During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.
Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.
The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.
The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.
Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?