ST. JOHN’S, N.L. —
Dough sizzles on the stovetop in the small kitchen of a bungalow in the east end of St. John’s, but it isn’t traditional Newfoundland and Labrador toutons being fried, it’s puff puffs, a Nigerian dish made from dough with chopped red bell pepper sprinkled throughout.
Dressed in a vibrant blue dress and black apron, Christiana Emmanuel said she likes to add a tiny amount of habanero to give it an extra kick.
Christiana was born in Benue State, Nigeria. She has a master’s degree in international business from the University of Lincoln in England, which was where she met Sunday, also from Nigeria, who is now her husband.
While working as a lecturer at Baze University in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, Christiana dreamed of one day opening a restaurant franchise in her home country.
In 2018, the couple moved to St. John’s from Finland, where Sunday was studying mechanical engineering, so he could study oil and gas engineering.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Christiana made traditional West African food to bring to friends to give them a bit of comfort. They were so appreciative of her cooking and tasting the flavours they had grown up with, they wanted to know why she wasn’t selling it.
This was the extra push the couple needed to start thinking about opening a restaurant in St. John’s.
Afro Kitchen NL, an African-style takeout scheduled to open on Feb. 7, will be open on Sundays and Mondays from 6-10 p.m. They will serve out of the kitchen of Thyme Catering and Cooking School, located at 282 Torbay Rd.
After getting help from the YMCA of Newfoundland and Labrador business planning program, they decided to start small to assess the St. John’s market, but they hope to eventually expand.
West African comfort food
One dish in particular seems to be on everybody’s wish list, the Emmanuels said.
“Everybody has been craving for Nigerian jollof rice,” Sunday said. “It’s pretty much simple, but … there is something special about it.”
Sunday said there is a kind of friendly competition between West African countries regarding jollof.
“Nigerians say Nigerian jollof is the best, Ghanaians will tell you Ghanaian jollof is the best, the Senegalese will tell you the Senegalese jollof is the best,” Sunday said. “It’s just fun, but the bottom line is it is the same.”
Jollof is a dish consisting of rice cooked in tomato paste and chicken or beef stock with a blend of spices.
Halfway through the interview, the doorbell rang and a close friend, Precious Familusi, walked into the Emmanuels’ living room.
Familusi was born in Nigeria, but left when he was eight years old. His family eventually settled in St. John’s when he was 16.
He loves all kinds of Nigerian food, he said, but is craving suya the most.
“It’s meat spiced up in our own Nigerian way (and) it’s a very popular street food,” he said. “It’s so good.”
He begins to describe the way the Emmanuels make it taste, but stops as he tries to find the words. He gives a sigh of delight to express himself instead.
While there are variations on the dish, suya is typically a barbecued meat skewer covered in a marinade of ground peanuts, salt and habanero.
There will be regular menu items such as different styles of rice, soups, stews and zobo drink, a tea made with roselle flower, sorrel leaves, sweetened with pineapple and served chilled. But they plan to rotate different dishes each week.
Prices vary depending on the number of people being served. For instance, a serving of jollof rice for one person would be $9.99, for five people it would be $39.99 and for 10 people $69.99.
“Oh, I’m so excited, I can’t wait for that day to come,” Christiana said of their opening night. “Some of the African community … they’ve been longing for it for a very long time.”