When I began my undergraduate studies at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid 80′s, little did I know that the mathematics department and especially the computer science department were dominated by African and Caribbean students. Being one of the few students then who chose to play hard ball by pursuing a double major in both of those concentrations, I was immersed in the African and Caribbean cultures, being incredibly comfortable in both since I am a product of the two anyway. So, we all studied together. We encouraged each other in our educational track. We formed support groups. We challenged each other. We had fellowship. And oh did we eat together. After long hours of going over lessons, assignments, and preparing for tests, there were equal moments spent in kitchens and over grills having flavourful smoke dancing in the air, food swirling in our bellies, and happiness in surplus.
Today was one of those days that had my days of yore flicker through my mind. The visits to Africa in between summer intern assignments and returning to school. The cultural experience that I would not have had otherwise with other students if I had not bonded with my fellow brothers and sisters. With us all being scattered across the globe and seeing each other on occasional visits, I missed that. And I thought of the dinners that became milestone moments for us. Recent conversation over Skype with Chigbo, who is one of my greatest college friends, brought to mind that I should seek out a Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Considering Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods are teeming with representation from Africa, I knew that there would be no problem finding at least one Nigerian eatery to my liking. True to the Uptown community, there are three all in walking distance of each other. I chose Iyanze Restaurant at 4623 N. Broadway Street, just off the Wilson Street Red Line stop.
With a layout much like a cafeteria, Iyanze is a laid back kind of restaurant. You order at the counter, selecting a variety of menu items that have been prepared fresh and authentically Nigerian. After looking at the menu, I remembered what my fellow classmates had cooked in their kitchens during our weekend study sessions. I recalled a lot of what I ate to excess in Lagos in 1989. I can still taste remnants of the memories of dishes prepared by many of my Nigerian friends over the years. And I chose four dishes that called out to me and one vary daring one that will probably be my only experimental dish for the year — a bit too early to say since it is still January.
For starting out, and I shall give the daring dish upfront, I had beef pepper soup. Tasty, so very tasty, with beef cubes cooked to the point where you could cut them with plastic forks. Spicy enough to clear my breathing that had been blocked with the cold weather outside. But there is a certain ingredient that I had forgotten until I put my spoon in for the first scoop: tripe. Normally, I would give an exaggerated Ugh! and act up. However, the tripe had been cooked so that it did not have the consistency of a rubber band and it had been seasoned such that it did not taste like a rubber band either. Not that I will have a want for beef pepper soup every time I go into a Nigerian restaurant, but I must say, honestly, that the soup at Iyanze was a pleasant surprise to the taste buds. The jollof rice was as I remember — still not as good as Ghanaian jollof rice and I am not saying that because of a Ghanaian bias. The jollof rice at Iyanze was not sticky, which is not a bad thing at all, and it was not overdone or undercooked. Even Goldilocks would say, It’s just right. Add plantains to that and you have the combination of a winner. Where things really hit a happy tilt was with the tilapia in a red sauce. There is a God and I must be a favourite to have had such a tasty piece of seafood in bowl served to me. Granted the tilapia was not filleted. There are bones, bones, small bones, clear bones, fine bones, and more bones in the fish. But the meat, the freshness, the plumpness made the tilapia so much more appetizing. And I washed it all down with a ginger bear. Bliss.
After doing all but licking the plates and the soup bowl, I decided to see if I could get a dessert. Unfortunately, Iyanze does not have dessert fare. That was fine because I saw that they had a certain item that would be fantastic for breakfast. I ordered a few meat pies — pastries filled with seasoned ground beef — for take-away. Before I walked back out into the frosty evening, I opted for another ginger beer. Once you have one good ginger beer, they tend to be rather addictive thereafter. And because it seemed to have been taking rather long for me to get the meat pies and the ginger beer, mostly because the woman behind the counter and I were laughing and joking with each other, the woman behind the kitchen window yelled out, “Hey, you Ghanaian boy, my daughter is not on the menu,” and then a host of individuals in the kitchen started laughing while the daughter was blushing. It was a good laugh for all of us, something very common that I find very inviting within African and Caribbean cultures.
Before I went to Iyanze, I had read some reviews on a few of the esoteric web sites where individuals had posted comments. It pays to put a lot of commentary into perspective because a good bit of the reviews seemed to have come from individuals who were of the suburban ilk whose bellies would cause embarrassment if they ate anything remotely different from chicken fried steak and potatoes. Iyanze is not a fancy sit-down-and-you-will-be-served restaurant. The authenticity cannot be beaten and where Iyanze stands out is in the food. Having had food prepared by great friends from Nigerian and having had my feet under numerous tables in Lagos, I can attest that Iyanze is doing it right. Incredibly reasonable prices make the visit even more worthwhile. You can go anywhere and get mediocre. But you get the absolute best at Iyanze. You get to experience a lot of what made my undergraduate days so enjoyable.