You see?" says Malong Pendar, lights from passing traffic glinting in his glasses as he turns to check the spinach, then turns back to lean on a wooden beam bearing a lemon-yellow sticker depicting the elephant god Ganesh dancing adeptly on one leg. "It all comes back to the large intestine."
And it does. Not quite at home here, Ganesh beams across this big-windowed but narrow space at African tribal masks, brown-on-beige African textiles, and Cameroonian flags. Pendar, who started selling his cooking from an Ashby Flea Market van at age eighteen in 1991 and for whom this restaurant is pretty much a one-man operation, calls it health food: an old kind, because its components have always done double duty as sustenance and medicine in his parents' homeland, where American-born Pendar has spent half his life. But it's a new kind of health food, too, because it's almost definitely new to you. Admit it.
"People think they know African food when they just know East African food," Pendar sighs, "or Ethiopian." But West African? Cameroonian, born of sea and fertile soil and wildly diverse altitudes and climates? Earthy, ancient with its mineral-rich baobab and huckleberry leaves and manioc, yet not untouched by forty years as a French colony?
Even in the I've-tried-ant-egg-soup East Bay, ask about Cameroonian cuisine and draw blank stares. That's how we were before our first meal at A Taste of Africa. Palm nuts? Cassava? We were flying blind. "I'm nervous," Lisa said, too softly and too late.
Seizing laminated menus from a stack as we chose our table, Tuffy began excitedly sounding out the names of what he wanted to try. Moi Moi: leaf-wrapped, steamed black-eyed-pea cakes. Puff Puff: donuts not unlike beignets. Fufu: root-starch porridge. Egusi: pumpkin-seed soup.
He couldn't have them. Not a one. Pendar explained that the full menu is available on weekends, but this was only Tuesday: "So here is what I have today." It was a combo plate containing okra, plantains, yam, spinach, black-eyed-peas, and sauced jollof rice, either vegan or with skinless stewed chicken. That was it, but his enthusiasm made this not feel totally bizarre.
We were served house-made ginger lemonade that we hadn't ordered and for which we would be charged, but at only a dollar a glass, and with lemon slices bobbing in it like pieces of sunshine, it was joltingly sublime.
Cubed, the yams were purple, Japanese, and — without added sugar — candy-sweet. So were the plantains. Sliced into coins and fried but firm, as their banana cousins seldom stay when cooked, these melt-in-the-mouth morsels carried the philosophy of nearly everything else on the plate: virtually unadorned, allowed to taste exactly like their earnest, simple selves. The black-eyed peas were barely salted. Tomato whispered through the fluffy jollof rice under a lake of garlicky-peanutty ndole sauce, Cameroon's national dish: cheeselike and rich even in its velvety simplicity. Cut small, cooked soft but not slimy at all, the okra yielded spoonfuls of its pearly, sumptuous seeds. Spinach: soothing, cut small, cooked ... soft.
As soft as clouds, I thought and smiled. As silken-soft as clouds in sunny skies. Soft. Sweet. Home-style. Stewed. While retaining its soul, not technically requiring teeth. Which is why I loved it and Lisa didn't. Sampling the skinless chicken, she nibbled her yam, then pushed everything else around apologetically. "It's bland," she said, as if that was a bad thing.
The remedy here, as in Africa, is hot sauce. On request, we were brought a dollop of what resembled catsup but was almost wholly habaneros. One pinhead-sized spot makes your whole head ready to detonate.
For Lisa, part of the problem was the food's unfamiliarity. She is not unworldly or unadventurous, but found it disconcerting to confront food she could not compare to anything, for which she had no reference point. Tuffy said: "It's like asking fish to describe rainbows." For me, the meal brought back flashes from a childhood Caribbean trip, but for Lisa — a vacuum. As we grow up, foods we've tried become encoded in our brains, so that later even a lick or whiff triggers a highly personalized mental filmstrip. Pendar knows this. "Memories," he sighs, "are attached to the palate."
But I've found another reference point for this food — if not geographical, then chronological. Because it's soft and mild, "it's advanced baby food for adults," Pendar laughs. It's also baby food, he adds, in that it heals. Some of its ingredients are prized in Africa for promoting wellness. Bitter leaf, aka mujonso, for instance, is hailed for reducing fever, killing parasites, and easing childbirth.
"By making ndole with bitter leaf for a woman who's pregnant, a whole village can create good will and good health," says Pendar, who grows his own. After their first taste, diners return — "craving the bitter leaf," he beams, "without even realizing that they're craving the bitter leaf." In a CO2 canister, he is brewing a strong sweet carbonated drink comprising molasses, lime juice, ginger, and spearmint. All these components have been credited with aiding digestion, which matters to Pendar, who speaks reverently and knowledgeably about the size and quality of human bowels.
Save for a few flesh dishes, his menu is mostly vegan, reinforcing Pendar's passion for health food but rendering his meals not quite authentic.
"It's hard to find vegan dishes anywhere in Cameroon," he smiles. "African dishes almost always have meat." That said, he wishes his fellow Americans were better in touch with their food's origins: "In Cameroon, people know about picking okra. They know about having a rooster, and they know how to slaugher that rooster. Because they know these things, those foods have life in them."
On our second visit, a Friday, one further item was available in addition to the combo plate: koki corn, slabs of steamed corn-vegetable cake which the menu compares to tamales but which could better be likened to a pudding or a loaf. Pendar told us that he never makes it the same exact way twice, which adds to what Tuffy calls this restaurant's "charming inconsistency." Dollar-for-dollar, ounce-for-ounce, it's a better deal than the combo platter, because it comes with an ndole-topped mountain of jollof rice. In the koki, hot-pepper confetti gave off tiny, timed kicks amid soft spinach and kernels plump and naturally sweet as you-know-what.
Now, rejoicing, we have a brand-new reference point.
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