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RI FOOD & DINING

Fueling up with the flavors of West Africa, right here in R.I.

Check out this guide featuring some noteworthy Rhode Island restaurants serving traditional dishes.

Kebbeh Mccants, owner of Kebbeh African Restaurant in Providence.Courtesy of Kebbeh Mccants

Toyin Bankole warmly greets two men in their shared native Yoruba language as they walk into her aptly named Toyin African Restaurant in Providence’s West End.

An aroma of warm spices and slow-cooked meats fills the air as Bankole heaps a generous serving of egusi soup and a warm, plump mound of pounded yam resembling a large dinner roll, on each eager diner’s plate.

For Bankole, the owner of one of several Providence restaurants serving traditional West African cuisine, cooking to satisfy body and soul seems to be just part of her DNA.

Nearly 16,000 people born in Western African countries live in Rhode Island, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2017-2021 American Community Survey 5-Year Data released in September.

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Historically, the state has been known to have one of the largest per-capita Liberian populations in the country. Julius Kolawole, director and cofounder of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, said Cape Verdeans make up the largest West African community in the state, followed by Liberians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians. The nonprofit organization connects all Rhode Islanders of African descent with community programming focused on health, food, education, and culture.

Food, of course, is one of the most profound ways people connect with their culture, and today, Rhode Island is home to a number of restaurants serving traditional West African dishes. Here’s a closer look at some noteworthy restaurants bringing exciting flavors to the Ocean State.

Toyin African Restaurant in Providence.Handout Photo

Toyin African Restaurant, Providence

Tucked in Providence’s West End neighborhood, this casual quick-service style eatery includes a handful of tables for sit-down dining in addition to managing a steady to-go business. Chef/owner Toyin Bankole opened the restaurant in 2020, serving mostly ready-made dishes from her native Nigeria as well as popular Liberian meals.

“Nigerian food is mostly lunch because some of it is heavy food. You have to eat it for lunch so you can digest it before dinner,” Bankole explained.

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Her egusi soup is a hearty, stew-like soup made of seeds from the egusi gourd, which resembles a watermelon. Rich in vitamins and healthy fats, the seeds are used in a number of traditional African dishes and add a healthy dose of nutty spiciness to recipes. Most customers ordering egusi soup here opt for a side of pounded yam, or fufú, a potato-like mound that’s torn into pieces to dip into the soup and sop up its savory flavors.

The efo riro, a Nigerian spinach stew (“efo” is a word in Nigeria’s Yoruba language for “spinach,” and “riro” means “to stir”), is a little spicy, Bankole said, and is an equally filling meal. Bankole said she learned to make a lot of these dishes when she was younger but only became serious about cooking later, formally studying cooking in Nigeria and when she arrived in the US.

Toyin African Restaurant, 45D Central St., Providence

A selection of offerings from Deddeh's Kitchen in Providence.Handout Photo

Deddeh’s Kitchen, Providence

It’s easy to miss Deddeh’s Kitchen in Upper South Providence, but it’d be a shame to do so. The catty-corner building, with its foundation-to-rooftop black exterior, suggests a nightclub or speakeasy awaits through the single entry door. But it’s clear from the restaurant’s robust takeout business that many are in on what otherwise would appear to be a best-kept secret. A small kitchen and counter for ordering can be found right when you enter, and though a seat-yourself dining room offers a place to comfortably enjoy your meal, it seems most guests opt for meals to-go.

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Florence Sieh, a cook and manager at Deddeh’s, said the restaurant serves traditional Liberian dishes, but concedes that many meals from the region share commonalities.

“Basically, it’s almost the same thing. Very similar. The way it’s been prepared and the seasoning – that’s the biggest difference,” said Sieh, who is originally from Liberia. (Her sister is the head cook.)

Nearly all of the customers at the restaurant on a recent Friday afternoon ordered cassava leaf. The cassava plant is best known for its yuca root (pronounced YOO-ka, and not to be confused with yucca). Its leaves are crushed, browned and steamed, then added to onions, veggies, seasoning, and meat, like smoked turkey, to make an earthy, stew-like dish served over a bed of steamed rice.

But their jollof rice should be the dish of choice for patrons who like a little zing. Long grain rice is seasoned and simmered in tomato broth with peas, diced carrots, onion, black pepper and other ingredients yielding an aromantic, fluffy and flavorful orange/red rice served with fried plantains on top.

Deddeh’s Kitchen, 418 Pine St., Providence

The Village has locations in Pawtucket and Providence.Handout Photo

The Village, Providence and Pawtucket

Toyin Wilcox opened Village Restaurant on Pawtucket’s Main Street in early 2009 and The Village PVD in downtown Providence a year ago. Serving dishes and drinks from her native Nigeria, Wilcox offers nearly half a dozen vegetarian or vegan dishes. Among these is ewa agoyin, a popular Nigerian street food made with beans that have been soaked, cooked, mashed, then covered in a spicy sauce made with dried chili, red bell peppers, onion, and palm oil, a key ingredient in West African cuisine indigenous to the region.

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For carnivores, okra (also of West African origin) and red stew is one of The Village’s popular satisfying stews that can be served with a choice of goat meat, beef, boneless fish, or chicken and topped with iyan (the Yoruba name for pounded yam). The brightly colored dish is filling fare by any standard. Pair it with a bottle of Emu Top Palm Juice, a tart Nigerian beverage made by fermenting the sap of different palm trees.

Those with a sweet tooth should make note of the puff-puff, a deep fried dough ball resembling a larger, fluffier Dunkin’ Donuts munchkin, only with a hint of chewiness. Another option is a bag of chin chin. These small, approximately 1-inch squares of fried pastry bites, described as “crisp dough chips” are delightfully addictive. Wash it down with zobo, or hibiscus drink, a jewel-toned, slightly tart tea that’s said to have myriad health benefits, or chapman drink, a carbonated, non-alcoholic punch typically made with black currant syrup or grenadine.

The Village PVD, 100 Fountain St., Providence

Village Restaurant, 200 Main St., Pawtucket (closed for renovations through Jan. 2, 2023)

Kebbeh African Restaurant

What Kebbeh African Restaurant lacks in square footage, it makes up for in heart. Kebbeh Mccants, from Liberia, opened her restaurant in the Elmhurst section of Providence nearly 12 years ago. She said her customers include people from all races and ethnicities, adding that many popular American dishes have African origins.

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“Collard greens and cabbage came from overseas,” she explained.

Collard greens and fried okra are classic Liberian dishes, though preparation methods can vary. Mccants’ potato greens, made from the leaves of the sweet potato plant, are cooked traditionally using red oil, a West African staple ingredient.

Like most West African restaurants, Kebbeh’s fried fish is served whole after being thoroughly seasoned.

“We do it with fried plantains, but people have to call ahead for it, then I fry it,” she said.

A few shelves in the small space are stocked with imported West African foodstuffs, including sardines, beans, large bags of rice, a variety of fufú flours, and bags of garri; a granular flour made from cassava that when prepared, closely resembles farina.

“Most Africans cook their own food, except when they’re working, they’ll come to the restaurant to buy,” she said.

Her true passion though, is cooking for those in need. Every Tuesday evening, Mccants feeds the hungry at her restaurant and on many Saturdays, you’ll find her at Providence’s Kennedy Plaza serving up a variety of prepared dishes through local ministry programs.

“God has blessed me,” she said.

Kebbeh African Restaurant, 850 Admiral St., Providence