Restaurant: Aso Rock
By Boeing: 10061 miles
By Boris Bike: 1.7 miles
Hoxton is trendy. Nigerian food isn’t. Mulling over this awkward truth I followed my smart phone GPS to the postcode for the latest African eatery, only to find it led me to a small park abutting the canal in Angel. Not a good start. I catch a cab and drive miles across town wondering how a restaurant on the margins of London’s culinary map can afford to promote inaccurate postcodes. We pull up outside a simple, spartan restaurant at the end of the trendy thoroughfare. I hand over my dessert budget hoping the first thing I see upon opening the door is a laden dessert trolley. It isn’t.
We sit in a corner of the cafeteria style restaurant and peer over at the counter. A girl serving seems very amused by something, perhaps no more than the fact we were there, though in truth it could have been my jacket. Feeling irascible after the postcode debacle I calmed a little when I saw that they sold authentic African beer. We ordered a large bottle each and asked for advice on our selections.
The format appeared to be combinations of meat and sauce escalating in value in accordance with the number of items. I went for three, a full house. The first was a chicken drumstick in thick, hot egusi sauce. The egusi also covered a hunk of mutton. The last was altogether more intriguing. I prodded it nervously with my fork and scrutinised it with the concentration of a form guide at a greyhound track. But this
didn’t even yield a guess. So I asked the question that should never be asked: ‘what exactly is this?’. ‘Cow’s foot’, came the reply. ‘Of course it isn’t a cow’s foot’, she added. Right. ‘It is cow’s skin, the outer skin.’ So essentially it is leather. Why you’d eat it rather than make into a brogue was beyond me. I tried to cut through it with a knife, but to no avail. There seemed no way of and no motive to eat it. So I didn’t. We decided to order some sundries to complete the experience. This was a very satisfying spinach and smoked fish stew and a small beef pasty.
The pasty is ubiquitous it seems, in one form or another. The Cornish crimp is a distinguishing feature of ours, but, like deifying the world’s source of light and heat, encasing meat in pastry appears to be a primeval urge across the globe. Being Hoxton I was surprised that this was not described as ‘street food’. This craze is predicated on the belief that we want to eat what they eat, wherever they reside,
not the food they want us to believe they eat. This is of course fine, until someone puts two square inches of the rear seat of a Bentley on your plate.
With the exception of the Maghreb region, the African destinations on my route so far have had no tourist fripperies. They serve who they serve, namely those who miss the tastes of home. And while London’s palate becomes more adventurous browsing in food markets on the South Bank it is altogether braver to gatecrash a community restaurant and deprive them of a table. It can be a little unnerving to be scrutinised as a curiosity, like a striped rodent with the capacity to hop in the natural history museum, but if all goes to plan they offer begrudging respect for your cultural curiosity. If it doesn’t go to plan, well you’ll have read Cameroon.
You can’t be squeamish with African food. The flavours are bold and unsentimental. It isn’t advised to discern to closely between flesh, fat, ligament and bone. For they won’t be neatly separated for you. Your sensibilities, if you have them, tend to expose you. I once dined with a Nigerian man who ate a succulent breast of chicken as if it
were merely a source of protein but was sent into raptures when sucking the marrow from a split bone. Their approach to cooking is visceral and natural. Perhaps it is borne of necessity that all of the animal is eaten and none left to waste, but there is also a palpable sense that they want to indulge in all the flavours and textures. It is cooking unedited.