African cuisine in general, is foreign to me. While there are quite a few restaurants that offer the delicacies common in Northern Africa, the rest of the continent’s flavors are relatively unknown here. I read about it in books, wonder what the flavors of maafe and fufu taste like, and have been on the hunt for something similar in Manila, to no avail. In the most unpredictable of places, in a tiny shack hidden inside a car wash in a village that is no easy feat to get to, Tee Adams makes specialties from his home country of Nigeria, and the region he has left behind.
Before we sit down with him to eat, Tee has a few words to say about Filipino food. “It’s all unhealthy. The number one problem here is diabetes, but my people are strong because of the food and ingredients we have.” Today he is preparing something extremely traditional, Nigerian staples that are also common in West and Central Africa. Everything is meant to be good for the body and soul, counteracting our Filipino diet. There is too much sugar, fat, and salt, and rice almost every meal of the day, which Tee says shouldn’t be the cornerstones of our meals.
As a resident of the Philippines for only a few years, Tee struggled with the fact that most of the African staple foods were unavailable here, and our cuisine was generally unhealthy. He felt the need to bring the food and culture of his people to ours, to share whatever he partook in for most of his life. Instead of rice, their starch of choice would be cassava, which fills you up much more, but is easily digested, and much more beneficial to your system. Today we have garri, which is cassava that is ground and fermented by Tee himself, then lightly fried. The consistency is like a sticky kakanin, even with a glutinous mochi texture, but with no flavor, making it the ideal component to round off a meal. There is also amala, another cassava dish that is whiter in color, and made with a different process, making it drier, and more similar to rice or dried coconut. This is the basis of our meal.
Tee tells us that we will be eating kamayan-style today. “You eat with your hands because your hands can’t deceive you.” With this, he takes a formidable chunk of the garri, and rather than putting the sauces and food on it like we would, he dips it into the broth of the soup he made us. The stew which combines fish, pork trotters, chicken, beef skin, and tripe, is steeped with only tomatoes and chilies, with the natural oils of the meats providing the only source of fat. It is stewed in a large pot, with the purpose of providing for a large family, or community. It is a shared experience, a personal one, where you are closer to the food and to the earth because of the way you are eating.
He gives us a bowl each of something that looks a little inconspicuous. Tee explains that almost every dish in African cuisine is spicy, or flavored with it, and this unassuming dish will be full of it. I love spice and put hot sauce on almost everything I eat, but Thomas and Kimi are a little wary. We have vegetables cooked with fresh siling labuyo, and a mix of betel leaf and sesame that is also chock full of heat. It is warming and welcoming, but can be intimidating to some. We are served a plate of sweet ground okra, and another of brewed saluyot, which we are meant to combine with the vegetables in order to cool the heat. Dipping our pieces of garri into the mix, we are surprised at how delicious this all tastes. You often think of vegetarian food as unexciting and bland, but this is the opposite of that. The varying levels of heat are incredibly new to the palate, with the flavors mixing in a way you have never thought was possible before. There is depth in the betel leaf, maybe a little herbal or medicinal, but the garlic with it is rich, and the sesame tones it down with its inherent nuttiness. The textures are complex too, the okra’s sliminess somehow perfect with the softness of the leaves, and the stickiness of the cassava.
After our meal, Tee shows us the betel leaf plant he is growing on the property, a bright spot of green set across the ramshackle carwash. This is for the diabetes we are prone to have because of our sweet diet, but Tee has wiser words. “This, this will cure whatever ailment you have. It will know.” He takes a handful of leaves and juices them in the most primitive of ways, taking the bushel and rubbing their green fronds against each other until they are nothing but liquid. The juice is a bright, intense viridian, and he strains it, challenging us to drink. This will cleanse our bodies, he says, and we can use natural honey to sweeten it, but the purity will be lost. So we do, almost choking at how concentrated the grassy quality of it is. But it transforms, just like Tee told us it would, becoming sickeningly sweet at the back of our throats. It is an entirely new sensation for me.
So what is African food? From our experience with Tee, it is simple but transformative, with the holistic being in mind with every dish prepared. Everything is made with spice, not just for flavor, but because it is good for the palate. Freshness is key, because this means the food is at the premium quality. Medicinal herbs and plants are used because they enhance both the experience and your body. Before we leave Tee tells us to knock back another sip of the betel leaf’s juice. “Call me tomorrow. Tell me if you have healed.”
Have you ever had African food? What cuisine have you yet to try? Start the conversation below!
Iskayt African Restaurant
Address: Dreis Car Wash, Vatican City Drive, BF Resort, Paranaque