Determined to bring dishes from their heritage to the mainstream, this brother-sister duo created a restaurant as welcoming as it is tasty
By Xanthe Clay, The Telegraph, 26 July 2020
Welcome to Lagos, says the sign on the door to Chuku’s. And for Ifeyinwa and Emeka Frederick, the sister and brother team who run the north London “Nigerian tapas” restaurant, that means immersing yourself in more than the food. Inside the narrow room, painted a soft terracotta to recall the ancient adobe buildings of Northern Nigeria, there are myriad reminders of the culture.
Walls are hung with posters by contemporary Nigerian artists, illustrating proverbs from the three of the largest tribes of Nigeria, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba, while the repurposed tins which do duty as napkin holders are each labelled with a different Nigerian name and its evocative translation: “Ezenwanyi: woman has power like a king”; “Ijeoma: safe journey”; “Titilayo: eternal happiness”; “Ifeanyi: nothing is impossible”; and “Montunrayo: I have found joy again.” Chuku’s itself is taken from Emeka’s full name, Chukwuemeka, which means “God has done well”.
The Fredericks grew up in Essex, where they still live in the house they were born in, although their Nigerian mother and Grenadan father, both chartered accountants, have moved out. As children, explains Ifeyinwa, 28, “we didn’t think of our diet as particularly Nigerian, but pasta was special because our mum would never cook it. We’d have rice and chicken and red stew, that’s very Nigerian. Dessert didn’t really feature – it’s not a big thing in our culture.”
Emeka, 30, went to boarding school at Winchester College, an experience he remembers fondly as “a huge adventure”. Food, though, was “a bit of a shock. We had cottage pie and I said to my friend, ‘I’ve never had this before.’ ‘What DO you eat at home then?” he asked.’” Ifeyinwa read Classics at Cambridge University, where she was bemused by the lack of kitchens: “just a kitchenette with a couple of hot plates. I was used to cooking for myself, not eating canteen food every day.”
Emeka went on to study economics at Nottingham University and work in the City, while Ifeyinwa worked as an English language teacher in Martinique and France. But the two were frustrated by the lack of Nigerian restaurants. “They did exist,” explains Emeka, “but they were the kind of place that you had to know someone from Nigeria to take you, even though you don’t have to know an Italian to eat at an Italian restaurant, or Chinese to eat Chinese.”
They had been cooking for friends and finding that they enjoyed the dishes, and in 2016 the pair started running Chuku’s pop-ups and supper clubs, a run that won them a Young British Foodies Award in 2019. But they still felt it was not inclusive enough, catering chiefly for the food-savvy customers.
Inspired by time spent in Barcelona, Emeka came up with the idea of Nigerian tapas – fitting the relaxed style of Nigeria while also allowing people to try the food in small portions – and they started looking for premises for “a Nigerian restaurant that anyone could go to.” The ethos is based around “Chop Chat Chill”: chop, Nigerian for eat, chat for the social and community focus of the restaurant, and chill for its cultural emphasis.
They opened in February, with Emeka in charge of the kitchen and Ifeyinwa running front of house, only five weeks before they were forced to close due to lockdown. But they have kept the cultural conversation going with online events, while their website is a one-stop shop of Nigerian culture, a vibrant mix of interviews with high profile Nigerian artists and writers, articles and music playlists.
Back to the chop. Despite the huge size of Africa, many of us know curiously little about the food, and tend to lump it together if we talk about it at all. Imagine if we didn’t distinguish between Italian, French, and British cooking? Yet Nigeria alone has a population bigger than all three put together.
My experience of the food until recently has been limited to reading the works of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Yemisi Aribisala. But dipping my toe, or my tongue, into Nigerian cuisine and the panoply of ingredients of the West African nation has been a thrilling experience.
Many of them, like fermented bean iru, or gari, a coarse ground cassava flour, have familiar resonances: the iru reminds me of Japanese miso, while gari could loosely be compared to polenta and is almost identical to Brazilian farinha. There’s lots of ginger, not much dairy, and a whole new battery of techniques, from the pounding of yam (though it’s fine to skip this and use powdered yam, says Emeka) and the pureeing of raw veg in the blender rather than chopping and sauteeing. The flavours are clean, warm and deeply appetising.
The egusi soup that Emeka dishes up for me is a case in point. Mellow and complex with spice, warm with chilli but not painfully hot, it is delicious and accessible, even if the art of squidging the soft dumplings of eba into scoops takes practice. I can’t understand why this isn’t as popular as Thai green curry, I tell Emeka and Ifeyinwa. They smile. If they have their way, it soon will be. Ifeanyi: nothing is impossible.
Chuku’s Nigerian larder
The Nigerian store cupboard is sophisticated and varied, but here are a few of the key ingredients. Names for these vary from tribe to tribe and many are also common in other parts of West Africa. Afrobuy.co.uk is a good online stockist.
Dried seeds from the egusi gourd. High in fat and protein-rich, and always cooked (rather than eaten raw) often in soup, where they act as a thickener. “You can buy the seeds whole but I often buy it pre-ground,” says Emeka.
Eba or garri
Made from dried and grated cassava granules which are then fried, either with palm oil (making yellow garri) or without for white garri. Emeka recommends buying white Ijebu Garri which has finer grains and a pleasantly sour taste.
A starchy tuber, yam has a rough, bark-like skin and has a denser texture than cassava, which which it is often confused. It holds great cultural significance in Nigeria and festivals celebrate its harvest throughout West Africa. There are hundreds of varieties, including puna or white yam, used to make boiled yam and eggs, a Sunday brunch treat. When buying puna yam, Emeka advises choosing one that is firm to touch and getting it cut in two to make sure it’s pure white in the middle. “If mottled with black/brown marks it’s starting to spoil, and not suitable for your yam and eggs brunch,” he says.
Suya or yaji
A spice blend of ground cloves, ginger, chillies and kuli kuli – a fried peanut-based snack. Suya is also the name of the dish in which skewered meats are marinated in the spice seasoning before being grilled.
Fermented locust beans with a powerful savoury flavour. Used to season stews and soups.
The oil palm is native to Africa and the vivid red unrefined palm oil is intrinsic to Nigerian cooking. You can find it in African specialist shops. There are major concerns over the sustainability of palm oil, in particular in parts of South East Asia. Certified sustainable African palm oil is hard to find; the WWF suggests that consumers encourage suppliers to get certified.
Ground dried shrimps
Adds savouriness to dishes, without being noticeably fishy, much as Thai fish sauce is used in Thai dishes.
Chuku’s reopens on Friday. chukuslondon.com