Fork in Nigeria Truck, left, and a red snapper and plantains from Maty’s Restaurant.
With 54 countries, 3,000 different ethnic groups and an estimated 900 to 1,500 different languages, the continent of Africa is composed of many different layers and its foods are as diverse as its people. From east to west, cuisines can differ, but the true taste of Africa is available with every bite.
Opened in 2020, Fork in Nigeria began as a food truck, but is growing its reach by word-of-mouth. Serving up traditional and authentic Nigerian dishes, the restaurant reflects the more than 250 ethnic groups in the country.
“There’s nothing like what we do and it’s something I’ve always wanted to bring. I realized that most African restaurants usually term themselves as African/Caribbean. In reality, there is really nothing like that because it’s not the same food, though the cultures may be the same,” says chef Prej Iroegbu, owner of Fork in Nigeria. “So, most people, especially from Western Africa, try to cook a little bit of everybody’s food. I do not consider that authentic. I said to myself I have to bring what I know, which is Nigeria.”
Bringing its flavors to the states, the owner says Detroiters have begun to appreciate the foods African chefs and restaurateurs are offering.
“Detroiters are supporting African food 1,000 percent. Detroit has been deprived of a lot of things. Detroit is a good market,” says chef Iroegbu. “Most of our business has come from word-of-mouth, people going on Facebook. Since opening, we’ve been able to get four trucks and expand to two states. That’s how much appreciation the city has had for our cuisine.”
Stigmas surrounding African cuisines deters some from sampling its rich flavors. Often doing away with eating utensils, some dishes require the use of finders. Fufu, the restaurant’s most popular dish, went viral on a popular social media app. The ‘fufu challenge’ encouraged users to seek out the popular Nigerian and Ghanaian dish.
“One person who is a TikTok star came to our truck, ate our food, put it out there online and people started trying it,” says Iroegbu.
More than a social media stance, the viral challenge helped to expose a new demographic to West African foods.
“Fufu wasn’t the most popular dish when I started. African food has never gotten popular. People associate Italian food with elegance. They associate Greek food with flavor. People still think African food stinks,” says chef Iroegbu.
Both East and West African dishes vary on the flavor palette. On the opposite end of the continent, East African foods include countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and others. Where West African dishes use many different varieties of meat, rice and beans, East African cuisine is cooked with many vegetables and grain varieties.
“The seasonings and the rice because West Africans love rice more and the seasonings are totally different. We like meat and fish in West Africa. East Africa likes beans and stuff like that,” says Senegalese owner of Maty’s Restaurant, Amady Gueye.
Maty’s Restaurant specializes in West African cuisine. Specifically serving food from the country of Senegal, the restaurant has been open since 2016 and sits in the heart of the city’s west side on Grand River. Traditional meals like Mafee, a spicy stew, DeeBee, a dish of lamb chops and onion, and Chicken Yassa are all on the menu which also includes fish options.
Baobab Fare is Detroit’s first restaurant offering eats from East Africa. Owners Nadia Nijimbere and Hamissi Mamba fled Burundi in 2014 for America. The opportunity to open the first of its kind restaurant came as the husband-and-wife duo lived in Freedom House, a temporary home in Detroit for indigent survivors across the world seeking asylum. Now, the restaurant sits in the middle of a resilient city as proof of tenacity for the couple.
In addition to the restaurant, Baobab Fare is also a market and juice bar. It also sells groceries and other retail products from East Africa. The restaurant opened in April of 2021.