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.
Taste of Africa
820 Danforth Street
Syracuse, NY 13208
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!