On a map, Africa seems far, far away. Sit in an African restaurant on Kenmore Avenue and chat about the finer points of Ghananian red-red while you tuck into fufu and the revelations of jollof rice, and Africa seems more like just another seat at humankind’s table.
We all want a satisfying meal cooked from real ingredients – glorified by careful cooking – that fortifies, sustains and delights. Buffalo’s restaurants are a fine place to ponder how much our hunger has in common.
Patrick Agyapong and Ophelia Amponsah, born in Ghana, opened their restaurant on Kenmore Avenue last year. Yalley’s African Restaurant is a roomy place, quiet as a library, which is appropriate, given its role as an excellent place to study up on African cuisine.
Ghana, on the western side of Africa, is the 13th African nation ranked by population, with about 31 million people. While many of the dishes on Yalley’s menu can be found across Africa by name, local variations abound, with Buffalo-wing-level pride applied to local versions. The simplest way to start an argument in a roomful of Africans is to declare which nation has the best jollof rice.
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That’s because jollof rice is a magnificent dish, which skilled cooks can coax into soulful chords of spice and heat worthy of standing ovations. Rice comes out almost dry, each grain jacketed in seasonings that unfold to reveal deeper permutations with each bite.
Yalley’s Ghanaian version is served with salad, chicken, beef or fish, and a thick red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles and ginger. Chicken ($18) is skinless drumsticks fried simply, no coating. Until a Nigerian opens a restaurant in Buffalo, it’s the undisputed champion of Buffalo jollof rice.
Fufu with peanut soup ($19) was the dish that first made clear to me that I needed to learn more about Ghanaian cuisine. I’ve made soup with peanut butter before, myself, but this bowl made clear to me I had been headed down the wrong track.
When I met Yalley’s peanut soup on a frigid January night, I found myself stunned by how the old familiar peanut was coaxed into the base of a soup that rewarded slow, contemplative spooning. Hacked up bone-in chicken provides more sustenance, but the star is the broth, which puts peanut flavor first, so that you don’t miss the added sugar you’ve been trained to expect from peanut butter.
Then there was fufu. Cassava or yam roots are boiled and pounded, then rolled into balls, producing white stuff that’s like Play-Doh. You can just use your spoon and scoop some up like gluey mashed potatoes. Or you can use your hands, pull off a chunk, flatten it in your hand, and use it to scoop up food, in the manner of a scarpetta or Ethiopian injera.
It’s amiable, filling and gently tasty. There’s another doughy specialty called banku, made of slightly fermented corn or cassava dough ($20-$25 with choice of protein) that I’ll get stuck into next time. Banku and okra stew ($25) is a classic Ghanian pairing that’s offered on Kenmore Avenue.
Other choices for accompaniment besides peanut soup include chicken pepper soup, egushi soup – which is made from melon seeds – goat pepper soup ($22), and palmnut soup.
Palmnut oil is the favorite fat of West Africa, and the world’s most popular vegetable oil. In Ghana, black-eyed peas simmered in seasoned palmnut oil is a prized dish called “red-red” for the scarlet oil and chiles brightening up its countenance. The result is rich, creamy and heartwarming, devastatingly effective vegan cooking. Fried plantains and beans (red-red) with beef, chicken or fried tilapia ($18-25) are one of Yalley’s signature pleasures.
Astounding discoveries included marinated fried turkey tails called tsofi ($16) that celebrate the best bite of Thanksgiving: the bird’s fatty, skin-clad butt crisped up the oven, the cook’s secret reward. In Ghana, cooks season turkey tails, fry them and dust them with more spices, like a spice rubbed chicken wing, but more decadent.
That said, Yalley’s does consider vegetarians. Four entrees ($15-$22) include boiled yams, boiled plantains, spinach stew, bean stew and boiled eggs.
Speaking as a not particularly well-traveled American, the strangest thing to me about African food was how normal it was. I walked in expecting exotic, incomprehensible mixes of flavor and texture, but found the opposite: comfort food in another tongue, meeting and sating my hunger like an old friend.
Instead of finding myself overwhelmed with exotica, I left Yalley’s thinking about which friends I would invite there next, to get in on the goodness.
As I would invite all of you: Get off your couches. Put down the remote. Live a little. Join the big table of genius cooking from all over the globe that we are so fortunate to find, right here at home.
Yalley’s African Restaurant
290 Kenmore Ave., 716-322-1012
Hours: noon to midnight Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 2 a.m. Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday.
Prices: soups, $9.50-$10.50; meals, $13-$25.
Atmosphere: quiet satisfaction
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: fufu, plantains, fried fish.
Here’s a look at Yalleys African Restaurant on Kenmore Avenue in Buffalo.
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