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African Cuisine and Bar - in the kitchen of an African Prince

Until very recently, it was a privilege in Croatia to visit an international restaurant, which is not Chinese or Italian. Meanwhile, there have been many restaurants with various national cuisines and fusions, but rarely can be found an "exotic" one. Although it is often dangerous to proclaim something exotic, because the tastes and smells of some kitchens can be very familiar to domestic palate, most Croatians would say that they did not meet African cuisine. Of course, the notion of African cuisine is the same idea of European or Latin American cuisine. The description is merely geographic and above all unfair to the vast African continent.

Fortunately, in the very heart of Zagreb it is possible to taste West African cuisine, with a base in the culinary tradition of Nigeria. First, a few words about the country itself. Nigeria is a federal republic that consists of 36 states and the capital of Abuja. In history there were a number of kingdoms and tribal states, and today's Nigeria comes from the British Colonial Administration in the 19th century. Formally independent became in 1960, and from 1967 to 1970 survived a civil war. It did not achieve a relatively stable democratic government until 1999. Nigeria is often called the Giant of Africa because of its huge population. Some 186 million people make Nigeria the population richest country in Africa. At the same time, after India and China, it is the third country in the world by the number of young people: as many as 90 million people are under 18 years old. Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state with over 500 ethnic groups, and the three largest are Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The country is rich in oil, but also in the unrest among Christians and Muslims. In the north of the country there is a terrorist group Boko Haram, which threatens the lives of many Nigerians.

Precisely because of this threat, Prince Wale Soniyiki lives in Zagreb today and cooks according to his mother’s recipes (and we all know that mother’s food tastes the best). Prince is his real title. We are honoured to eat in the African Cuisine and Bar in Zagreb's Gundulićeva Street the food prepared by a true Nigerian prince who fled to Italy because of the aforementioned threats. Destiny wanted him to go to the Croatian port of Split, and was among the first to receive asylum in Croatia. He first worked as a fisherman at the well-known Croatian General Ante Gotovina and in Biograd he was engaged in the cultivation of tuna. He slept on a ship to save as much money as possible. The he finally decided to open a restaurant, as well as the African Society in Croatia. In both cases, he is indeed an ambassador of Africa, along with other Africans who live in Croatia.

We sit in African Cuisine and Bar while outdoors there are humid, just African temperatures. Surrounded by African sculptures, tropical animal pictures and smiling Mandela, books about African history and culture, we look forward to what we will try with impatience. Prince and his associate Ridwan are smiling and almost saying "slowly, slowly." We thirst for the Nigerian Star Beer. One of the most popular Nigerian lager comes in a massive 0.6 litre green bottle. It is very soft, light, clear and with rich foam, and with 5.1 per cent of alcohol. While we enjoy this liquid "appetizer" we see many tourists stop in front of the restaurant, somewhat confused by the offer they find in the Croatian metropolis.

The basic word that describes Nigerian food is: spicey. Prince aks us with a smile as to how hot we would like to try. Spiciness is an integral part of all subtropical cuisines. But beneath this layer - which may be milder, stronger, or Nigerian - there is a string of rich and varied sauces and stews, and varieties of aromatic and complex spices and flavours. Nigeria is extremely diverse and combines sea and land tastes. In Zagreb's restaurant, however, we cannot try seafood because the cuisine is based on recipes from northeast Nigeria, where Prince's mother comes from. This offer combines rich northern food, with grilled meat, cereal and rice, and often smoked meat products from the south, where also rice, yam and banana plantain come from. This kitchen is unimaginable without cassava and beans.

In the small area of the restaurant more and more people come in, so we look into the kitchen to see the state of things. Prince is at the stove and with a wide smile he prepares yam. The kitchen is full with the intense scents of stews as well as other dishes that Nigerians are having in everyday life. Soon we get on the table a combination of wonderful Nigerian food. Today we eat beef with yam puree and sauce of watermelon seeds and vegetables; and beef with jollof rice, with sweet beans and plantain bananas. The Yam is ever present, together with cassava. These dishes serve as staples and have a mild flavour. Cassava is so popular in West Africa that many do not remember how it came here through the Portuguese, who fell in love with this dish in Brazil. At African Cuisine and Bar you can also try cassava and okra soup. Veal is cooked in a spicy vegetable sauce in which the watermelon seeds are added. Nigerian sauces are almost always red in colour because they are made of tomatoes mixed with red onions and peppers, along with spices coming from Africa and India (often combined with dried thyme, garlic, ginger, bay leaves) and cooked until it is thick.

The second dish on our table is fascinating with jollof rice. This is a spicy red rice popular south of the Sahara and along the entire coast of West Africa. It is very popular to make jollof with fried plantain bananas, along with meat or fish. Jollof was actually born in Senegal, and is named after a kingdom that once existed here, but Nigeria has perfected this dish (although in neighbouring Ghana screams are heard that their jollof is better). Apparently, in Nigeria, there are parties where people come for jollof rice, and when we tried it we knew why. The sweat runs all over, hot spices burn inside us, and soon we order another bottle of Star. Regardless, we really enjoyed jollof, which is somewhere halfway between dry Asian pilaf and creamy Italian risotto. It is interesting to experiment with the combination of tastes on the plate, connecting jollof with bananas, or with light, uncomplicated, even refreshing sweet beans. Usually, jollof is poured over with a rich tomato sauce and spices. With excellent veal, this is heavenly food and could be said to be the best introduction to West African cuisine.

All of these recipes can be tested in a non-meat version, so the restaurant is well-suited to vegetarians, serving five varied vegetarian dishes. Sweet tooth are also not ignored. An inevitable puff puff balls is unavoidable. They resemble Croatian fritule and many other varieties of sweet fried dough that are eaten in Europe in the winter time of the year. They come in various combinations, sometimes with nuts or dried fruit inside, and they can also have a sweet, salty and hot version. It will surely come well with a variety of tropical fruit juices or sweet and creamy Amaroula, a well-known African hard drink.

The wine lovers will be thrilled with top-quality white and black wines from South Africa. White variety is represented by Vredebosch, a well-known winery from Western Cape, but it is more interesting to try Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot from the Savagna winery. It will certainly be good with the hot dishes, but also with the sweets.

Being at the Prince's Restaurant is definitely an interesting experience. Wide smile, African easy-going and friendly atmosphere, fill this warm corner of Africa in Zagreb.

African Cuisine and Bar Gundulićeva 13, Zagreb


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