu, a cook's tuber of choice is boiled and then beat smooth with a mortar and pestle, but for many in the African diaspora, like the Nigerian-born Mbaikambey, pre-ground starchy powders such as yam flour are used instead. And following her homeland's established practice of washing one's hands before eating fufu, Mbaikambey brings her guests a warm bowl of water and soap and a towel before it is served.
Mbaikambey said she wanted to name her restaurant something all Africans would know. She has a few skippable American-style dishes on the menu, but you'll find plenty to eat. Caribbean and African fare are what Mbaikambey does best, making Fu-Fu Cuisine an experience worth a taste.
The oldest of six children, Mbaikambey took to cooking almost immediately by watching her mother prepare family meals that included African soups and sauces heavy with spices and herbs, made hot from chili peppers, and cooked with dark orange palm oil. After high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Mbaikambey came to the United States, spending two years in Atlanta before moving to the Valley to attend college. Graduating in just three years with degrees in business, food service administration, and culinary arts, Mbaikambey worked toward her dream of restaurant ownership by working at Applebee's for a staggering 12 years. For nine of them, she also ran a personal catering business.
Fu-Fu Cuisine's small menu combines Mbaikambey's wallet-friendly African, Caribbean, and American-style creations. Diners unfamiliar with the dishes can use the rather unflattering photos on the menu's back page for visual guidance, but chatting with Mbaikambey herself is the best way to go. Friendly, helpful, and calm, the one-woman show will graciously interact with her guests — both in-the-know locals and curious newcomers.
For starters, skip the tiny, dry buffalo wings. Like the chicken and beef shish kebabs, the wings' flavor is not interesting. Better selections include African and Caribbean half-moon-shaped meat pies stuffed with seasoned beef. It's interesting to compare the two versions. The mildly spiced meat filling of the former, often called a Jamaican beef patty, is similar in taste to that of its African counterpart, but with a much sweeter crust.
There also is pepper soup, a light-colored Nigerian broth filled with goat meat, tripe, and Mbaikambey's signature mix of herbs and spices. One of the few soups not used as a sauce for fufu, its spicy, peppery flavor gets more intense as one nears the bottom of the bowl.
And for those with a weakness for sugar-coated, deep-fried dough (guilty as charged), six Nigerian pof-pofs are sure to delight. Like doughnut holes the size of baseballs, these dense, buttery, and lightly sweet treats are made to order. Though they may look simple, Mbaikambey says, they're actually quite fussy, easily falling flat or becoming overcooked. Seriously addictive, pof-pofs can be ordered as appetizer or dessert. Or, as Mbaikambey suggested, they can be taken home and drizzled in chocolate sauce. 'Nuff said.
As with the appetizers, Mbaikambey's African and Caribbean entrees succeed more than the menu's American-inspired fare, such as spaghetti with homemade meatballs, sides of mashed potatoes and broccoli, and a celery chicken salad that is rather disturbing. Essentially mayonnaise-coated chicken pieces atop iceberg lettuce, it tasted as unimaginative as it appeared and led me to think that Mbaikambey might have suffered an Applebee's flashback while creating the dish.
When it comes to heat and spice, Mbaikambey prefers a lighter touch, especially regarding traditionally hot African fare. Unless otherwise requested, dishes are prepared on the mild side, using seasonings purchased at Ben & Chris African Market in Glendale.
Like Mbaikambey's African dishes, her Caribbean jerk takes a decidedly modest approach to heat but still delivers in flavor. There is a very good jerk barbecue chicken that is light and tender and a jerk steak that, despite being nicely seasoned, is a bit tough. The menu states both dishes are served with mashed potatoes and broccoli, but Mbaikambey has (thankfully) altered the sides to be more conducive to the regions' cuisines, serving them with rice and enticingly sweet plantains.
Curried chicken and goat selections, made with peas and carrots and served over rice, are also milder than most, with the chicken more rewarding than the goat, which, depending on the meat, can be wonderfully tender or on the dry side. The same could be said of the Rice & Fresh Tomato Stew, a light and sweet broth with a hint of heat, but with overly large seasoned chunks of beef and goat that, when overcooked, make this otherwise tasty dish difficult to enjoy.
The fried tilapia, however, is nothing short of spectacular. Perfectly prepared, the marinated whole fish (with an option of two pieces) is deep-fried with a crispy skin covering tender, light meat and accompanied by a colorful and refreshing salsa of diced fresh peppers and couscous. For a more African experience, the tilapia, as well as a grilled chicken selection, can be had as spicy, marinated yassa. Mbaikambey makes her version of yassa with sautéed onions, bell peppers, green olives, peanut oil, and Dijon mustard. It's an unusual yet satisfying mix of tastes and textures, with the flavors of the mustard and sweet onions leading the way. I enjoyed it immediately and easily could have eaten a second helping.
If you choose to venture into the more exotic cuisine of Africa — and perhaps into the realm of acquired taste — two dishes at Fu-Fu Cuisine best assist in the journey. The first is a creation made with cassava leaves from a woody shrub common throughout many parts of Africa. The plant's leaves are dried and mixed with smoked fish, beef, goat meat, spices, and peanuts to create a thick, earthy mixture akin to spinach, but with fishy and nutty undertones. I liked it best with a serving of rice.
And the Nigerian favorite eugusi soup, often likened to the American cheeseburger because of its popularity, comes with fufu (also referred to on the menu as pounded yam). More a dense stew than a broth-y soup, eugusi is thickened with the ground seeds of West African melons and bolstered by vegetables. Mbaikambey's version includes goat meat, spinach, onions, dried catfish, crayfish, palm oil, and the African condiment, dawadawa. Like the cassava leaves, eugusi certainly won't win any awards for its looks, but I found its taste — slightly bitter and spicy — rich and comforting, especially when paired with starchy pieces of fufu.
Located at the end of a strip mall, Mbaikambey's restaurant is clean and comfortable. Decorated in African accents and with a TV pumping out Afropop music videos (sometimes too loudly), Fu-Fu Cuisine is populated with diners enjoying a plate of pof-pofs, relaxing with a beer, cocktail or, more likely, bottles of Vitamalt, a popular soft drink in the Caribbean and Africa that Mbaikambey likens to a sweet energy drink (the label advises Vitamalt be drunk at will or "as prescribed by doctor").
For dessert, Mbaikambey keeps it simple, serving a very good moist chocolate brownie topped with vanilla ice cream. Though she doesn't consider herself a baker (and she has the burn marks on her arms to prove it), Mbaikambey credits her college professors for her skills and pushing her to succeed, a drive she seems to have in spades.
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