Chef Simileoluwa Adebajo serves up Nigerian comfort food in San Francisco – try his recipes at home

When Simileoluwa Adebajo first saw the thick black smoke, she didn’t know it was her kitchen that was burning. Awareness hit her as she left the bus stop and approached the five-alarm fire that engulfed six buildings, including the one that housed the kitchen of her police station which she had moved into a few days before.

Gone is all the equipment and ingredients—drums of red palm oil, bags of garri (cassava flakes), specialty drinks like Chapman and Maltina—that she had imported for Èkó Kitchen, San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant. . She could smell her suya spice – a mixture of chili, ginger and ground peanuts used on grilled meats – burning in the air. “So the building is burning and all I can think is, ‘My spices! My spices!'” she said.

Just over a year before the fire, in April 2019, Adebajo quit his full-time job as a financial analyst to open his restaurant. What was once a defense against homesickness, grilling chicken suya, cooking smoked jollof rice and frying plantains, has become the 26-year-old’s passion project, driven by both personal and policies.

Before the pandemic and before the fire, Èkó Kitchen’s weekly Sunday suppers, with family-style festive meals set to Nigerian hip-hop, were a tribute to Adebajo’s paternal grandmother. Every Sunday in Lagos, Esther Oyindamola Adebajo gathered about twenty of her sons, daughters and grandchildren (Adebajo comes from a large family – her father is one of 10 children and her mother one of 21) around the table and heaps it with a cooler (yes, a cooler!) of rice and fire stews like ayamase, a braise of all parts of the cow – tripe, intestines and skin – with green peppers.

“It was so spicy she always left six giant bottles of water on the table for us because we needed to drink water while we ate it and immediately after, but it was so good you keep going to eat,” recalls Adebajo. It was everything she says characterizes Nigerian cuisine: bold, savory, spicy, soulful. “It was a way to recap our weeks and share challenges and victories. We left feeling like next week would be better just because we got to talk to each other about it.”

The girls in the family were forced to help in the kitchen, but “until I moved to San Francisco, I didn’t know I could reproduce [her] recipes,” says Adebajo. “I was missing the homemade food, and I was just thinking about how she made it, and I was like, let me try. She found that after all these years of watching and tasting, she knew more than she realized, like the proper way to scoop puff pastry between her fingers and then drop it into hot oil for donuts sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Adebajo was born in Queens, New York, but her parents moved the family to Lagos, Nigeria when she was 7 for help raising their children. Adebajo returned to the United States at the age of 21 to pursue a master’s degree in international development economics at the University of San Francisco.

“I only bring one perspective to the table,” says Adebajo. “I hope over time I can bring in other Nigerian voices, someone who cooks Igbo or Hausa food. There are different types of cuisines in Nigeria, and as I tell people, Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world”, with 215 million inhabitants. people. It was also the longtime poverty capital of the world (recently overtaken by India), where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

“I have to use my platform to give back to the culture that I promote,” she says. At the abstract level, it is about informing diners of the magnitude of the problem; concretely, he personally imports indigenous ingredients like red palm oil and garri to support Nigerian producers.

But after the setbacks of the pandemic, and then seeing a fire raze her kitchen, she considered giving up and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. But then she remembered where she came from. Her great-grandmother started a union in Nigeria that protected women traders from extortion. Her maternal grandmother was a textile magnate in Ibadan. Adebajo recalled something she read: “Do you know how powerful you are when you admit there is power in your lineage and your ancestors passed that power on?”

So she rebuilt. And more. She found a new kitchen and cooked meals for vulnerable families affected by the pandemic through a partnership with nonprofit SF New Deal. She hosts pop-up dinner parties and has taken them to New York and Los Angeles. It has become primarily a catering business, while also hosting virtual cooking classes, with boxes of ingredients sent to attendees, and self-publishing a cookbook, From Èkó with Love: A Guide to Modern Nigerian Cooking. She rebuilt – to tell her own stories and those of Nigeria.

This reddish brown ground pepper is made from dried Scotch Bonnet peppers.

Cooks use this powder, made from dried and crushed crayfish, to flavor soups and rice dishes.

Made from ground dried pumpkin seeds, this powder thickens its namesake soup.

Made from fermented and roasted cassava, garri is often used to make a slightly sweet porridge as well as a starchy ball called a swallow that is served with soups and stews for dipping and scooping.

Harvested from the pods of African carobs and then fermented, iru lends a deep umami flavor to soups, stews and more.

If you’ve cooked or eaten black-eyed peas, honey beans will look familiar – they have a similar “eye” on the inward curve but are a darker shade.

Sometimes called Nigerian pepper sauce, it is made with cooked bell peppers and habanero peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices.

Extracted from palm oil, this oil gets its deep red hue from healthy antioxidant pigments called carotenoids, which are important for eye health. Its high smoke point makes it a good choice for frying.

This spice blend, which typically includes hot peppers, paprika, ginger, and ground peanuts, is often used on beef or chicken skewers. Spicy skewered meat is usually called suya in West African countries.

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