At Nigerian Eatery Saaris, America Is Turning to Fufu!
Saaris is a cheerful Nigerian restaurant at the southern end of Inglewood's Market Street district, a storefront across the street from the big post office, three steps down, with African art on the walls. CNN blares from the television set mounted in the corner. Every table sports a quart jug of Maggi seasoning, so that the customers can improve on the bouillon exuberances of Saaris' complicated stews with a few drops of their own. On weekend nights, the restaurant fills up fast. The cooking is very, very slow. You will wait for your edikang ikong, no matter how hungry you are for simmered greens.
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Little yummy fufu: Pinch off a bit, roll it into a ball and graze it through a bowl of stew.
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Steam heat: Lunchtime at Saaris
The cuisine is nominally that of the Igbo, in the southeast of Nigeria, which means that the egusi stew automatically comes with spinach, the chicken stew is fortified with tomato, there is dried crawfish ground up in almost everything, and isi-ewu, the famous Igbo dish of goat's-head soup, is at least technically on the menu. The customers come from almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and some of the staff hail from places such as Kenya and Tanzania. At lunchtime it is not unusual to hear half a dozen dialects being spoken, with the common word these days being "Obama." The motto on Saaris' business cards reads, "America Is Turning to FuFu," which is a fairly compelling campaign slogan. If the senator needs to court the naturalized-West African vote, he might want to give it a try.
Fufu, the doughy starch that makes up a lot of the bulk at Saaris, comes in many guises here, including garri, eba and freshly pounded yam, but the basic model — the one you get if you just ask for fufu — is essentially mashed cassava, a lump of the stuff the size of a loaf of unbaked bread, that is slightly shiny, slightly sticky, a little in the direction of Play-Doh. If you want to eat like a West African, you pinch off a bit, roll it into a ball with your fingers, and then graze it through a bowl of stew before you maneuver it toward your mouth. (If you've had sticky rice in a Thai restaurant, you get the idea.) Fufu isn't much by itself — it tastes a little like instant mashed potatoes, actually — but tempered with stewed bitter leaf or okra, it makes at least as much sense as a handful of pita bread or a scrap of Ethiopian injera. Between bites, you can rinse your fingers in a big bowl of warm water that comes along with the meals here, and dry them on a napkin. Nobody will look twice if you decide to go with a spoon instead.
Saaris makes an excellent version of the West African pilaf called jollof, rice cooked with tomatoes and herbs and stock, and an even better rice cooked with coin-size slices of fresh ginger. The plain rice that comes with the spicy chicken stew is excellent. The house special is a dish of boiled plantains served with spicy greens and a bony, juicy slab of cod. (Saaris will add smoked fish or ultrastinky stockfish to any stew for a hefty $25, but the addition of the fresh cod usually involves a mere $3 supplement.) There is theoretically a grilled sula kebab with rice, which sounds pretty good, but I have never managed to show up on a day when it was available. The delicious bean porridge, made with long-cooked black-eyed peas, is always the first dish to disappear from the table.
But whatever you choose, you will get fufu. And with your fufu, you will get a soup, which is more or less a vegetable stew enriched, if you like, with boiled chicken, chunks of beef, or goat chewy enough to loosen half your fillings — peanut soup, spicy pepper soup, or stewed bitterleaf, which sounds more alarming than it tastes. Equsi, the most popular West African stew, is a spicy, startlingly tasty dish of spinach cooked with chiles and the coarsely ground seeds of a West African melon — the crunchy snap of the seeds may remind you of boiled almonds. The okra stew is fresh, vibrant and unbelievably gooey.
Ogbono, enriched with the powdered seeds of a kind of mango, has a profound burnt-tire smokiness to it. Ogbono is a thickener so effective that stray drips of soup snap back up to the underside of the spoon as if they had been magnetized. If you happen to slop some out of the bowl, it might bounce off the table. I suspect ogbono is to Nigerian soups what file powder is to gumbo, the ancestor of the soup fortifier that sits on every Southern Louisianan shelf, but there is a power to it that I have never tasted in the American version, and a sneaky, smoky heat starts dancing around the back of your throat after the third bite or so. I'm not sure I crave ogbono — I'm not sure I'd even want to see it on my table again — but it's something that should be tasted at least once.
Saaris, 307 E. Hillcrest Blvd., Inglewood, (310) 671-8594. Mon.-Thurs. noon-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. noon-10 p.m. Beer and palm wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40. Recommended dishes: egusi, black-eyed peas.
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