What do Americans know about Nigeria? Not much, to be frank, and sadly enough, a lot of it isn’t good. Beyond internet scammers with wacky schemes and Boko Haram terrorists, what do we know?
The most populous country in Africa, whose Yoruba culture goes back more than 1,000 years, and one of the world’s top producers of oil, Nigeria boasts coastal cities with glittering office towers and luxury living for the 1 percent. On the other hand, about 70 percent of Nigerians live in extreme poverty.
In other words, it sounds a little bit like Donald Trump’s America! But let’s not go there today. Let’s focus instead on the warm and friendly people of a tropical nation with a hearty cuisine that’s well worth discovering.
Which brings us to Funmi Aderinokun and her crew, who’ve made Funmi’s Restaurant a welcoming place for the rest of us to discover Nigerian food and Nigerian hospitality since they came to Louisville in 2010.
Sunny light yellow, bright pumpkin and pale lavender walls give the small room a tropical feel, with attractive undraped blue-gray tables and a mix of black dinette chairs and simple wooden chairs. Unframed pictures of African scenes add splashes of color. Simple white stoneware plates and flatware wrapped in paper napkins set the tables.
Beverages include Coke products, tea, coffee and lemonade, but you really should try something more African, as long as you’re sampling Nigerian goodies. Maltina, a sort of nonalcoholic African beer, is $2.50, but I recommend zobo (also $2.50), a tart-sweet and tangy Nigerian herb tea that may be served hot or cold. It’s good either way.
Funmi’s menu offers a good, quick introduction to the world of Nigerian cuisine. Happily, the menu clearly explains the ingredients in each dish, and Funmi and our friendly, helpful server, Lumi, are happy to go into more detail.
It’s a surprisingly extensive bill of fare, covering six menu pages, two of which offer entirely vegetarian and some vegan options. There are about 30 entrées, subdivided by the type of starch — and that requires some introduction, as fufu (a staple African dish of yam flour, cassava, corn flour and oat flour); asaro (a mash of potato, plantain and kale); tomato-filled jollof rice, African brown beans, and tuwo (a sort of corn flour mush) aren’t going to be familiar to most of us. All the entrées are closely clustered in price between $12.99 and $16.99.
The Nigerian appetizer combo plate ($9.99) offers a great way to get started, with generous samples of four Nigerian goodies that you probably never heard of: moin-moin, a round, fluffy bean cake with a haunting African-spice flavor, topped with mild red tomato-based “fried sauce”; ewa ati dodo, tender brown beans elevated by a savory, lightly salty sauce with crisp fried sweet-plantain cubes; and a gift from India to Africa, a sambusa, a crisp pastry triangle filled with your choice of spicy chopped chicken, beef or green lentils.
Goat meat is a hard sell to many American palates, but it doesn’t get much better than you’ll have it here with asaro and kachumbari slaw ($16.99). The halal goat meat was excellent: Not gristly and bony but good-sized, mostly boneless 2- by 3-inch chunks of tender meat, a few with bone on, juicy and gently gamy as goat should be, a step up from lamb but appropriate for the meat. A mild, deep-red, long-cooked tomato sauce accented and did not diminish the flavor of the goat.
We had a little harder time warming up to its accompanying potato-plantain-kale mash called asaro, not for any real flaw, but because it seemed almost dessert-sweet to our American palates. The kachumbari was sweet, too, but that seemed more in place in a slaw that wasn’t all that unfamiliar: Crisp chopped green and red cabbage, onion and flat-leaf parsley were bathed in a sweet, lemony vinaigrette.
Another main dish, mushroom peanut-tomato stew ($12.99, plus $1.50 for the addition of spinach), is a thick, reddish-brown, lumpy stew with strands of long-cooked spinach in it, accompanied by a mound of tuwo, a thick ball of white cornflour meal vaguely reminiscent of very thick polenta. It tastes delicious. The stew incorporates tender, thick-cut mushroom slices simmered with tomatoes, peanut butter and shredded greens until it’s thick and savory, kicked up with level-three fiery spice. Tasted alone, the tuwo seems as bland as unsalted, unbuttered grits. But drop it into your stew, and suddenly you see how it works.
A complimentary plate of puff-puffs, a powdered-sugar-dipped Nigerian fried pastry much like beignets, wrapped up an excellent meal with leftovers, and our toll was a very reasonable $50 or so for two, plus a $10 tip.