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Photo of Amara and Isata Sumah by Darrow Montgomery

In spring 2014, Prince Matey opened Appioo African Bar & Grill just off U Street NW to cook his native Ghanaian cuisine. Like at many West African restaurants, his walls are splashed with tropical paint colors, you can hear goat bones being snapped in the back, and the savory smell of stewed greens fills the air. Matey says business is stable but could be better.

Appioo probably isn’t on the minds of many local diners, in part because food writers don’t spill nearly as much ink about West African restaurants as they do about Ethiopian eateries. Post ethnic eats scribe Tim Carman ranked his top 10 Ethiopian restaurants in October 2016, and six Ethiopian restaurants (but no West African ones) were represented in Washingtonian’s 2016 list of the 100 best cheap eats, for example.

“There are only one or two West African restaurants in the city whereas Ethiopians have over 100, so a lot of people think African food is just Ethiopian,” Matey says. “Ethiopians have seriously publicized Ethiopian cuisine.” 

He recognizes Ethiopians were among the first to settle in D.C. in droves (there were 30,000 Ethiopians in the region as of the 2010 Census), but he wants his cuisine to be recognized too. After all, people from the West African nations of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Cameroon make up the second biggest population of African-born immigrants in the city.

“My goal is to set up one Ghanaian restaurant next to each Ethiopian restaurant in the whole country,” he jokes. He’s making headway, as Fasika Ethiopian Cuisine just opened upstairs.

But will West African cuisine ever achieve Matey’s goal of becoming more mainstream? What restaurants are already out there and what are they doing to appeal to a diverse group of diners?

The aforementioned Appioo boasts a menu that’s primarily Ghanaian. A can’t-miss is Matey’s kenkey. The orb of fermented corn and cassava dough is made almost like a tamale, and its sourness cuts through the richness of soups and stews. Try it with diced onion and tomato, shito (a tangy dried shrimp condiment), and cubes of crispy, juicy goat meat for $15.

Fiery pepper soup and peanut butter soup are also popular and come with a choice of starch. There’s fufu made from cassava or plantains, which is gooey and blobbish like Japanese mochi; banku, which is similar to kenkey; and omo tuo—rice balls typically reserved for hangover brunch.

Matey describes his clientele as a “beautiful mix,” including former Peace Corps volunteers looking to reminisce, but he’s made some strategic tweaks. “Ghanaian dishes are mainly cooked with meat, but we try to cook more vegetarian to attract more people,” he explains. He’s even found a way to cook jollof rice without meat. “That’s one secret we’ve kept.”

Jollof rice is the West African dish that trends the most on Twitter because of the hashtag #JollofWars. Though most agree the rice seasoned with beef and chicken broth, tomato paste, and onions, comes from Sierra Leone, West Africans like to play fight about which country can truly claim it as its own.

Photo of egusi and fufu by Darrow Montgomery

Matey may be putting in the effort to attract vegetarian diners, but he admits outreach and publicity are challenging. “I’m stuck in the kitchen, so spreading the word is one of the major issues I have.” 

Sumah’s West African Restaurant in Shaw also hasn’t prioritized outreach. The 24-year-old restaurant from the husband and wife team of Amara and Isata Sumah is in the process of building its first website. But the Sierra Leone couple’s approach is to roll out the red carpet for first-timers to expose them to the cuisine, and in fact the majority of Sumah’s customers are American.

“What we do is let them sample all the different sauces so they can make their own choices,” Amara says as he spoons kiddie portions of cassava leaves, egusi (a mix of ground melon seeds, spinach, and tomato), peanut gravy, and seven other sauces onto jollof rice. “Americans like to experiment. Whether they’re going to buy it or not, they can just sample it.” 

When the Sumahs want West African cuisine cooked elsewhere, they go to Zion Kitchen just past Ivy City. For the last 13 years, Oyindamola Akinkugbe has been serving the Nigerian food she grew up with. The restaurant is known for garri (a Nigerian take on fufu), snails, and goat imported from Nigeria.

While Akinkugbe says about 80 percent of her customers are West African, she’s seeing a surge in popularity among Latinos because there’s some crossover of techniques and flavors. Zion’s enjoying success: What started as a carryout is now expanding to include additional space, a lounge for sipping palm wine, and possibly outdoor seating. 

Finally, there’s Bukom Cafein Adams Morgan. Like Sumah’s, it’s been around for a quarter century, but it’s the most pan-West African restaurant in D.C. because it gives equal love to dishes from Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Senegal. 

Justice Matey (Prince’s brother) assumed ownership of Bukom in 1994 and says that despite the fact that stars such as Janet Jackson and Serena Williams have dined there, awareness about West African food could use a boost. “As far as what we can do, it’s having new restaurants open up,” Matey says. But “D.C. has gotten so expensive that it’s becoming a place where you can’t afford to open a good restaurant.”

The restaurant game is risky—even more so for unfamiliar fare—so West Africans are finding other ways to introduce their food to D.C. “What you’ll find is most of them are becoming caterers,” says Margaret Kamara, a Sierra Leone native and member of the The Young African Professionals Network

“They’re taking small steps because when you make that transition to a full restaurant there are lots of responsibilities. Catering allows people to do market research to figure out where you’ll get support because you need locals to go to these places.” 

Kamara hopes to open a West African fusion restaurant one day after starting with pop-ups and is inspired by one group in particular: Dine Diaspora. Founded in 2013 by three Ghanaian women, the group hosts pop-up dinners featuring African chefs. Some events are invite-only, others are open to the public.

“We wanted to create a mechanism for people to connect and realized there are culinary creatives that aren’t as visible as other chefs,” says co-founder Nana Ama Afari-Dwamena. “We’re addressing a need in the culinary industry where black chefs aren’t up on the forefront, African cuisine isn’t up on the forefront.” 

For example, it has featured local Chef Eric Adjepong, a first-generation Ghanaian who grew up in New York City and cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants after culinary school. He wants to open a brick and mortar restaurant but says the water’s too treacherous right now.

Instead, Adjepong works as a personal chef, teaches cooking classes, and caters dinners through his company Pinch & Plate. He puts modern twists on West African cuisine with plates like jollof rice paella and groundnut soup with lamb, okra, and fried plantains. He focuses on presentation, which he says West African food tends to lack.

Afari-Dwamena says cooking and dining take a long time, which doesn’t fly in a city of time-strapped worker bees. “Our processes take so long, I can’t see us doing a fast food joint for African cuisine,” she says. But then one day she received her Blue Apron shipment containing the ingredients and recipe for West African peanut chicken. 

“This recipe looks way simpler than how it’s usually made. Instead of letting someone else take our cuisine and simplify it, we can do it ourselves,” she says. “It’s all about being innovative and making this faster.” 

Afari-Dwamena frequents Appioo and Bukom in addition to West African restaurants in the suburbs, but she says D.C. proper simply doesn’t have a diversity of African cuisine. She hopes West Africans can emulate Ethiopian restaurants. “They’re a model of what’s worked,” she says. “Let’s talk to them and see how they’re doing it, let’s replicate it.” 

Sileshi Alifom owns DAS Ethiopian Cuisine in Georgetown, which received a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide for excellent cuisine at an affordable price, so he knows a lot about how Ethiopian cuisine got its start in D.C. and how it has evolved.

In 1978, Mamma Destabecame the first Ethiopian restaurant to open in D.C., and its debut corresponded with a major emigration of Ethiopians following the start of the country’s civil war in 1974. Though it has since closed, it’s still remembered fondly in the Ethiopian community.

“People gravitated to see each other at Mamma Desta,” Alifom says. It was more about the camaraderie than the food, but that changed after the Ethiopian restaurant boom in Adams Morgan and parts of Shaw. Alifom says restaurant owners conducted comparative analysis to discover why some restaurants were successful.

Those that served Ethiopian cuisine in a more international dining setting performed better. “The ambiance had to look to-date and everything had to be consistent,” he says. “It wasn’t just a place we gathered anymore. It was a place to come and dine.” 

Alifom’s advice for West African restaurateurs is much different than what he would offer 40 years ago because the landscape is much more competitive. “Figure out how to present Ghanaian food to customers,” he says. “Make sure people are trained properly. … It’s about the food.” 

In the meantime, he’s optimistic because “D.C. is one of the most diverse cities in the world.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com