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Friday, July 7, 2006
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Finding Africa in the heart of Japan
We explored the Africa Remix exhibition at the Mori Art Museum the other day and came back buzzing with inspiration, hungry for more of the vibrant cultures and flavors of that great continent. There aren't a lot of options here in Tokyo, but at least there's Calabash.
The low-rise back streets of Hamamatsucho may not seem the most promising locale to go looking for such exotic nourishment. But once you have tracked down Calabash's obscure basement location, the greater surprise is just how sophisticated it looks.
It's spacious and decorated with care, with walls painted a restful shade of mud-ochre and decorated with amulets, masks and bold fabrics. Large, hand-carved calabash gourds shade the lights. Speakers, also housed inside gourds, emit a restful musical soundtrack ranging from griot kora and polyrhythmic Dakar mblax to the homegrown rap and reggae that fill the airwaves from Bamako to Benin.
Calabash is much more than just a restaurant-bar; it's an unofficial cultural center for Tokyo's disparate diaspora of Francophone West Africans. It is run (and co-owned) by the gentle, smiling Eddi Harouna Dabo, a native of Bamako, Mali. His current kitchen staff hail from Co^te d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso, and his menu covers an even broader spectrum of nationalities.
The beer derives from Tunisia (cheap Celtia lager); Kenya (Tusker in cans); South Africa (the ubiquitous Castle); and Nigeria (the Gulder lager is fine, but the potent Lagos-brewed Guinness is not to be missed, as long as Dabo has it in stock). The wine list mixes generic New World varietals from South Africa with the thin, sour traditional wines of North Africa. And for the bold at heart, Dabo also stocks an interesting selection of clear, rum-like firewater liquors from an assortment of distilleries around Africa.
Likewise, the food menu covers the entire West Africa region. With that first beer, we got a saucer of boiled peanuts, soft and bland in their red skins, but hard to stop nibbling on. We continued with a serving of tasty akara, a Malinese specialty, made from African "panda" beans, deep-fried golden brown in soft, bite-size nuggets and served with a spicy tomato ketchup.
We followed up with Nigerian pepe soup, a dark, savory consomme served piping hot and spiced with enough black pepper to bead our brows with sweat. We were unable to get our teeth around many of the chewy chunks of cow stomach and other organ meats that imbue it with such intense flavor, but we drained every drop of the appetizing broth.
The kitchen produces a good selection of meat- or fish-based stews that are eaten with rice, couscous or fufu, the thick, dough-like staple made from yam starch. These are the fundamentals of African food -- along with the smoky flavors of the barbecue. Calabash uses a gas grill, rather than charcoal, but even so we enjoyed the beef brochettes (mutton is also an option), which were well marinated and served with a colorful salad of bell peppers.
One of the specialties at Calabash is tilapia, a medium-size freshwater fish, sometimes known as African perch, which they grill whole with a spicy sauce popular in Co^te d'Ivoire. But we chose instead the tieb djen (pronounced "cheb jen"), a Senegalese dish of grilled swordfish served on a pilaf of long-grain rice, fancifully called "paella," with a good selection of cooked vegetables.
Most of these dishes form the basis for Calabash's set meals, which are the easiest way of discovering this largely uncharted (for us, at least) territory. But the customers here, largely adventurous young office types, prefer to linger, cradling their beer, tropical cocktails or perhaps glasses of sweet-tart, scarlet karkade (hibiscus cordial) as they explore the menu a dish or two at a time.
Africa can never be purely about the food, though: It's always more about the people, the relationships, the ambiance. After an hour or three in Calabash, you can start to feel a long, long way from Minato-ku.
We didn't need to go all the way to Hamamatsucho to discover Africa. Since two months ago, a sparkling new bar called Exclamation has been channeling the spirit of Nigeria into the heart of Roppongi.
Exclamation's proprietor, the charming, model-handsome Silas "Quincy" Ayo, hails from Lagos. Not for him the trappings of an Africa derived from cultural stereotypes and tourist-brochure cliches. He doesn't hang artifacts to remind himself (or anyone else) of where his roots are. Like any young, sophisticated African, all he needs is a widescreen TV showing Nigerian videos and movies (and perhaps some football), and a menu that lovingly recreates the cooking of his homeland.
He keeps his menu flexible, making use of the Nigerian ingredients available on the day. So if he can't get hold of yams or plantains, he prepares slices of deep-fried sweet potato -- still far better as a snack than any potato chip -- paired with fried egg or meat in a spicy red sauce. His recipe for fried chicken and fish gives fresh flavor to that tired phrase "finger-licking good" (finger bowl provided). And he offers two kinds of spicy pepe, made either with goat meat or fish.
But what keeps his regular customers, the Nigerians who work in the Roppongi clubs and back streets, coming back are his "soups" -- actually more like simmered stews -- made from fish and meat (plenty of inner organs here too). Choose your sauce, be it okra, egusi (pumpkin-like seeds) or just vegetables, then mop it up with generous portions of ebi (also known as gara), the Nigerian name for the sticky staple cassava starch.
Quincy sees no need to tone down the flavors or disguise the ingredients. Exclamation may not look like our image of Africa, but it certainly tastes like it.
Urban safari: Hunting down other African flavors
Over the years, we have seen a succession of African restaurants, bars and clubs blossom briefly, then fade like fragrant evening blossoms in the harsh light of day: Ghanaba in Roppongi; Pole-pole in Shibuya; and the Ebisu live music club Piga-piga.
Bucking that discouraging trend, though, is Queen Sheba. This little corner of Ethiopia in Naka-Meguro has endured for 15 years, perhaps more due to the charm and indefatigable efforts of owner Solomon than the authenticity of his cuisine. But it is still the only place we know though that serves goat kebabs (but not always) with those traditional Abyssinian breads, injera and dabo.
Queen Sheba; Neo-age Naka-Meguro Bldg. B1, 1-3-1 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3794-1801; www.queensheba.jp; Open daily 5-11 p.m.
Kagurazaka offers all manner of exotica these days, and Tribes is one of its best-kept secrets. Here African inspiration is fused with sophisticated cooking skills and a strong infusion of chic Tokyo design. The result: Afro-French dining. We highly rate the ostrich, whether as kebabs or sausages; the fried cassava; and their delectable mutton couscous.
Tribes; 10-7 Wakamiyacho, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3235-9966; www.tribes.jp; Open: 6 p.m.-3 a.m.; closed: Sunday and holidays.
Our favorite hotline to Africa remains Esogie, a funky, friendly bar hidden in the back streets of Shinjuku-Sanchome. Here Nigerian-born Lucky and his wife serve full-flavored home cooking, a good range of booze (including some interesting brews infused from medicinal herbs), and a constant soundtrack of high life and juju music -- interspersed with occasional performances by Lucky on his talking drums.
Esogie; Muraki Bldg 3F, 3-11-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3353-3334; www4.point.ne.jp/~esogie/; Open 7 p.m.-4 a.m.; closed Sunday (except last Sunday of the month).
SuperDeluxe, the ever-eclectic event space in the shadow of Roppongi Hills, has little connection with the mother continent. But for one night this month it will resound to the rhythms of Zimbabwean band Jenaguru. Pigapiga Night takes place July 22. Check www.pigapiga.com
SuperDeluxe, B1F 3.1.25 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5412-0515; www.super-deluxe.com
If eating at any of these has sparked your interest in the continent, check out Africa Remix, which runs at the Mori Art Museum until August 31st. Roppongi Hills Mori Tower 53 Fl., 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5777-8600; www.mori.art.museum