The Taste of Africa

If you’ve ever visited the city of Syracuse, even briefly, there are a couple of things you would likely notice right away: the school spirit at Syracuse University, and that lake effect is not a myth. Something you may not readily notice, however, is what a diverse and eclectic city Syracuse is. People from all over the world have migrated here and many have opened stores and restaurants that highlight their culture. One such restaurant is Taste of Africa in north Syracuse just outside of downtown.

Walking in, you are greeted by lively African hip hop music and a decor that showcases the African people, exotic animals and the culture. The restaurant opened for the first time in 2011, when owner Ullys Mouity decided to bring more of the flavor of the African community to Syracuse. Unfortunately, with the little experience Ullys had in the restaurant business, Taste of Africa did not succeed the first time around. Undeterred, Ullys sought help from his family, and in 2017, re-opened to find success.

Ullys was born in the Republic of Congo and lived there until he and his family fled to Gabon during the war. As a child in Congo, he watched his mother and grandparents cook for the family. Ullys explained that while the elders prepare the meals, everyone has their role in the kitchen. He and his siblings would go to the market for fresh produce; and while his mother cooked, they would hand her anything she needed. Ullys didn’t start actively cooking until he moved to Gabon. Here, he had a dear friend who had lost his mother and father in the war, so as the eldest child he had to take over to cook for the younger siblings. Ullys saw this as an opportunity to bring friends and family together. He and his buddies would go to each others’ homes a few times a month and cook together. Through these acts of kindness and friendship, he learned how to prepare delicious meals for large groups.

At the age of 21 Ullys moved to the United States, pursuing an education in graphic design and architecture from Onadoga Community College. He began working at an engineering company here in Syracuse and still works there today. In his down-time, Ullys works alongside his wife, his brother, and his four children in the family-owned restaurant. Ullys recognizes the importance of family, and teaches his children much about their heritage and their cuisine. He and his wife share most of the cooking at home, but make sure their children have a role as well, just like he did growing up.

We started with the plantain appetizer. The waitress, who is also Ullys’s daughter, said they are a must when you come to Taste of Africa. The plantains were perfectly crunchy on the outside and beautifully soft and pillowy on the inside (like your most ideal French fry, only thicker). The balance of sweet and salty was perfectly accompanied by their special sauce called Pilli-Pilli. I asked Ullys what’s in this sauce that makes it so good and he told me it’s made from small peppers blended with fresh tomatoes sautéed in vegetable oil and a “special ingredient” he just wouldn’t give up no matter how hard I tried to find out.

As a pescatarian, I had to try the fish special, Samaki, which is a grilled tilapia with tomato sauce. The fish was thin, flaky, and had a slight crunch from the griddle on the outside, but moist and tender on the inside. The tomato sauce was slathered over the top, and had a rich deep umami flavor. I just had to know what was in it. Ullys revealed that it’s an easy sauce of tomatoes, garlic powder, onion powder, tomato paste, and a seasoning called Sazon you can buy at the store. He gave me a packet to take home and you better believe I am going to use it in my next dish, whatever that may be, because it is just that good.

Luke, the meat-eater, ordered the beef shish kabobs. Now, this man loves a good piece of steak, so when he told me the kabob was cooked with a perfect sear on the outside and a generous amount of seasoning on the outside, I had to believe him.

Finally, what I deem the most important part of the meal, are the sides. Luke and I shared an order of cassava, fried rice, and chapati.
Cassava is made from Cassava leaves or yaka leaves, pounded up with onions garlic, sardines and peanut butter. Trust me, I was surprised when I heard this list of ingredients. But, it was wonderfully salty, slightly briny, and savory.

The fried rice here is seasoned with the same seasoning as the tomato sauce, Sazon.

And the Chapati is a light wheat flat bread brought by Indian immigrants to Africa, similar in consistency to a thin pita. It was lightly flavored and a great vessel for soaking up all the saucy goodness.

Taste of Africa is a unique and satisfying culinary experience. From the distinctive cultural ambience to the rich and abiding flavors, you can taste the deference to family and African tradition in every bite. I was heartened to have discovered this rare little treasure right in my own city and eager to uncover more of them.

Visit
Taste of Africa
820 Danforth Street
Syracuse, NY 13208
United States
(315) 378-4152

About the author:

Tatiana Inkeles is originally from South Florida and currently living in Syracuse New York. She graduated from  Syracuse University in May of 2019 with a bachelor of science in Nutrition sciences. She is a huge foodie and loves finding new places to eat. She'll be applying to medical school this spring and can't wait to find more places to eat near her new school!

https://www.linkedin.com/mwlite/in/tatiana-inkeles-b90351136

Selam Ethiopian Kitchen

Upon entering Selam Ethiopian Kitchen, the richness of the rosemary in the air is rivaled only by that of the red walls that define the cavernous dining room. Groups gather around large, round dishes of injera adorned with delectable toppings of meats, vegetables, and legumes.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, injera is a large type of sourdough flatbread upon which thick stews, or wat, are served. This style and method of eating is, to say the least, hands-on. Diners take the injera in their hands, which the chef referred to as “natural forks,” and scoop bites of whichever wat strikes their fancy. As if a painter’s palette, the injera is host to a range of colors, aromas, and – you guessed it – flavors: orange lentils, green lamb, brown chicken, and white cheese decorated my dish, though the palette’s contents are at the artists’ discretion.

I was greeted by the restaurant’s chef and namesake, Selamawit “Selam” Abebe, and owner, Solomon Abebe. They are a lovely couple, both warm and welcoming. As I had fasted in anticipation of the meal, the savory fumes taunted my appetite – onion, peppers, and seemingly countless spices made for a very distracted interviewer. In speaking with Solomon, it was his attention to these ingredients (and authenticity) that blew me away. All of their vegetables are organic, and all of their spices (and even butter) are sourced from Ethiopia itself. Especially considering that meat is often consumed raw in this cuisine, it must be high-quality and fresh. And who better to source it than an experienced butcher such as Solomon. Upon entering the establishment, one passes a small butcher’s window that he still operates, carving meats for both the customers their own kitchen. To quote Solomon, “this is the best food you can get in the whole United States.”

In addition to (and a function of) top-shelf ingredients, Solomon takes pride in their expert preparation, particularly that of the injera, made of fermented teff flour and indubitably the staple food of Ethiopia. If prepared improperly, this bread may result in bloating and an upset stomach, but certainly not at Selam Ethiopian Kitchen. Indeed, customers, particularly the robust market of 20,000+ Ethiopians in the area (according to Solomon), often stop by to pick up only the bread to take home for their own cooking and pleasure. All in all, this competitive advantage relative to other local establishments is not a result of fortuity, but rather experience, expertise, and extensive due diligence. Solomon recounted that prior to opening shop, he and his wife surveyed other restaurants in the area and conducted their own market research, rating every dish at every restaurant on their radar. As such, it’s no surprise that they’re well-aware of their superior quality, vending their bread both locally and internationally.

Like many immigrants to the United States, Solomon’s story is one of determination and hard work in the face of adversity. Aged 23, he fled Ethiopia in 1985 after famine struck the country in 1983, displacing millions internally and thousands externally. As a refugee in Sudan, he worked as a cook at the U.S. Embassy, teaching himself to cook what he described as “American food” – omelets, casseroles and the like. At 32, he fled Sudan in 1996 as civil war ravaged the country, arriving in Chicago and settling in the Uptown area. Solomon enrolled in pharmacy school, driving a taxi when his studies permitted. All the meanwhile, he and Selam enjoyed cooking at home, eventually deciding to open a small butcher shop. It was there that Selam began to cook more and more for their customers, inspiring the couple to open a restaurant after receiving glowing feedback and ringing endorsements for 7 years. All the meanwhile, the couple grew their family from 2 to 6, their children now aged 19, 15, 8, and 4, helping around the restaurant on occasion. Selam Ethiopian Kitchen has now been open for a couple of years, growing its customer base of those seeking healthy and authentic food that meets Solomon and Selam’s highest standards.

Discussing food and cooking with Solomon, I saw his face light up as he boasted (as humbly as one can) that their food is “very healthy [and] very delicious.” Indeed, food is about much more than satisfying hunger in his eyes: “we try to make happiness by eating our food…you have to get something out of it…happiness and health.” When asked about the challenges of running a restaurant, a notoriously tricky business, Solomon remarked that it is an all-consuming occupation that requires attention all day every day. That said, there’s no doubting his dedication, ability, and care to bring a piece of his homeland to his new home here in Chicago.

It was a distinct pleasure to meet and speak with Solomon and Selam. For anyone interested in a varied platter (as I was), they offer a diverse “meat sampler” with doro wot, yebeg wot, yeberé wot, and zizil tibs, all of which were delicious (their signature dish is their short ribs, or goden tibs). I can’t recommend enjoying their exceptional food enough!

Visit:
Selam Ethiopian Kitchen
4543N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640
773.271.4300

Hours
Tuesday - Thursday: 11AM - 11PM
Friday - Sunday: 11AM - 2AM

The author is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.