Africans were immigrating to the United States long before the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, but that act triggered a surge in new arrivals from Africa. Nigeria and Ethiopia contributed by far the largest numbers of those immigrating, but thousands came from more than a dozen other, often sub-Saharan countries. Many were educated and successful and were seeking greater opportunities and freedom in the United States. Many others came to escape wars that swept across so much of Africa. As warfare increased, the Refugee Act of 1980 opened the door wider. By 2010, more than 1.6 million Africa-born immigrants had arrived.
These immigrants from Africa came prepared to share their cultures and cuisines. Ethiopian chef Desta Bairu moved to Chicago in 1984 and opened Mama Desta’s Red Sea on Clark Street. For many of us, this was our first experience of Ethiopian food, but it would not be our last. We would learn to eat food with our hands and crave the complexities of this remarkable cuisine. More Ethiopian restaurants opened. Not all would last, and even though Mama Desta’s eventually closed, Ethiopian food was here to stay.
My current favorite is Demera Ethiopian Restaurant (4801 North Broadway), but all Ethiopian restaurants have basics in common, including injera, the foundation of every meal eaten in Ethiopia. Injera is a large, spongy sourdough pancake made of tef, a type of millet indigenous to that country. Food is both served on and eaten with injera, with pieces of soft brown bread used to scoop up savory stews of meat, seafood, pulses and greens. Most food is cooked in niter kibbeh, Ethiopia’s traditional spiced, clarified butter. One thing that makes Ethiopian food easy to sample is that family-style dining is traditional. Choosing a platter that serves two allows you to pick three meat items and three vegetable items of the many listed on the menu, or you can opt for all vegetables. [Editor’s note: we featured a deep dive into Demera and owner Tigist Reda in a 2020 story].
Doro wot (also often spelled wat), chicken cooked in a red pepper paste known as berbere, is among Ethiopia’s most popular dishes. My single favorite dish may be gomen: collard greens cooked in niter kibbeh, with onions, garlic and ginger. Menus provide a general description of dishes, so even when the names of the dishes are unfamiliar, one can readily identify preferred foods: greens, split yellow peas, lamb, beef, seafood, chicken, all cooked in complex sauces, (I’m a big fan of Alicha sauce: onions, garlic, turmeric.) You won’t go wrong with any of the offerings, though depending on your preferences, you might want to watch for items marked spicy or meat served raw (kitfo).
There are multiple options to sample this and other African culinary traditions in Chicago, and a quick search will turn up newer restaurants or places nearer to you. Often, when you search for Ethiopian, you will also find Eritrean cuisine. Before gaining independence in 1993, Eritrea was controlled by neighboring Ethiopia, so the food is similar, though not identical. If you know Ethiopian, you’ll be at home with Eritrean.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are in East Africa, where cuisine was influenced by, among other things, Arab and Indian trade routes. In West Africa, the introduction by Europeans of foods from the Americas was more than just an influence. Cassava from South America is said to have made possible the population growth in Africa. Sweet potatoes were also introduced, which is worth noting because some Americans call them yams, but actual yams, which are unrelated to sweet potatoes, are from Africa. Both appear on many African menus.
Our tour of West Africa begins in Senegal with Yassa (3511 South King). The name of the restaurant is a good guide to what to order—chicken, fish or lamb yassa. This is a classic Senegalese dish in which the protein of your choice is marinated overnight, grilled and smothered in a flavorful sauce of onion, garlic, mustard and lemon. Garlic and lemon juice feature in many dishes. Sides are food items found throughout West Africa, especially djolof rice (spelled jollof in some countries); rice cooked with tomatoes, onions and spices, fried plantains, and fufu (yam, plantain or cassava paste). I love the food, but two special treats that I always look forward to at Yassa are beverages: ginger juice (zippy) and baobab juice (rich and milky). The staff is friendly, but because Senegalese culture is all about leisurely dining and community, make sure you don’t go if you’re in a rush.
Bisi African Restaurant (853 South Roselle Road, Schaumburg) takes us to Nigeria. This cuisine offers both familiar West African fare and wonderful surprises. My favorite discovery was an ingredient I had not encountered elsewhere: African honey bean. This appeared in an outstanding vegetarian appetizer called Moi Moi, which transforms steamed honey beans with onions and peppers into a cake. The beans appeared again in a main course: beans and corn porridge. Unless one wishes to be vegetarian, main courses come with a choice of chicken, beef, goat or whitefish. I picked goat, which was wonderful. The beef kabobs, another appetizer, were outstanding. The usual suspects are also on hand: jollof rice, fried plantains and fufu, made here with yam. Because dessert is not part of African culture, none is offered. The restaurant is elegant and service is gracious, but that said, they are still focusing on carryout, post pandemic. Call before you go to make sure they have reopened for dining.
Palace Gate Restaurant (4548 North Magnolia) offers the food of Ghana. Its menu clearly targets Ghanaian nationals, not visitors, and so it reflects this cuisine’s place in the culture. It is food that is traditionally made at home, not in restaurants. I was fortunate enough to go with someone who knew Ghana, and having a guide helped with the culture as well, such as the absence of prices on the menu, with charges determined by quantities eaten. There is lots to love, but some things benefit from guidance. For example, kenkey, an incredibly sour paste of fermented corn, is challenging, but dip it into the accompanying tomato and onion gravy, and it is transformed, with the flavors combining and complementing each other splendidly. Beef kabobs are delicious, as is jollof rice. These, along with fried fish or chicken, make an easy entry into the cuisine. Most other dishes offered are soups and stews, generally eaten by dipping a starchy accompaniment, such as fufu or rice balls, into the soup. We enjoyed peanut soup and palm nut soup, then moved on to RedRed (a stew of black-eyed peas, served with fried plantains), and Palava sauce (a stew made with tomato, onion, eggs and greens). Okra stew is said to be the dish by which a bride is judged, but it can be challenging; great flavor, though the texture is mucilaginous. The staff is delightful and eager to help, so ask for advice—and expect to enjoy yourself.
Nearly sixty years have passed since immigration laws made this connection with older African traditions so accessible. While this influx has, of course, enriched our lives on many levels, the foods of these more recent African Americans is an easy way for us to remember that our horizons always have places to expand, even at home.