There’s nothing wrong with jollof rice. In fact, it’s what I always order when I go to West African restaurants. But that’s exactly the problem. The tomato-reddened rice is what I always order. The servers at Calabash African Cuisine & Bar are so relaxed that I was able to discuss my quandary and find a solution.
Jollof rice, take a back seat. I may be a waakye eater now. While jollof rice is common across West Africa, waakye (pronounced waa-chay) can be pinned down as specifically Ghanaian, like the owners of Calabash. It’s a blend of rice and beans that may be the progenitor of the Caribbean combo thereof that we all know and love. Now that’s a taste of history.
The reddish-brown hue owes to the inclusion of red sorghum leaves, better known simply as “waakye leaves” in most African food stores. It’s colorful, but doesn’t have a strong flavor that overpowers the natural nuttiness of the rice and black-eyed peas. They, along with the al dente spaghetti on the side (taalia), get most of their character from the stew on top.
In my case, that was fork-tender cubes of beef braised in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. Tomato sauce that reminded me of my grandmother’s brisket. Comfort food that does its job, whether your grandmother is Ghanaian or Eastern European, isn’t easy to find. But the waakye at Calabash accomplishes that feat.
A dip in the spicy shito, a sauce made with shrimp, chiles, and ginger, gives the dish some fangs, but there’s nothing that can mitigate the feeling that the chef has given you a warm hug on a plate. For an extra dose of sweetness, I ordered kelewele, spice-crusted fried plantains, to mix in with my waakye.
Yes, I finally strayed from jollof rice. And at Calabash, I’ll do it again.// 514-C S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria
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