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From the Motherland

Surprisingly familiar West African food


The term "West African" cuisine is not mentioned in most culinary source books. Whereas the term "French" has pages devoted to describing dishes and techniques named for the French, oddly enough you will find hardly a mention of thiebou djenne, yassa or plasas. But there is nothing unfamiliar about these West African dishes here in the South. West Africa was the dominant place of departure for the slave ships heading toward the agricultural lands of the American South. The enslaved Africans brought with them not only their knowledge of rice cultivation, but also their food, such as okra, which became part of our diet.

"Southerners are more familiar with African food," said restaurateur Baba Makalo. "We came here from Massachusetts where it is very hard to get a place and the people are not as familiar with our food."

Makalo opened the 173-seat Katchikally African & American Cuisine last fall with his wife Fatoumatta Touray. Touray, who is the sole cook, holds a degree in culinary arts from a community college in Boston. Until last week the venture had a third partner, Tournay's brother Yusupha Ceesay.

The owners are from Senegal and The Gambia. The Gambia, a British colony until 1965, is a tiny country with the area of a supersized Delaware. The land surrounds the massive Gambia River, which empties into the Atlantic. Senegal, a French colony until 1960, is a country the size of South Dakota and its land surrounds The Gambia. At times the countries have merged politically although they are currently separate. Within each country are ethnic groups, the majority of which are Mandinka (as made famous by the character Kunta Kinte in Roots), Wolof, and Fula in The Gambia, and Wolof, Pular, and Serer in Senegal. Makalo and Touray are Mandinka.

Katchikally is located on the far side of a strip shopping center near the intersection of I-77 and Woodlawn. The interior design is sparse. Tablecloths and curtains are batik while a stage is set up in the back of the dining area for the weekend nightclub. Over the bar is a television blaring CNN. Yet, the greeting is warm and genuine. The menu is small, and the offerings from the kitchen depend upon availability. Katchikally has pages of bar drinks and specials. The non-alcoholic mix Gingero, a ginger ale that can bite back, is first-rate.

West African dishes have a familiar taste: chicken and rice, gumbo (known here as okra stew), and curries. Most dishes are simply prepared: boiled, stewed, fried, or barbecued over direct heat. West African cuisine uses a base of indigenous roots, such as yucca and yams, plus rice, and then adds the ingredients of the Americas: the peanut, chili, tomato, and pepper. Dishes are finished with the sauces of colonial countries and Indian and Malaysian spices.

In addition to the African dishes, barbecue chicken, steaks, wings, and burgers are offered. But the heart of the kitchen is in the African offerings. A complimentary basket of "banana pancakes" arrives. Although they look like hush puppies, they taste like banana bread doughnuts. Next up was a Senegambian Pie appetizer, a large highly seasoned beef turnover remarkably similar to a Jamaican patty. The Lamb Afra, an uncomplicated marinated barbecue starter, was tough and boney. Better were the pleasantly fried green plantains served with a mildly spicy onion tomato sauce.

Although the people of western Africa share a common culinary history, the names of many of the dishes depend upon the group. A chicken and rice dish, a sort of African Paella, is called Benechino, thiebou djenne or cheb, or most commonly jollof, depending on the language of the cook. This dish is the national dish of Senegal and may have been influenced by 16th century Spanish traders' paella and the newly introduced American tomato. At Katchikally this dish is called Benechico, a Mandinka term, and is made with chicken, beef, fish, or shrimp. The key to good cheb is the amount of vegetables the cook uses. At Katchikally the rice, which is reddened by tomatoes, not palm oil, is a still life of African flavors: cabbage, "garden eggs" -- a Gambian eggplant, yucca, carrots, and onions. The chicken is marvelously tender.

Most of the dishes of West Africa are one-dish stews. There is no better example of this than Plasa, which uses efo, a multipurpose name for greens, including cassava, sorrel, spinach, mustard, collards, chard, and turnip greens. The stew is thickened by peanut powder and seasoned with smoked turkey. Palm oil is used in this dish. Palm oil is to African cuisine what olive oil is to Mediterranean cuisine and butter is to French cuisine. Palm nuts are about the same size as grapes and are reddish in color, lending a distinct flavor and color to many West African dishes. The Plasa, which still had bits of bones in the stew, has an unusual, healthy feel and a strong, almost bitter taste. Another happy surprise was the goat curry, similar to Jamaican curry. This stew is bolstered by just enough spice, crisp vegetables, and succulent meat. Entrees are served in large portions and most are under $10.

Owners Makalo and Touray are pioneers bringing West African cuisine to Charlotte. Charlotte has had a few outposts of this cuisine in the past, but none as accessible as Katchikally. Recently, the owners closed lunch, hoping to increase dinner business. But it is still a tough hill to climb, which is too bad since exploring the cuisine of humanity's mother continent is a worthy stop on any gastronomical adventure.

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