By Jimese Orange
My first experience with African food was through Ethiopian cuisine. As I tore into the spongy flat bread called injera, using it simultaneously as food and a utensil to soak up the spicy assortment of stews, vivid memories of my maternal grandmother were invoked. Corn bread was her preferred utensil for scooping up greens, peas and beans and anything else that was on her plate. She had no use for a fork or spoon. As a kid, I wondered, “Why is grandma eating with her hands?” That first experience with Ethiopian cuisine answered that simple question. From my Southern grandmother’s use of cornbread, to injera for Ethiopians and Eritreans and fufu for West Africans, traditions surrounding food from across the continent connect generations. Thankfully, some talented and passionate cooks from Charlotte’s African immigrant community have ventured into restaurant ownership. Authentic offerings from North Africa to West Africa can be savored right here in our diverse city.
Nubian Queens Restaurant
413 Eastway Dr.
Nubian Queens Restaurant, tucked away off the beaten path on Eastway Drive, will transport you to Liberia with the pleasantly pungent aromas wafting from the kitchen. The owner, Cymbaline Banks, originally from Monrovia, Liberia, has been a resident of Charlotte for more than 20 years. With gregarious energy, Banks says, “This is tasty Liberian home cooking, just like if you were a guest in my home. Nubian Queens is an extension of that.” Most Liberian entrees are stew-based, incorporating chicken, fish, shellfish or pork, served with rice or fufu, a dumpling-style form of cassava that soaks up the flavorful stew gravy. One of the most authentic and popular dishes on the menu is the Palm Butter Chicken. Palm butter is a widely used ingredient throughout West Africa. Palm nuts are pounded and transformed into a palm oil butter that meats are stewed in to make a rich base. A side of house-made hot pepper sauce allows you to turn up the heat to your liking. Emmanuel Banks, Cymbaline’s brother, proclaims with a big grin, “They really love the spice!”, when talking about the customers, who from all over the Carolinas to satisfy their West African food cravings. Vegetables such as cassava leaves and sweet potato greens, which are the young leaves of these tuber plants, are classics in Liberian cooking, served with fufu or rice for a satisfying meal that feels like the original inspiration for soul food-style greens. Authentic dishes from other West African countries such as Ghana and Ivory Coast are often featured on the specials menu, as well. The food and space are so inviting that Banks’ next venture into hosting events with West African flavor should go over well with the community.
Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine
2903 Central Ave.
Venture down Central Avenue for a taste of North Africa at Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine. The aromatics from Moroccan spices such as saffron, turmeric, ginger, paprika and cumin permeate the air of this take-out eatery with a handful of colorful mosaic tables for dining in. For the most authentic Moroccan flavors, Hamza Seqqat, the co-owner and visionary behind Ajbani with his brother-in-law Younes Deroich, imports spices from his home country. “As far as the flavors go, we went bold, we went authentic,” says Seqqat. Ajbani was born out of a passion for Moroccan food and missing the tastes of home after Seqqat moved to Charlotte in 2007. The menu is filled with a variety of traditional Moroccan soups, salads and appetizers. Couscous entrees, such as the Berber Chicken in a creamy sauce of saffron, cinnamon and garlic, atop a mound of fluffy couscous flavored with house-made vegetable broth, are popular. Moroccan cuisine naturally lends itself to being healthy, as meals generally revolve around vegetables. The menu includes several marked vegetarian and gluten-free options. Seqqat proudly exclaims, “Everything is fresh, no cans, no frozen, no preservatives. We try to use local farms as much as we can. We use a lot of organic ingredients. We cook 100 percent in olive oils.” Hearty Moroccan comfort food is prominent on the menu, as well. Tajines, which are labor- intensive stews cooked in the Berber tradition of braising meats over low heat in clay pots for 4-6+ hours, bring classic dishes such as Spicy Lamb, Beef with Prunes and Almonds and Seqqat’s personal favorite, Chicken with Preserved Lemon, to the forefront. Even nontraditional items on the menu, such as baklava, have a Moroccan twist, with orange blossom syrup and rose water for a sweet floral essence. After a year in business, the need to expand hours to include both lunch and dinner shows that customers are enjoying this taste of Morocco.
May you be inspired to venture beyond the usual suspects of restaurants and neighborhoods for a uniquely African culinary experience. Support these local entrepreneurs and treat your palate to something new.
Photos courtesy of Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine