I have a complicated relationship with African culture. My connection to it seems just beyond reach, whether from my mom’s ancestors being stolen from the continent or my Nigerian father leaving the family before I was even born.
So when I walk into an African restaurant, with Nigerian physical traits but limited cultural knowledge, I expect awkwardness. I brace myself for intrusive questions about why I’m not married with kids, and I prepare for any variety of teeth sucking when I’m forced to explain why I haven’t reconciled with my father. Then there’s the easier but still uncomfortable moments, like the possibility that there’s no attentive wait staff or that there’s meaty bones in my vegetable dish.
Thankfully, awkwardness was taken out of the equation at Sunu Cuisine African and American Grill, a new spot that opened in downtown Frederick recently.
A friendly host standing behind the bar greeted me as soon as I walked in. I decided to sit closer to the flatscreen TV in the back of the restaurant that played flashy Afrobeat music videos from Nigerian artists like Wizkid, P-Square and Davido. The catchy rhythms were so inviting, a toddler got out of her stroller to dance in front of the TV.
I started with a glass of Sorrel ($3.50), which is a plant drink made with either hibiscus or sorrel and that is well-known in the Caribbean and West Africa. The natural juice was delicious, with a bold, grape-like flavor that hit all of my tastebuds.
For my appetizer, I ordered Petit Fataya ($4), which are Senegalese patties stuffed with meat or fish. The order came out piping hot. The shredded fish was so soft, I could easily imagine the meat cooking for hours. The host later told me that the dish includes imported spices from Senegal. The Petit Fataya had breading reminiscent of an egg roll. The standout of this dish was the chunky tomato sauce that I liked so much, I added some to my entree.
When a plate of Suya with a side of veggie of rice ($15) arrived to my table, another patron (with possibly some plate envy) asked to look at my dish. The plating was beautiful, with a circular dome of jollof rice full of colorful vegetables, roasted lamb chops with a peanut-spice rub, and sautéed onion rings.
Suya is pretty much Nigerian street food, but I’ve witnessed many Nigerians swear by this grilled shish kebab loaded with beef or chicken. My plate however was bone-in lamb chops, recommended by the host over Sunu’s beef option. She told me that the dish I received is a Senegalese version called Dibi. I wasn’t bothered by this change because I love lamb. The lamb chops on my plate were very dark, and when I took my first bite, I tasted a lot of charred flavor. The first lamb chop wasn’t as tender as I would have liked, but I found that the other lamb chops with more fat were juicy.
The veggie jollof rice kind of disturbed me. This staple West African dish has many variations, but it typically includes rice flavored with tomato paste, meat and spices that is cooked in palm oil. I didn’t include olives in that list, but somehow, it was on top of my jollof rice. I posted a question on Facebook to see if my Nigerian friends found this normal. I felt validated by the responses, which included “The devil is busy,” and “Sin against jollof rice.” One person even posted a picture of a scene from the horror film “Get Out.” Essentially, I was being told by my friends to vacate the premises immediately.
I soldiered forward though and ate the veggie jollof rice that tasted like healthy food and sadness. Somehow, Sunu’s jollof rice had a light brown color with very tiny grains I later learned are called “broken rice.” Often in Ghana and Nigeria, jollof rice is darker with a yellowish-red color and longer grains. The discussion around which African country has the best jollof rice can be a source of endless arguing, like a “top five rappers dead or alive” debate.
After my meal, I talked to the restaurant host, who happened to be one of Sunu’s owners along with her brother, Pape E. Koite. Adja C. Koite explained that broken rice cooked in vegetable oil instead of palm oil is normal in her Senegalese family.
The Koites opened a grocery store and carryout in College Park in 2010 and are currently remodeling the business. They decided to expand and open a Frederick location in February. Adja said she loves Frederick. “Everyone is so warm and welcoming here.”
She could easily be my sister, with her high cheek bones, closely cropped hair, and smooth, dark skin. Because of that, I wasn’t afraid to engage in the jollof rice sibling rivalry.
“You guys have olives in your jollof rice that I never seen before in my life,” I said in my I-want-to-speak-to-your-manager voice.
“That’s why we have the best jollof rice ever,” Adja said, self-assured. Her Senegalese ancestors are considered the inventors of jollof rice. And to her credit, the veggie jollof rice is a healthier alternative to the greasier version. “Your president even said we have the best jollof rice.”
Adja was referring to a comment by Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information. I told her that given the unstable state of Nigerian politics, he might not be the best source.
Before I knew it, I’d spent two hours at Sunu and ended the evening arguing with a stranger like an old friend. Adja and I might not agree on jollof rice, but I plan to come back for more Senegalese dishes and conversation. Maybe there’s hope for this Nigerian outcast to join the fold.