Chef Simileoluwa Adebajo Is Serving Up Nigerian Comfort Food in San Francisco—Try Her Recipes at Home
When Simileoluwa Adebajo first saw the thick black smoke, she didn't know it was her kitchen burning. The realization hit her as she walked from the bus stop and neared the five-alarm fire that engulfed six buildings, including the one that housed her commissary kitchen that she had moved into just days before.
Gone were all the equipment and ingredients—kegs of red palm oil, sacks of garri (cassava flakes), specialty drinks like Chapman and Maltina—that she had imported for Èkó Kitchen, San Francisco's first Nigerian restaurant. She could smell her suya spice—a blend of hot pepper, ginger and ground peanuts used on grilled meats—singeing in the air. "So the building is burning down and all I can think is 'My spices! My spices!'" she says.
A little more than a year before the fire, in April 2019, Adebajo had quit her full-time job as a financial analyst to open her restaurant. What was once a defense against homesickness, grilling chicken suya, cooking smoky jollof rice and frying plantains, became the 26-year-old's passion project, motivated by reasons both personal and political.
Before the pandemic and before the fire, Èkó Kitchen's weekly Sunday Suppers, with festive family-style meals set to Nigerian hip-hop, were a tribute to Adebajo's paternal grandmother. Every Sunday in Lagos, Esther Oyindamola Adebajo would gather 20 or so of her sons and daughters and grandchildren (Adebajo comes from a large family—her father is one of 10 children and her mother one of 21) around the table and heap it with a cooler (yes, a cooler!) of rice and fiery stews like ayamase, a braise of all parts of the cow—tripe, intestines and skin—with green peppers.
"It was so spicy that she would always leave six giant bottles of water on the table for us because we needed to drink water while we ate it and immediately after but it was so good you kept eating," Adebajo remembers. It was everything that she says characterizes Nigerian food: bold, flavorful, spicy, soulful. "It was a way to recap our weeks and to share challenges and victories. We left feeling that the next week would be better just because we were able to speak to each other about it."
The girls in the family were made to help in the kitchen, but "until I moved to San Francisco, I didn't know I could replicate [her] recipes," Adebajo says. "I missed home food, and I was just thinking about how she used to make it, and I'm like, let me try." She found that after all those years watching and tasting, she knew more than she realized, like the right way to scoop puff puff batter between her fingers then drop it into hot oil for the cinnamon-sugar-dusted doughnuts.
Adebajo was born in Queens, New York, but her parents moved the family to Lagos, Nigeria, when she was 7 to have support in raising their children. Adebajo returned to the U.S. when she was 21 to pursue a master's degree in international developmental economics at the University of San Francisco.
"I am only bringing this one perspective to the table," Adebajo says. "Hopefully over time I can bring in other Nigerian voices, somebody who cooks Igbo or Hausa food. There are different types of cuisines in Nigeria, and as I tell people, Nigeria is the most populous Black nation in the world," with 215 million people. It was also the longtime poverty capital of the world (recently surpassed by India), where more than one-third of the people live below the poverty line.
"I have to use my platform to give back to the culture that I am promoting," she says. On the abstract level, it's informing diners of the scale of the problem; on the tangible level, it's personally importing indigenous ingredients like red palm oil and garri to support producers in Nigeria.
But after setbacks from the pandemic, and then watching a blaze level her kitchen, she thought about giving up and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. But then she remembered where she came from. Her great-grandmother created a union in Nigeria that protected market women from extortion. Her maternal grandmother was a textiles magnate in Ibadan. Adebajo remembered something she read: "Do you know how powerful you are when you admit to yourself that there's power in your bloodline, and your ancestors passed that power?"
So she rebuilt. And more. She found a new kitchen and prepared meals for vulnerable families affected by the pandemic through a partnership with the nonprofit SF New Deal. She hosts pop-up dinners and has taken them to New York and Los Angeles. She has transitioned into primarily a catering company, while also hosting virtual cooking classes, complete with ingredient boxes sent to the participants, and self-published a cookbook, From Èkó with Love: A Guide to Modern Nigerian Cooking. She rebuilt—to tell her own stories and those from Nigeria.
Essential Nigerian Ingredients
This reddish-brown ground pepper is made from fiery dried Scotch bonnet chiles.
Cooks use this powder, made from dried and ground crayfish, to add flavor to soups and rice dishes.
Made from ground dried gourd seeds, this powder thickens its namesake soup.
Made of fermented and roasted cassava, garri is often used to make a lightly sweetened porridge as well as a starchy ball called a swallow that's served alongside soups and stews for dipping and scooping.
Harvested from the pods of African locust bean trees then fermented, iru gives deep umami flavor to soups, stews and more.
Nigerian honey beans
If you've cooked or eaten black-eyed peas, honey beans will look familiar—they have a similar "eye" on the inward curve but are a darker hue.
Obe ata dindin sauce
Sometimes referred to as Nigerian pepper sauce, it's made with stewed bell and habanero peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices.
Red palm oil
Extracted from the oil palm tree, this oil gets its deep red hue from healthful antioxidant pigments called carotenoids, which are important for eye health. Its high smoke point makes it a good choice for frying.
This spice blend, which usually includes hot peppers, paprika, ginger and ground peanuts, is often used on skewered beef or chicken. The spicy skewered meat is generally referred to as suya throughout West African countries.
Gbegiri Soup (Honey Bean Soup)Also known as ewa-olyin in the language of Nigeria's Yoruba people, which translates to "beans naturally coated with honey," honey beans, native to Nigeria, indeed have a hint of sweetness. They form the base of this popular Yoruba soup. Optional crayfish powder adds a smoky-sweet pleasantly fishy flavor.
Garri CookiesGarri is made from dried, fermented cassava, a tuber native to South America and introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders from Brazil in the 16th century. San Francisco chef Simileoluwa Adebajo says her family, like many in Nigeria, often eat garri mixed with ground nuts, sugar and milk, like a cereal. These subtly sweet cookies are crisp and delicious.
Dodo Ati Efo (Fried Plantains & Stewed Spinach)This is a popular dish of the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. In the Yoruba language, dodo means fried plantains, and efo means leafy green vegetables, commonly spinach—here, the sweet plantains are a foil to the spicy spinach stew. Essential to Nigerian cuisine, unrefined red palm oil gets its color from naturally occurring beta carotene. For a vegetarian version, substitute 1 pound sliced mushrooms for the beef and use vegetable bouillon cubes. In Step 3, simmer the mushrooms in the sauce for 5 minutes.
Plantain Puff PuffsPlantain puff puffs combine two of San Francisco chef Simileoluwa Adebajo's favorite things: fried plantains and puff puffs (Nigeria's nutmeg-scented fried dough). For the best flavor, be sure to use overripe plantains, which will have completely black or mottled black skin.
Beef Suya TacosSuya, grilled skewers of thinly sliced meat spiced with ground peanuts, ginger and chiles, originated with the Hausa and Fulani people in northern Nigeria, but they are now a popular street food, wrapped in newspaper to go, throughout the country. Nigerian American chef Simileoluwa Adebajo, owner of Èkó Kitchen in San Francisco, created this dish one day when she sliced suya hot off the grill and placed them in fresh tortillas made by a friend with a cooking school in Mexico. For the best flavor, Adebajo recommends making your own tortillas, but here we use store-bought for simplicity.
Egusi PotstickersEgusi soup, which is thickened with roasted and ground gourd seeds, is the most widely eaten soup across Nigeria. It's usually served with swallow, a dough made from any number of starches, including pounded yam and dried cassava, that is used to scoop up the soup. But San Francisco chef Simileoluwa Adebajo's love of Chinese dumplings inspired this creation.