Soul of the Cook

In times of unrest and division we should strive to encourage communion, and Omaha chefs/restaurant owners Nina Sodji with Okra African Grill, and Chaima Maradi with Chaima’s African Cuisine, are gracefully building bridges by cooking flavorful cuisine from a varied continent.

“Food is a great conversation starter, it brings people to the table,” shared Maradi. Love brought her to Omaha in the early 2000s, and while on maternity leave she loaded a backyard grill into her car and motored to spots with hungry people. She sold Suya (kebabs) to soccer players and club goers for just a dollar.

“If you want to make a friend, invite them to dinner.” Wise words from Sodji, who arrived in Omaha in the early 1990s, recognized a niche that needed to be filled, and started a business selling African ingredients to the Omaha community. In short order, she was feeding bodies and souls as well.

African cuisine is as varied as its people and influences. In West Africa, women traditionally run the household, learning to cook at a very young age. “You are in your mom’s armpit,” shared Sodji, chuckling softly.

Both women hail from Togo, “Straight across from Florida and up from the Ivory Coast,” Sodji described. Maradi also claims heritage from Togo, Nigeria, and Niger, “depending on the day”—a lighthearted way to convey the turmoil and constant change experienced in lands often claimed by the European power du jour.

The food naturally reflects these Euro colonization efforts, most commonly French (a common language in Togo), but also German circa pre-World War I. Maradi’s first solo dish was the very French crepe, learned at age nine from a recipe found in the back of her dictionary. This melding of influences and cultures comes together in familiar dishes with foreign flavors.

Peanuts grow well in north Togo, an area dominated by agricultural communities, so it is not surprising both chefs employ the ingredient in many sauces and rubs. The slave trade brought traditional African dishes to both North and South America, and many “southern” dishes can be directly attributed to those brought here against their will. Brazilian ingredients such as plantains are also prevalent in West African cooking.

Similar dishes have different names depending upon the region, but the thread that binds them together is love. African food is a window into the soul of the cook, carrying with it the history, struggle and familial stories of centuries.

Both women are supported by loving families, evident throughout both establishments. Sodji’s son, an ardent food lover, helped his mom come up with the perfect name for her restaurant after opening the freezer and spying a package of frozen Okra. The name evokes strong feelings of nostalgia, reminding her of the green sauce of her childhood.

Maradi’s husband, Boubakar Souleman, is her biggest fan and, like his wife, displays a strong work ethic. She is effusive in her gratitude and praise of him, and they enjoy exchanging an easy banter.

Okra African Grill is set up to enable both adventurous and timid palates to embark upon a journey of flavor. Patrons choose a starch, protein, sauce, and toppings to build a dish customized to their preferences. Try a seasoned tilapia fillet garnished with vegetables, served on a bed of Attiéké (steamed, grated cassava) with fried plantains, or start slowly with familiar ingredients and new spices. Regardless of what you choose, do not skip the peanut sauce at Okra.

One of the most popular dishes at Chaima’s African Cuisine is Riz Creole: curried vermicelli rice with mixed vegetables (on the side), shredded beef, and house hot sauce (ask for double the sauce). Jollof rice is traditionally served with vegetables mixed in, but Maradi serves the two separately to accommodate all palates.

Nigerian Beef Suya (beef kebabs) are marinated with peanut spice blend and grilled to perfection. Called Kyinkyinga in northern Ghana, they can be enjoyed both hot off the grill and at room temperature.

Fufu is a popular dish made from starchy roots such as African yams or cassava, pounded or mashed, then mixed with liquid until a doughy consistency is achieved (this description simplifies the process: it’s far more nuanced). The resultant texture is akin to a dumpling and used to scoop up accompanying stews.

Once the shutdown is resolved and business is again booming, Sodji dreams of turning the back room at Okra into a space for pairing dinners and classes so she can pass along the history and recipes of her home country before they are lost forever. “I want to be the Bourdain of Africa,” she shared, hoping to travel home soon.

Don’t feel like going out? Add flavor to home-cooked dishes using Maradi’s bottled spice blends and sauces, products she hopes to sell locally in the coming months. In the near future, she hopes to move to a larger, more accessible space in which to offer an expanded menu of dishes from additional African countries.

The best cooks share part of their soul, and simply walking into these restaurants transports you to other worlds. Open your mind and your heart to new experiences, cultures, and flavors, right in your own backyard.

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