Originally from a small town in Iowa, Charles Bibilos was awestruck by the culinary wonders of New York City after moving to the Big Apple in 2009. In his own words, New York is “Indian biryani, Salvadorean huaraches, Belgian waffles, and Taiwanese dumpling all from trucks on the street.” To date, Charles has eaten food from 129 out of 160 countries, including many cuisines from across Africa. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke with Charles about his culinary adventures and his experiences with African cuisine through his blog United Nations of Food. Help Charles complete his food tour of Africa by tweeting him restaurant suggestions with the hashtag #UNFoodxAyiba.
What used to be your go-to cuisine outside of standard American fare? Has that go-to changed since you started United Nations of Food?
I’ve always had an inexplicable love affair with international food, and my go-to cuisine has never really been American. Even as a kid in small-town Iowa, I loved to go to Chinese restaurants and order the spiciest thing on the menu, since that was pretty much the only ethnic cuisine we had in our town back then, unless you count Taco Bell. I’m sure that the restaurant owners thought that I was hilarious – a runty, white, Iowa kid asking for extra-spicy food must have been the funniest thing ever.
Since then, my go-to cuisine has always been whatever interesting and delicious food I could find in my neighborhood. In San Francisco, it was Mexican, Burmese, and Vietnamese. In Washington, DC, the Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants were incredible. In Chicago, I mostly ate Middle Eastern and Korean food. In New York, there are so many amazing options that I don’t really have a “go-to” anymore. I just eat everything, all the time.
In a related development, I might have grown a few extra chins since starting this project.
Can you describe African food in three words?
Hearty, honest, and underappreciated. African food is never pretentious, it’s rarely dainty, and far too few non-Africans know about it.
On your blog, you noted that many African restaurants across NYC tend to use the term “African” rather than specifically noting their ethnic origin (e.g. Ghanaian, Senegalese, South African, etc.) Why do you think that is?
I’ve always wondered that, and I’m not sure that I have a good answer. Part of it is that many African chefs do prepare foods from multiple countries, so “African” might actually be more accurate than naming just one country. The bigger reason could be that restaurateurs assume that Americans might not have any idea what Guinean or Ghanaian food is, but we’ve heard of Africa, so we might decide to stop in. I can’t blame the restaurants for doing this – it’s true that Americans don’t often know much about the geography or culture or cuisine of Africa, and that’s a shame.
But I do sometimes wish that African restaurants would aggressively market their national cuisines, partly because it would be great for national and regional cuisines to get some richly deserved attention, and partly because I have a fantasy that it might help snap us out of our ignorance in this country. Far too many Americans think that Africa is a single country, and far too many Americans think of Africa as some sort of impoverished, dangerous wasteland. It’s not restaurateurs’ job to fix Americans’ ignorance about Africa, but food can be a gateway for learning about other parts of the world. If a good meal inspires us to learn more about individual African countries, I think that’s a good thing.
Which were the two easiest African cuisines to find in New York?
Probably Ethiopian and Senegalese. Ethiopian is almost always the easiest African cuisine to find in American cities, and New York happens to have a ton of great Senegalese chefs. We’re also blessed to have plenty of other African options, though, probably more than any other American city. I wish we had more, because I still can’t find food from about twenty African countries (and would love some help finding them!). But by American standards, we’re really fortunate here.
What regional similarities and/or differences in African cuisine did you observe?
I feel terrible making broad generalizations, since there’s so much culinary variety both within and among African nations, but I suppose that most North African restaurants (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, etc.) share some common elements – many serve variations on couscous and tajine and hummus and babaganoush, for example. But each country obviously has its own flavors and dishes. (Incidentally, I would happily sacrifice a toe for the pleasure of eating the preserved-lemon chicken from Harissa Café, a now-defunct Algerian restaurant in Astoria, and I hope that Chef Halim is still working his magic somewhere in the world.)
We can say the same about Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants – there are definitely some delicious differences between the cuisines, but most Americans would see injera and lamb and lentils and greens on the menu, and assume that the two cuisines are basically the same.
Nearly all of the West African (Senegalese, Liberian, Ivorian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Guinean, etc.) restaurants in NYC simply call themselves “African” or “West African,” but West Africa is one of the richest culinary regions in the world, and it’s hard to boil the cuisine down to a few common elements. I can usually count on New York’s West African restaurants for great rice dishes (who doesn’t love jolof rice, for example?), some delicious stewed greens, a great version of okra (one of my favorite foods!), plenty of spice, and some variation on fufu. But again, I know that we’re just scratching the surface here in the U.S., and I’m sure that I don’t actually know much about the variety of flavors in West Africa, let alone the rest of the continent. And, of course, we have a tragic shortage of southern and eastern African restaurants in the U.S., but that’s a separate issue.
Did anything surprise you about your experiences with African food?
I honestly didn’t know much about African food before I started this project – like many Americans, I had eaten Ethiopian and Eritrean and Moroccan food, but that’s about it. So I knew that I’d learn a lot, and encounter plenty of new flavors and textures and ingredients. There are always surprises when you learn new things, and that’s the fun part! But I guess I’m not surprised that I’ve been surprised, if that makes any sense at all.
The only other real surprise is that I’ve enjoyed a few things that initially scared me a little bit. For example, people never eat tripe or organ meat or any type of offal where I grew up. We ate pretty filets of chicken, beef, and pork that came in nice plastic-wrapped packages. But a deliciously seasoned plate of tripe can be absolutely phenomenal. I developed a taste for it over the past few years, somewhat to my surprise.
What is your favorite African cuisine? Any particular dish?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. I’ve eaten so many amazing African dishes, and it’s impossible to pick a single favorite. I can say that my favorite African food experience was when a wonderful Malawian friend prepared a meal of nsima (white cornmeal) and ndiwo (in this case, stewed beef with tomatoes, greens, and onions) for us – it was such a pleasure to help him out in the kitchen and see how the food was prepared. And it was absolutely delicious, even though the ingredients were simple. You just can’t beat the experience of an artfully prepared, home-cooked African meal! It’s always somehow more special than going to even the best restaurant. I also loved the United Nations African Mothers Association fundraisers – always a mind-blowing variety of excellent, home-cooked African food. And the only way I’ll ever finish the project is if I find more people who are willing to prepare home-cooked African food. So I’m excited about that part, though I could use some help finding more African cooks who are willing be featured on my website!
How’s your tolerance for spice?
I might get myself into trouble with this, but I absolutely love spicy food, and by American standards, my spice tolerance is pretty impressive. My friends at a Lao restaurant in NYC call me “spicy boy,” because I’m the only white American guy they’ve seen who can eat food that’s genuinely “Lao spicy.” But by the standards of parts of Africa, I might still be a complete wimp. I do remember battling a hot pepper at an Ivoirian restaurant in Brooklyn; the pepper won. It was a fun fight, though, and the meal was delicious.
What similarities did you notice between African food and foods of the African diaspora (e.g. “soul food” in the US, Brazilian food, Caribbean food, etc.)?
Great question – I’m not sure where to start! So many of the great foods of the Americas have roots in Africa, and you can see it in the flavors and the cooking style throughout the United States and the Caribbean and parts of South America. Even the cooking technique behind American fried chicken (e.g. Kentucky Fried Chicken) was brought from Africa centuries ago, even though it’s been “Americanized” over the years. Colonel Sanders made a fortune on African-inspired food, he just didn’t want to admit it!
One thing that particularly stands out to me is that every community in the African diaspora seems to have an absolutely delicious way of preparing greens – collard greens or mustard greens or callaloo or cassava leaves or something similar. There’s enormous variety from region to region, but I know that whenever I meet a chef from Sierra Leone or Ethiopia or Trinidad or Brazil or Madagascar or the American South, he or she will work some magic with greens. And considering that I literally ate my mother’s houseplants when I was a toddler, there are few things that make me happier than a flavorful plate of greens.
What are the top five African restaurants that you visited?
It’s so hard to pick! I agonized over this list for way too long, and I still feel like I’m leaving too much out… but here’s my best shot, including a couple of favorites outside of NYC:
- Nigerian: Buka in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Whenever I meet somebody who has never tried West African food, I take them here. The restaurant has a great atmosphere, and I especially love the moi moi.
- Ghanaian: Accra Restaurant in Morris Heights, Bronx. A favorite of NYC taxi drivers – huge, flavorful portions. One of my favorite places for tripe and greens.
- Liberian: Maima’s Liberian Bistro in Jamaica, Queens. This was the first West African restaurant I’d ever visited, and I loved it. The spicy banana bread is a work of genius.
- Eritrean: Dahlak, on U Street in Washington, DC. Always my first stop when I’m in DC.
- South African: Jozi’s Kitchen & Shabeen, in Denver, Colorado. Oxtail, boerwoers, and other well-executed South African classics, served from a tiny tin hut at a weekly outdoor festival called the Big Wonderful.
What have you learned in the process of working on this blog?
For starters, I’ve learned that I desperately want to see more African food in the U.S. Once I actually started spending tons of time trying to find food from every African country, I realized how much we’re missing. Other than South African, Ethiopian, and Eritrean food, we don’t have any restaurants serving eastern or southern Africa in New York, and there aren’t many elsewhere in the U.S., either. I can’t think of any other region of the world that is so poorly represented in the U.S. dining scene.
But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I’m not a food critic, and I absolutely never want to be one. Food writing in the United States is often critical and competitive in some way – it’s as if writers compete to see who can eat “the best” food, or who can be the most pretentious or exacting or harsh critic.
It took me a couple of years of blogging to figure this out, but I learned that I want my food writing to be fun, and not critical or evaluative. I just want to celebrate the amazing diasporas that come together in NYC, and the incredible people who come to the United States, bringing their food cultures with them. I know that people sometimes read food blogs to find out if a certain restaurant is “good” or not, and I suppose that I’m obligated to be honest if I’ve had a bad experience somewhere. But I stopped enjoying the critical part a long time ago. I just want to share stories about the great food, fascinating neighborhoods, and wonderful people who come to New York and pour love into their cooking.