Okay, I admit I bought a Rolex in 1986 off a checkered sheet in Midtown, from a beguiling, ethnically dressed Senegalese. I was a gullible college student in need of a watch — it cost me $19 after a hard negotiation, mostly on my part. The watch worked for a full ten days.
It was the ’80s. Midtown felt affluent and bustling, and the West Africans were surreptitiously selling everything at bargain-basement prices: watches, scarves, hats, handbags, you name it.
New York City’s streets were paved with opportunities for all immigrants, and the single male West Africans came prepared. They housed in SROs and brought with them a few brightly dressed tribal women, whose primary function was to prepare huge quantities of dibi, attiéké and maafe, to feed their industrious countrymen (perhaps being the largest producers of cocoa in the world added to their sweet disposition).
Years later, armed with a degree and some money, I found that Harlem had become the capital of French-speaking Western Africa.
Here, you can haggle for bracelets and masks at the vibrant Malcolm Shabazz Market, or walk the streets around Frederick Douglass Boulevard, full of hair care salons, clothing stores, even shops selling brooms and buckets. Inhale the rich scents of grilled fish and chicken stew and perhaps get inspired to buy ethnic groceries like cassavas, plantains, and palm oil on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. Enjoy coffee at the bistros and bakeries, while swaying to the tunes of Youssou — the father of fusion music–and Alpha Blondy , referred to, with respect, as the Bob Marley of Africa.
You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy a kan kan lamb dibi, the national dish of Senegal, served up in smoky dibiteries all over Dakar. Just visit Farafina Café and Lounge in Harlem, where Chef Clemont Zobo-Lemon dishes up juicy lamb steaks glazed with secret kan kan spices — a combination of ground peanut powder, chili powder, and allspice. Combined with his aromatic onion sauce, it will have your palette lusting for more. It’s served with couscous, rice, or fries on the side.
Chef Zobo-Lemon is from the Côte d’Ivoire, but since the country shares common ingredients and preparations with the cuisines of the region, he’s satisfying homesick Malians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Nigerians and Guineans…one dish at a time.
In particular, the cuisine of the Côte d’Ivoire is based on seafood, chicken, tubers and grains. Snails and fish are often grilled, served with cassavas (attiéké, similar in consistency to couscous) or ripe grilled bananas in palm oil (alloco), sometimes served on the street with a hard-boiled egg, making for a balanced meal.
Stuffed crab farci at Farfina Café is plated with a deliciously ripe mango salsa and avocado, and brims with fresh and piquant flavors. The grilled crabmeat is mixed with breadcrumbs, parsley, and hot spices, then loaded back into the shell, transporting homesick diasporans straight back to their local, open-air restaurants called maquis.
Kedjenou, another Ivorian Coast staple enjoyed by hunters or farmers, is a spicy stew, slow-cooked in a sealed pot — called the canary — that helps with the extraction of the natural juices of the chicken and vegetables while tenderizing and concentrating the flavors. At Farafina, the choice of meat was chicken — a simple dish with rich flavors that is best shared over dinner with a few friends.
Farfina Café also serves a poisson à la braise, a grilled tilapia or snapper that is topped with a cooked onion tomato chutney-like sauce with green and yellow peppers, and raw pickled onions with mustard, lemon and spices. Typically cooked over charcoal, the aroma of poisson à la braise pervades the senses and the streets, luring in the hungry.
While Harlem offers many restaurants and cafes like Joloff, Pointy Bistro, and Keur Sokhna, there’s Abidjan in Brooklyn and Mataheko restaurant and lounge in Jamaica, Queens, which also serve the West African communities spread across the five boroughs. Call ahead to check about alcohol, as many West African owners are Muslims and don’t serve it.
A few years ago, I was at Summerstage in Central Park, at a concert where I was mesmerized by Alpha Blondy’s rich voice and message: to promote unity between religions. He sang beautifully in Arabic, French and Hebrew. Born in the Ivory Coast to a Muslim mother, he completed his education at Hunter College and then at Columbia University. There were many West Africans in the crowd. The Ivory Coast is one of the most pro-American nations in Africa and the world, according to a recent survey, with 85% of the population viewing the U.S. favorably.
The music made me even hungrier for a bite of the Ivory Coast. I checked my real watch as the sun was setting and sure enough it was dinner time.