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Sweet Spice: Ofie heats up the north side 

In the Kitchen

Hauwa Eva Graham was running a thriving restaurant on the outskirts of Abuja, the newly designated capital of Nigeria, when her son-in-law, an air force officer, was jailed for his alleged involvement in a failed coup against the Ibrahim Babangida government. She gave up her business to help her daughter Alexandra, who had her hands full with the fight to free her husband, three small children, and her position as a lecturer at Lagos State University. Alexandra's husband was eventually acquitted but it was cold comfort as, over the next two years, numerous colleagues either disappeared or were executed.

In 1989 the family fled seeking asylum, moving first to New York and then, in 1993, to Chicago. Alexandra, a chemist, quickly found work but she searched in vain for a new venue for her mother's cooking. Then, in 1997, Alexandra's friend Alpha Tense announced he was closing his Nigerian restaurant, Suya, and she bought him out. "I wanted to give back to my mother and also bring a taste of our country to Chicago. Most people think of Ethiopian when they think of African food but our cuisine from Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone is completely different." She renamed the place Ofie, which means "home" in the Ghanaian Akan language, and it's become a new home for Hauwa's culinary explorations.

The limited kitchen--just one six-burner cooktop, a single oven, and a two-basket deep fryer in a tiny narrow space--doesn't seem to faze Hauwa. She and Alexandra created the menu together, taking liberties at times, but going to great lengths to keep it as authentic as possible. They make annual trips to Nigeria to bring back spices unavailable here. Alexandra mixes them up in blends that Hauwa incorporates into most dishes. Yaji, a popular combination of dried ginger, African nutmeg, alligator pepper, African black pepper, Nigerian hot chilies, and other imported spices that don't have American counterparts, is what gives suya, the spiced meat kabob that's a favorite snack in Nigeria, its distinct character. It's also used in several other dishes like the palava fish (catfish), kumasi chicken (skewered chicken), and the katcha special (broiled tilapia).

While the flavors ring true, Alexandra admits that West Africans would hardly recognize the menu items. Soups, stews, and grilled, skewered meat are all prevalent back home, but they're commonly sold as street food with nondescript names like "stew" or "chicken." Furthermore, the African style of eating doesn't jibe with Western menu classifications--in Nigeria it's standard to consume starchy fufu, made from pounded plantain or yam, as a main course, with stew or fish as an accompaniment. The Ofie menu has an American sensibility: appetizers and soups come first, followed by protein-rich main courses. Fufu, farina, and other starches are served as sides.

Each region (and to some extent each family) in West Africa prepares a different version of what Ofie serves as "Niger stew." Most start off as Hauwa's does, with a vibrant red base of pureed tomatoes, onions, and peppers to which a variety of ingredients are added. Hauwa adds large chunks of yam--a white-fleshed nubby root vegetable thought to have originated in Africa that bears little resemblance to the orange sweet potato popular in the U.S.--and a mix of spices and chicken or beef. It's simmered until the yam is tender and the meat cooked through. Chilies are frequently added, in this case habaneros, giving it a blazing finish.

Kaza sabongari doesn't quite translate literally--kaza means chicken and sabongari means "new city"--but it would immediately be recognized as the spiced skewered chicken that's grilled over an open pit in the streets of immigrant towns. Hauwa's version uses split Cornish hens that are rubbed with hot peppers and a spice mix and then grilled. It can be ordered mild upon request but is best at full strength.

A few dishes retain authentic names like the nkate kwan, a traditional Ghanaian peanut soup made with chunks of chicken. Hauwa pulls out a jar of peanut butter to start the dish. "We used to grind up our own peanuts but it's much easier this way," she says with a smile, noting how fortunate Americans are to have an abundance of affordable food products. She also offers nkatie wonu, a meatier version of nkate kwan with smoked fish, beef, and chicken added.

One of the most popular items on the menu is akara, the black-eyed pea fritters that are called kosai in Ghana. It's a dish recognizable to natives, although it's more commonly eaten as breakfast food than a dinner accompaniment. The delicate, puffy fritters are incredibly labor-intensive. The peas are crushed in a blender then strained countless times in a colander to remove the black eyes and skin. Next they're soaked in water, pureed into a thick paste, and seasoned with salt and pepper. "It's like Cream of Wheat now--this is how most people eat it for breakfast, with a little milk and sugar," says Hauwa. Then she beats the batter with a handheld mixer for several minutes to make it light and fluffy. She keeps repeating, "It's got to be light, real light because I'm not adding eggs to fluff it up." Then she throws in some chopped onions and habaneros, and even shrimp or salmon if requested. During dinner service she prays that customers order them simultaneously since each batch is made to order. She sighs, thinking about the 600 fritters she needs to make by 8:30 the next morning for a local school studying African culture. "I'll be here at 3 AM tomorrow for that size order."

Customers occasionally ask Hauwa if she'll ever serve wild game or "bush meat." She's amused by the request since she never ate or served it at home. "I grew up in Abuja, a large town," she says. "The first time I ever saw an elephant was at 19 years old in the London Zoo."

Ofie is at 3911 N. Sheridan, 773-248-6490.

--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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