The most potent drink in metro Phoenix might be the ginger juice from Jollof King, a West African restaurant in Tempe that quietly opened three months ago.
The turgid yellow juice is blended ginger, clove, and lemon. To sample some is to volunteer your mouth to a storm-the-beach assault of warm pungent needling flavor; to then purchase a cup is to snag a worthy sidekick to the Ghanaian meal that awaits you.
Jollof King's tight menu features Ghanaian food with a few Nigerian flourishes here and there.
“This is Ghanaian food based," says young cook Linda Dadzie. "We do have a couple of dishes from Nigeria, but it’s kind of like our own-made Nigerian food. It’s not necessarily exactly Nigerian food. But we do have some dishes that combine Nigerian and Ghanaian.”
Dadzie says that she, chef Mercy Boadi, and owner Kwasi Nyerko, all from Ghana, keep the ginger juice heady to appeal to their Ghanaian regulars. Which, three months in, they already have.
Ginger is a spice that dominates Ghanaian cooking. You will also find plenty of garlic and Maggi, high-density cubes that pack a litany of flavorings such as salt, sugar, palm fat, white pepper, and yeast extract.
Stews, soups, dumplings, and starches like Jollof rice are cornerstones of Ghana's diet. The food of West Africa has earned a reputation for its chile heat, and little-known peppers like the Guinea Pepper and Alligator Pepper are widely known there.
“There’s a whole lot of options in West Africa,” owner Nyerko says. “This is just a sampling. If we tried to cook everything we have back home, it would be too much.”
The sampling at Jollof is an earthy, spicy, tomato-perfumed tour through two dozen items. If you go, you would be smart to try one of the nut soups, Ghanaian staples with no analog in western gastronomy.
Chef Boadi makes two nut soups: peanut and palm.
Shallow pools of oil glisten atop the peanut soup, released from the slurry of creamed nuts below, dyed saffron by the tomato in the soup's base. This fragrant soup looks like a puddle of lava. Crushed, salted peanuts have been blended, toasted, and added to a base of tomato, onion, and habanero. For a soup made from nuts, the nutty flavor is unexpectedly reserved, sculpted to a warm, infinitesimally sweet earthiness by garlic, ginger, and chile heat. The habanero burns low and bright and on the front of your tongue, a tiny flashbang.
You can up the comfort factor of this soup, which already greets you like a feather pillow, by adding meat (like goat) or fufu. Fufu is a West African dumpling. Or dough. Somewhere in between, really.
At Jollof King, fufu can be made from mashed yam, plantain, or oatmeal. Yam (not sweet potato, but true yam) leans, Dadzie says, toward Nigeria. Compact yam fufu falls like congealed polenta to the spoon, and packs a spongy softness, not unlike matzo or denser gnocchi.
In Nigeria, you can use fufu like you would injera in Ethiopia: as an edible utensil. Jollof King will drop your fufu right into your soup if you want.
Jollof King rolls another specialty somewhere in the massive dumpling family: banku. A lumpy baseball of pounded, fermented corn, banku has the tang of food that has happily tangoed with microbes.
When you order fufu or banku, you can add soup (goat, fish, peanut, and palm nut, the palm nut bubbled with fish and juice from palm fruit and only around on Sundays) or stew (seven options).
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The story is similar when you order Jollof rice, only you have to stick with a stew. Jollof is a hallmark of West African cooking. Jollof's Jollof is loaded with the (here-recurrent) trinity of tomato, aromatics, and some heat. Worthy stews include an okra concoction light and fragrant or a heady, tender beef stew of chunks that fork-shred into the wide heap of rice. Jollof comes with a hard-boiled egg, toasty sweet plantains, and fettuccine slicked with rich, orange-hued oils skimmed from the tops of stews.
Phoenix doesn't have a ton of African restaurants. The African country most represented is Ethiopia, a country 4,000 miles from Ghana. The cuisines are very different. Eating at a place like Jollof King, where you can savor okra stew or egusi, soup made with melon seeds, you wonder why we don't have more African here. And when you try the peanut soup, that wonder may turn to something more profound.
Jollof King. 325 West Elliot Road #103, Tempe; 480-550-7292.
Monday from 4 to 10 p.m.; Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.