On a typical late-Sunday afternoon in Asheville, after the brunch-munchers and Sunday drivers have retreated to the comfort of the backyard grill or the living-room sofa, downtown takes on a rather restful air as it recharges from the weekend. Once late spring has come, however, on the third Sunday of every month through the summer, the subdued hum gives way to a sultry, pulsating rhythm, as the sounds of the La Cuisine de l’Afrique festival are borne aloft on the breeze.
La Cuisine is a celebration of African culture that swallows the streets and sidewalks in front of Anntony’s Caribbean Grill at the Grove Arcade. As African drummers pound the stretched and resonating skins of their djembes and congas, dancers pound the shimmering-hot pavement with their feet to the frenetic beats. At the most recent festival, the drummers gave way to the sensual sounds of the band Nuevo Montuno, who moved the crowds and sashaying salsa dancers with saucy waves that summoned the spirits of African music. Onlookers milled about on the sidewalks or rested at the tables outside of Anntony’s, cooling off with frosty drinks or sampling steaming plates of the often-times fiery food of West and Central Africa.
The food, prepared by chefs Abdul Tounkara from Senegal and Kamuina Kinshasa from the Congo, is the catalyst at the heart of the festival, an event that has come of age gracefully from its origins as a loose gathering of friends.
La Cuisine de l’Afrique is the brainchild of chef Oso Wallman, née Jim, whose nickname means “bear” in Spanish. “Oso works well in an industry that offered up seven Jims in one place that I worked,” he explains. “Bear is also my Cherokee sun sign … plus, I’m big, brown and furry.”
Though Oso at first ran La Cuisine from behind the scenes, back when the dinner was a much smaller affair at the Westville Pub, these days he mostly “officiates the peripherals,” he says, working on menu development and sourcing the exotic foods that are necessary for the dinners.
Oso is a bit of a culinary wanderer, a student of world cuisine who prefers to immerse himself deep in the culture he wishes to learn from, rather than flip through a cookbook. He has traveled to Africa twice now, studying the inner workings of Senegalese families by living among them, going to market, tasting their food and then tasting it some more.
“The first time I went, I was eating up to five times a day, huge plates of sauce and rice,” Oso recalls with a wistful gleam in his eye. The Senegalese, he says, were thrilled to welcome him with their culinary creations and to teach him about their lives through their food.
“‘Here’s the American chef coming! Here, taste this, taste this!'” he recalls them saying. “[I’d] have to eat and eat until [I] got stuffed. It reminded me of my German grandma.” Despite all of the excessive sampling, he says, he still lost 18 pounds because of the wholesomeness and freshness of the ingredients in traditional African foods.
After returning to the states, Oso decided to use his travel experience as his muse, creating an event with a focus on building ties in Asheville’s African community and educating others. With the help of Tounkara and other talented native African cooks, La Cuisine de l’Afrique was born, though it wasn’t long before the fledgling event grew too big for its nest.
The Westville Pub was a great place to start, says Oso, who was formerly the Pub’s chef. The restaurant’s owners, Greg Turner and Lu Young, “were very gracious in hosting the first couple of successful seasons at the pub,” he says. However, he adds, “I couldn’t have a band outside, [and] then Abdul started working at Anntony’s one of the best corners in Asheville to go eat at and people-watch.” At Anntony’s, the city would allow them get a permit to close off part of the street and have a band play, letting folks get down on the pavement in true block-party style.
Now, on that lively corner, or inside the bustling restaurant with the wide windows flung open to allow the music to drift in, try dishes like soupekandia, a somewhat gumbo-like dish of shrimp, crab and tuna thickened with okra which is native to Africa and called gombo there and given a silky texture with an abundance of palm oil. The dish is rich in vitamin E, and Oso says it chases the wrinkles away. Searching his face for proof, I found no wrinkles save the laugh lines, of course.
For the spice-tolerant, Oso recommends the national dish of Senegal, spelled thieboujenne, ceebu jen, or thiebou djenne, depending on who you ask. Anntony’s kitchen turns out a version composed of fish stuffed with yucca, eggplant, carrot, cabbage and a fiery temperament. It’s pleasantly spicy for a capsicum fiend like myself and goes down in a hot flash, especially when followed by an icy-cold beer.
The menu also features a “mambo chicken,” a dish of roast fowl with a sauce of tomato, cayenne and pili pili, an African chile sauce. “Fight fire with fire in the heat of the Congo!” the menu advises (or perhaps warns). Indeed, pili pili is respected in the Congo; according to writer Phillipe Wamba in A Family’s Journey in Africa and America, his Congolese father would encourage him and his brothers to “try as much as we could stand, saying that in Congo, children who couldn’t eat pili pili were objects of scorn.” (Sounds like the Congolese version of hazing.)
Those who can’t abide spicy food are not scorned here. Instead, they’re advised to try the yassa, a vegetable melange in a mustard sauce described on the menu as savory and subtle. The yassa poulet is similarly tame, but features chicken rather than vegetables in a tangy sauce. There is also a rather mild-sounding plate of grilled chicken, corn on the cob and couscous perfect, perhaps, for the kiddies (or adults) who have nothing to prove in the way of chile-eating bravado.
The greatest joy, says Oso, in exposing Asheville to this lively cuisine, is “enabling local native Africans to offer a slice of their life to our community, [and] to offer up something positive, delicious and accessible that highlights the beauty of the culture.” To me, a passionate lover of earthly pleasures, the greatest joys of the festival are an earful of salsa, a snout full of beer and a tingling belly full of pili pili. La Cuisine de l’Afrique is great, saucy fun set to an exotic rhythm on a night that could use some extra spice.
La Cuisine de l’Afrique is held on the third Sunday of every month through October from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Food is served at Anntony’s Carribean Cafe at the corner of Battery Park and Page Avenue in the Grove Arcade. Outdoor seating is available, but limited. Once it fills up, it tends to stay that way for a while. For more information about Anntony’s, call 255-9620.
For more about La Cuisine de l’Afrique and other productions by Chef Oso, visit www.culinarypassport.com.