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The Ambassador of Jollof Rice

Counter Culture

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Yassa African Restaurant
716 E. 79th
773-488-9630
yassaafricanrestaurant.com

A woman from the neighborhood walks past the empty tables and up to the counter at Yassa, Chicago's only Senegalese restaurant. Raising her voice against the laughing and shouting of the cooks in the kitchen, she orders exactly what owner Madieye Gueye hoped she wouldn't: curry chicken. It's an item from the Caribbean side of Yassa's menu, along with oxtails, jerk chicken, beef patties, and fried plantains—all dishes Gueye put on the menu to draw in locals who frequent the south side's ubiquitous jerk huts. "We named ourselves Yassa African Caribbean Restaurant and knew people would come in for jerk chicken, but then we would change their habits, open them up to the dishes of Senegal," Gueye says.

But foot traffic to the eight-month-old restaurant has been slow, some days nonexistent, and Gueye has decided that if he's going to throw out food every night it should at least be food he wanted to make in the first place.

The woman who wants curry chicken raises an eyebrow as Gueye leans in to explain that he's taking the Caribbean stuff off the menu. He suggests she try thiebu djen, a complicated dish of grouper stuffed with cilantro and parsley and served on jollof rice (grains broken by soaking and pounding and cooked in tomato paste) with a tamarind-scented stew of eggplant, cassava, carrot, bell pepper, cabbage, and onion. "The Senegalese national dish!" he beams. "So there's no curry chicken?" the woman asks. "No curry chicken," Gueye says. The woman leaves.

In the kitchen Awa, Gueye's wife, his cousin Fatou, and his business partner, Tidiane Soumare, are chopping onions for the chicken yassa. Whole chickens have been marinating overnight in lemon juice, black pepper, vinegar, mustard powder, and Maggi seasoning salt, which Awa says is liberally used in Senegalese cuisine. The chicken is grilled and served over white rice with a lemony, oniony stew in a bowl on the side. This is Soumare's favorite dish because it's easy to explain. "Everywhere you go they have something like it," he says.

A pot of mafe—a sauce of ground peanuts, lamb, tomato, and habanero pepper with large chunks of potato, carrot, and okra—thickens on the stove. It's also ladled over white rice. Gueye says that mafe and thiebu djen are specific to his people; he and Awa are Wolof, the largest ethnic group in Senegal. Soumare is Sarakole. "This means he speaks my languages, Wolof and French, but I don't speak his language, Sarakole," Gueye says. Once in a while they serve a distinctively Sarakole dish called caldou, a whole fish, usually porgy or tilapia, in an okra, lemon, and spinach broth.

Also on the grill are debe, small lamb chops coated with black pepper, cumin, and cloves. These are often served over couscous de mil, a superfine millet couscous almost sandlike in texture and slightly tart in taste. Couscous de mil is always steamed over broth—"never boiled," Gueye says. "Never, never boil couscous." There are also pitchers of sweet, fresh gingembre, a cooling juice of fresh ginger root, and bissap, a drink made with hibiscus flower similar to the Mexican jimaica, which stands in the cooler next to bottled Kola Champagne.

Around noon a bunch of kids start to come in, sent by their mothers to pick up pain francais, French bread that Gueye buys from a nearby market and sells for $2.50 a loaf. The dining room has some nice touches that suggest Awa's hand—silk flowers on the African-print tablecloth, pink lightbulbs in the ceiling fans, cheery fabric over the otherwise bare-bones countertop. (Awa also runs a boutique next door.) The bread buyers don't seem to notice; they stick a loaf under each arm and march out. On the slowest of slow days Gueye still sells around 50 loaves of the bread, sometimes close to 70.

Around one o'clock the restaurant is quiet again; Soumare has been sent to the market to pick up garlic and spinach, and Awa and Fatou have no one to bicker with, so the kitchen is calm. Suddenly a small, angry man bursts in the door. "Too many complaints, sir, too many complaints!" he shouts. Gueye sits back, smiling somewhat, while the man rants in Wolof and French, hands flying to emphasize his frustration. When the man finishes, Gueye explains. Mori is a friend of his who delivers hair to braiding salons all over the north and west side. Knowing that he's acquainted with Gueye, his customers give him orders for food to bring when he passes their way. ("Everybody knows everybody, come on," Gueye says when asked how people across the city have heard of him.) They get angry if Mori doesn't bring their orders along and ask him why Gueye doesn't have a proper delivery service. "All day, everywhere I go, they say, 'I want thiebu djen!' 'I want yassa!' 'I want jollof rice!' Man, I don't sell rice!" Mori gripes.

"This is our problem," Gueye sighs. "I'm not afraid to say it—people on the north side, the west side, they are more open to this food. The African people there, they don't have places like this around them and they are feeling nostalgic, and so many white people want to try a taste of Senegal. But around here we haven't gotten the response." With high gas prices, small deliveries north of 50th Street don't seem practical to Gueye. He's considered relocating from Chatham to the north side, but the rent is daunting. More than that, though, Gueye doesn't want to relocate because he believes that in time business in the neighborhood will pick up. "Just the other night we had all these tables full, all these guys came in. American guys, black Americans," he says proudly. "And they didn't want jerk chicken. They ate poisson grille, grilled fish, Senegal style, with onion salad." He nods, his eyes closed with pleasure at the thought.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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