I have been taste testing tons of African food the past few weeks for this new article that appears in this weeks Time Out Chicago magazine. There is so much good food and out of everything I sampled, this charcoal grilled fish at Yassa's reigned supreme.
Dive into African eats at this weekend’s Ghanafest, then use our guide to regional specialties to continue your culinary travels.
By Misty Tosh
With fiery food, traditional dancing, live music and ceremonial wear, Ghanafest 2006 (Sat 29, 1–10pm in Washington Park, 5500 S Cottage Grove Ave) will maintain its status as the largest Ghanaian cultural celebration in America. According to Reuben Hadzide, the president of Ghanafest, this 18-year-old festival is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. “It’s amazing that thousands of people show up from around the country every year, yet not a lot of locals know about it.”
Well, the word is out, so plan on spending the day sampling bowls of brilliant red jollof rice, huge urns of peppery goat soup and heaping forkfuls of just-fried sweet plantains. And if fueling up on the cuisine of Ghana inspires you to search for more African fare, you’re in luck—Chicago has plenty of great restaurants serving food from around the continent.
Famous for: Watt, a variety of thick, peppery stews, and injera, a spongelike pancake made from fermented flour batter
How to eat it: Use just your right hand to scoop up piles of spicy stew with bite-size tears of injera.
Why it’s so good: Berbere, a powdered chile-pepper mix is the key, but be careful—liberal doses of the potent concoction can make your eyes pop out of your skull.
Where to get the goods: Ethiopian Diamond (6120 N Broadway, 773-338-6100), an energetic storefront that pumps up the vibe with shared meals and lively music
Kill the heat with: Tej, an amber-colored honey wine made from grains. This drink is a home-brewer favorite, and if it’s prepared correctly, expect to find bees floating in the wine for flavor.
Famous for: Fufu, a big, rubbery ball of hand-pounded yam or cassava topped with a palate-searing fish stew
How to eat it: Scrub your hands in the bowl of water provided and dive in caveman-style.
Why it’s so good: Taking on the flavor of anything with which it comes into contact, bone-white fufu is the pull-apart Ghanaian version of tofu.
Where to get the goods: Palace Gate Restaurant (4548 N Magnolia St, 773-769-1793), where the kitchen is brimming with an all-female staff that loves nothing more than bellowing Ghanaian sing-alongs and peeking around the corner to make sure you’re enjoying your meal
Kill the heat with: A few Guinness stouts from neighboring Sheridan Park Food & Liquor (1255 W Wilson Ave, 773-878-0700) before heading into this BYOB; the malty stouts are a great match with the spicy cuisine.
Famous for: Isi ewu, a popular spiced goat-head stew How to eat it: Plunge your fingers directly into the brains; they’re the most prized part of the dish.
Why it’s so good: The intense flavor of the goat head mixed with traditional Nigerian herbs makes for a truly tasty meal.
Where to get the goods: Vee-Vee’s African Restaurant (6232 N Broadway, 773-465-2424) is the place to load up on this Nigerian specialty (advance orders are mandatory). Sundays are particularly busy, when an all-you-can-eat buffet attracts a crowd.
Kill the heat with: A BYO bottle of South African shiraz from nearby Granville Liquors (1100 W Granville Ave, 773-764-3625).
Famous for: Juicy tagines (meat and vegetable stews) and fluffy couscous, a staple of nomadic North Africans How to eat it: Use warm pita bread to scoop up hulking mouthfuls of this communal food.
Why it’s so good: In North Africa, tagines are cooked in the large earthenware pots from which they take their name. Couscous spends hours in a double boiler–type vessel that houses a mouthwatering stew in the lower tier and the flavor-absorbing couscous in the top tier.
Where to get the goods: Couscous (1445 W Taylor St, 312-226-2408), a tiny Little Italy favorite that features cuisine from the Middle East and the region of Maghreb that includes Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia
Kill the heat with: Refreshing house-made lemonade and potent teas; BYOB is discouraged.
Famous for: Poisson grille, an out-of-this-world, charcoal-grilled whole tilapia topped with sweet-onion salad and a flavorful oniony, tomato-dotted jollof rice How to eat it: Using a spoon and only the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand, slowly pick apart the meat from the bones and scoop it up with pressed balls of the rice.
Why it’s so good: The secret to this succulent dish is situating the whole fish directly on the smoldering charcoal until the silvery skin becomes blackened and crunchy. Paired with perfectly fried sweet plantains, each bite is a revelation. Where to get the goods: Yassa (716 E 79th St, 773-488-5599), a Senegalese restaurant manned by a French-speaking staff that doles out portions large enough to feed three.
Kill the heat with: Gingembre, a nonalcoholic ginger-root juice made in-house. Of course, it’s even better when you spike it with a splash of gin from your own stash.