Mouth, Africa

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Excellent, albeit low-key, African restaurants have been in our midst for years, but it seems that mainstream diners needed a high-profile ambassador to draw their attention to the continent’s exhilarating flavors. At Pan-African newcomer Merkato 55, chef-owner Marcus Samuelsson does just that by refining everyday dishes and applying a major dose of Meatpacking glitz. The good news is that you don’t have to pay celebrity-chef prices to taste the best of the continent: Here’s a crash course in six of its still esoteric cuisines, and an emblematic dish from each.

Joloff

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

Senegal

Thiebou diene
Joloff Restaurant (930 Fulton St at St. James Pl, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn; 718-636-4011)
The iconic meal of the capital Dakar, thiebou diene (pronounced “cheb-oo JEN,” or just called “cheb”), is a rice dish worthy of comparison to risotto or paella. In the Wolof language, the name just means “rice and fish,” but that does no justice to Joloff’s version. The owner, Dakar-native Papa Diagne, simmers root vegetables and bluefish stuffed with a paste of garlic, chili and parsley in a tomato-based broth, and uses the same savory liquid to cook his broken rice. Many spots in Harlem’s Little Senegal serve the dish for lunch only, yet Diagne offers it anytime, because most of his customers aren’t Senegalese. Don’t let that throw you—this is seriously good cheb.

Korhogo 126

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

Côte d’ivoire

Bassam-style seafood stew
Korhogo 126 (126 Union St between Columbia and Hicks Sts, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-855-4405)
Chef Abdhul Traore replaced the French menu at what was once Bouillabaisse 126 with his exciting brand of French-African fusion. Although cuisines as diverse as Senegalese and Kenyan serve as his muses, his most thrilling dish hails from his home country, Côte d’Ivoire. In the coastal Atlantic city of Bassam, the focus is seafood, and at Korhogo 126, Traore spikes his stew of tomato broth brimming with clams, scallops and shrimp ($22) with a lemony sun-dried spice called akpi that he says is unique to the country. In a nod to Côte d’Ivoire’s French colonial roots, he serves the stew with a crouton topped with pistachio rouille—an allusion to bouillabaisse.

Mirage African Restaurant

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

Nigeria

Egusi with fufu
Mirage African Restaurant (2143 Cortelyou Rd between Flatbush Ave and E 22nd St, Flatbush, Brooklyn; 718-941-4452)
Perhaps the most iconic food in Nigeria’s culinary repertoire is fufu, a West African staple made from vigorously pounded boiled plantain, whose texture lies somewhere between wet clay and mashed potatoes. It’s also the starchy side dish and edible utensil for egusi ($13). The word means “melon seed” and refers to one of the beloved soup’s main ingredients. Mirage African’s expert rendition features ground seeds, collard greens and fish in a vibrant red broth—courtesy of carmine palm oil. When you order it, chef Tope Ade might ask, “Are you going to use your hands?” If you say yes, she presents a bowl full of water for you to wash up, as you might, say, in Lagos, the capital city. You’ll need it, because eating egusi and fufu is messy. Not in the mood for fish? Ask for an assortment of feet, skin and tripe ($12) instead.

Mirage African Restaurant

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

Morocco

Lamb tagine
Elyssa Dido (85 Orchard St between Broome and Grand Sts, 212-991-9880)
When tucking into chef Talel Hmaidi’s exemplary lamb tagine ($15), it’s easy to forget that Morocco’s cuisine is African and not Middle Eastern. This classic version, made with honey, prunes and almonds, demonstrates the glories of the pairing of meat with honey and sweet fruits so common to Moroccan cooking; it also calls to mind the Persian influence on the North African country. Hmaidi slow-cooks his lamb shank in a tagine—the conical vessel the stew is named for and served in—until a nudge from a fork sends the meat tumbling from the bone. It comes with a tasty pile of couscous, that familiar North African staple made from semolina.

Merkato 55

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

Ethiopia

Doro wat
Merkato 55 (55 Gansevoort St between Greenwich and Washington Sts, 212-255-8555)
Merkato’s dishes are inspired by the foods of Senegal, Tunisia and even the African diaspora (think Jamaica and Trinidad). But since Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, we wanted to sample his homeland’s cuisine. Executive chef Andrea Bergquist makes a by-the-books doro wat ($26), a typical stew of chicken simmered in ginger juice, red onions, berbere spices (an Ethiopian mixture often containing chili, cinnamon and clove) and spiced butter (infused with cardamom, ginger, garlic and cloves, it forms the basis for many Ethiopian dishes). She brightens it with chopped parsley, chilis and egg—a nod to the hard-boiled egg in more orthodox versions. Mop it up with injera, the sour Ethiopian bread made from teff (a tiny grain)—that often serves both as plate and utensil.

Xai Xai

Photo: Jeff Gurwin

South Africa

Bunny chow
Xai Xai (365 W 51st St between Eighth and Ninth Aves, 212-541-9241)
The focus at the new Hell’s Kitchen wine bar (pronounced “shy-shy”) may be its impressive all–South African wine list, but it’s the small menu that will transport you to Capetown. South Africa’s nebulous cuisine is a quirky mix of European and Asian influences brought by German, Dutch and English traders and colonizers and Malaysian and Indian slaves. This produces some of the very odd South African grub that’s on offer here, including biltong (cured, dried beef) and the coil of boerewors (a dense farmers’ sausage) that crowns pap, a polenta-like mound of boiled cornmeal. But nothing epitomizes the country’s food quite like bunny chow ($14), a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with lamb curry. This East-West fusion is turned out pretty classically here—the curry gets a drizzle of Mrs. Ball’s chutney (a South African brand) and a crunchy cucumber-yogurt sambal.

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