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One Night in Lagos

Luke Tsai | January 7, 2019 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Simileoluwa Adebajo says she knows Nigeria doesn’t have the best reputation here in the United States—that if Americans speak of her ancestral homeland at all, it’s to crack a joke about the Nigerian prince email scam or to lament the country’s status as the literal poverty capital of the world. How many people know that Nigerians are the most highly educated immigrant group in America? How many have experienced the pleasures of a home-cooked Nigerian meal—the tender slow-cooked stews that put every part of the animal to use, the soups so addictively spicy they’ll leave you drenched in sweat?

Like so many expat cooks before her, homesick for the foods of their childhood, Adebajo took things into her own hands: In July, the 23-year-old San Francisco-based financial analyst started making big batches of suya chicken kebabs and jollof rice on the weekends to sell via Postmates and Uber Eats. A few months later, she launched what she hopes will be a series of monthly pop-ups at SoMa’s Joint Venture Kitchen. (Next up is a lunchtime event Sun., Jan. 20.) Adebajo called her fledgling business Eko Kitchen. It is, to her knowledge, the first Nigerian food business in the city—one that allows her to share the dishes she grew up eating, but also to cast Nigerian culture as a whole in a much more positive light.

“For me, it’s more than just allowing somebody to taste the food,” Adebajo says. “It’s giving my country and culture a new face.”

You might say the chef herself is a kind of living, breathing testament to Nigerian excellence: Adebajo graduated college when she was 19 and finished her master’s in international and developmental economics from the University of San Francisco as the youngest in her class. Barely half a year out of school, she spends four days a week crunching data sets for the tech company Twitch; shifts gears on Friday and devotes every weekend to running Eko Kitchen as a one-woman operation; and at her first in-person pop-up, a three-hour, five-course feast held on a Saturday night in November, served such a well-polished and satisfying dinner that guests burst into spontaneous applause several times over the course of the meal.

In many ways, Adebajo sees herself as a kind of cultural ambassador, translating dishes from the years she lived in Lagos to make her pop-ups a bit more accessible to the mainstream, non-Nigerian customer than, perhaps, the small handful of existing Nigerian mom-and-pops in the East Bay. And Adebajo is uniquely qualified to bridge that gap: Born and raised in the Bronx, she moved to Lagos with her family when she was 7 and went through all the growing pains you might imagine that would entail—kids at school making fun of her accent; the food being, at times, physically painful to eat because it was so much spicier than what the typical American palate can tolerate.

That’s why, although Adebajo has since cultivated a taste for fiendishly spicy food, the version of goat meat pepper soup she served at her November pop-up was, in her estimation, maybe 60 percent as fiery as what she would make just for herself—hot enough to clear your sinuses, but unlikely to burn a hole in your stomach. It’s why she started the night with a rum-spiked version of the beloved Nigerian drink known as the Chapman, so that guests wouldn’t think of the event as some quaint foreign meal, but, instead, would get a taste of what it’d be like to go out for a night on the town in Lagos—a night of cocktails, Afrobeat rhythms and charcoal-grilled meat skewers.

By any measure, Adebajo’s food is delicious enough to do justice to the recipes she learned by watching her aunts and grandmothers back in Nigeria, and interesting enough that any novice to the cuisine is likely to find delight in a new spectrum of flavors. At the November pop-up, there were puff-puffs, balls of savory fried dough, that Adebajo suggested we dip in a palm oil-based black hot sauce infused with a briny hit of crayfish powder—complex and near-impossible to stop eating, even as it set my tongue on fire. There was that pepper soup, as iconic a dish as there is in a Nigerian cook’s repertoire, the heat and subtle muskiness of which were ideal complements to some of the most tender goat meat you’ll ever encounter. And there was ayamase sauce, a savory, ginger-scented stew of green peppers and assorted beef parts, including tripe and skin, both cooked to uncommon softness, all served with a mound of tomato-tinged jollof rice.

Adebajo explains it’s a dish that was invented by a woman from her family’s hometown of Ikenne-Remo, and if a good portion of the guests at the pop-up hadn’t heard of it before, odds are high they’ll be seeking it out the next time they go out for Nigerian. And would that be so much of a stretch? “I’m not just making this food so Nigerian people here can have Nigerian food to eat,” Adebajo says. “Why not invite a mixed crowd to a Nigerian restaurant?”

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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