Bloor West’s Afrobeat Kitchen puts tasty riffs on Nigerian jollof
“In an ideal world, I would like a kitchen where I can cook with a live fire,” says Victor Ugwueke, as he’s searching around his cubicle-sized kitchen.
He pulls a bottle of bright orange powder and generously sprinkles it over a mound of fried chicken wings, vigorously tossing with one hand. “Yaji spice makes suya. This is probably one of our most popular dishes.”
Ugwueke, owner of Afrobeat Kitchen, is among a wave of cooks who took to social media platforms to promote their home-based food businesses when they found themselves unemployed during the pandemic.
“There’s a sense of community and kinship now after all that has transpired in the past year,” said Ozoz Sokoh, a Mississauga-based culinary anthropologist.
Ugwueke, who spent years working his way through some of the city’s most notable kitchens like Nota Bene, Enoteca Sociale and Tabule, is one of many professional cooks creating hyper regional cuisines that reflect on their ancestral heritage while exploring third culture.
As Ugwueke says, it’s “traditional and contemporary on the same plate.”
He launched Afrobeat Kitchen in 2017, testing out his “Afro brunch” concept at the Junction Farmers Market, where he served heaping plates of ewa aganyin, a traditional stew made by slow cooking beans with onions and a formidable amount of Nigerian chili peppers.
When he was let go during the pandemic, he decided to dedicate his time to the pop-up, first turning to the Depanneur, a long-standing commissary kitchen in Toronto known for supporting budding food entrepreneurs. His pop-ups sold out quickly, a hundred meals each time.
A few months later, he landed at his brother-in-law’s Caravan Cafe & Tea House on Bloor West.
The tiny kitchen gives Ugwueke room to explore his take on contemporary Nigerian food. On a recent visit, he insisted I try his jollof rice, the quintessential West African rice dish cooked with tomatoes, plenty of spices and meat.
Ugwueke’s version is distinctively aromatic, the rice hinted at a mint-like quality. “I use lemongrass. I use star anise,” he explained. “Not traditional, but it gives me a flavour I like.”
There are other noticeable tweaks. In lieu of maggi seasoning, a foundational ingredient in West African cooking, Ugwueke uses miso. He says it gives him more nuance in depth and umami. And with buka beef, a traditional stew made with offcuts of beef, Ugwueke cooks beef shoulder low and slow until tender.
“It just makes sense for me to have a more modern approach, but keep flavours authentic, presented with some twists.”
Read more of the Star’s new Toronto food coverage: