“There is strength in Africa.
Not the crushing brute strength of the bull elephant.
Nor the rigid, unyielding strength of the Kilimanjaro.
But a calm, enduring strength,
the kind of abiding strength that will not waiver
in the face of adversity, loss or hardship.
It is the quiet strength of the African woman.”
Quiet strength. That uplifting affirmation, inscribed on a framed poster, hangs on a wall at Talking Drums, Albuquerque’s very first African restaurant. It provides inspiration to and could have been written about Toyin Oladeji, the risk-taking proprietor, chef and daring entrepreneur who’s betting the Duke City is ready for the incomparable cuisine of her homeland. Toyin (who’s mistakenly called Toni so often, she goes by that name) already provides one niche service, owning and operating the only African store in New Mexico and Arizona. Her Zenith African Caribbean Market has been serving the area with groceries, clothing, beauty products, arts and crafts for more than a decade. In launching Talking Drums, she’s filling another niche.
The name Talking Drums is derived from a prominent method of communication throughout West Africa, especially during festive occasions and in Africa there is nothing more festive than sharing foods. West Africa is comprised of some sixteen countries including Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Any of West Africa’s reciprocal culinary influences with the United States came about largely because of the shameful blight of the slave trade. Anyone acquainted with the cuisine of America’s southern states may not even realize their favorite dishes had their genesis in Africa. Similarly, ships sailing to Africa transported indigenous crops of the America. Together, these factors helped craft today’s West African diet, one celebrated by Talking Drums.
The Global Gourmet characterizes West African cuisine as “heavy with starch, light on meat and generous on fat.” It’s a diet replete with root vegetables, cereal grains, rice, plantains, peanuts and citrus fruits, all of which can be prepared in a variety of ways: baked, roasted, mashed, coupled with other ingredients and served in a range of both sweet and savory dishes. More than any other region in the continent, the West African diet is also rich in seafood, where it is often mixed with meats in some form of stew. Peanuts are ubiquitous, served in soups, stews, snacks or ground into a paste. The most prominent starch, however, is rice which is plentiful thanks to the abundance of rains.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of both the West African climate and its cuisine is heat. To combat the oppressive heat and humidity, cooks tend to be heavy-handed with chiles (sounds like my kind of people). Chile peppers–including such incendiary varieties as Scotch Bonnets and the pilli pilli–are used beyond the extent most Americans (maybe not New Mexicans) might consider hot. Hot foods produce the effect of “gustatory sweating” which has an overall cooling effect on the body. They also generate endorphins, natural painkillers that may produce a temporary “high”. So, the more chiles you eat, the stronger the soothing effect.
Talking Drums is located on San Pedro just north of Gibson and next door to Cervantes, a long-time purveyor of incendiary chiles. It occupies the Mayan pyramidal edifice which was once home to Hunan Chinese Restaurant and which has also housed a number of other eateries. Remnants of a previous occupant can still be seen, most prominently on a beaded door curtain depicting life in Vietnam. The restaurant’s walls are festooned with colorful African art, including one portraying an elderly African woman lacing the skin on a pair of drums.
The front of the house is in the capable hands of Alex, as genial and helpful as any server we’ve ever met, a man for whom the emphasis on the word gentleman is on “gentle.” Let Alex be your culinary guide. His knowledge of the menu is encyclopedic and he’s more than happy and proud to explain each and every nuance of the cuisine of his homeland. It’s how I got the information for this review, but more importantly, it’s why we ordered the items we enjoyed so thoroughly. In a living example of seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, we also discovered our mutual acquaintance of several Nigerian Catholic priests who visit Talking Drums to get their fix of West African cuisine.
The appetizers and snacks section of the menu may be a bit daunting because descriptions are not provided. You’ll recognize some of the items, but others–African spices suya, puff puff, moin moin, Akara–may as well be….well, from Africa, and indeed, many of the ingredients are imported directly from the plateau continent. Allow Alex to describe each dish, how it is prepared and its significance to the West African diet. It’s a terrific lesson in the authenticity of a cuisine heretofore unknown to most in the Duke City. Now, you may have visited the fabulous Santa Fe gem Jambo Cafe where the Swahili cuisine of East Africa is featured, and while there are some similarities, there are significant differences. I also suspect Talking Drums is quite a bit more authentic.
As of our inaugural visit in March, 2012, the restaurant had not yet secured its liquor license, but will eventually showcase African beers and wines. The last item on the list of beverages is “Coca Cola products,” the same boring standards you can have anywhere else in Albuquerque. Start your African-Caribbean adventure with something different, perhaps coconut juice; Champagne cola; pineapple, pear or passion fruit sodas; or better still, have a Jcs Reggae Country Style Brand: Ginger Beer Non-Alcoholic Soda. It’s akin to an adult root beer and is refreshing and delicious as any beverage.
As Alex was explaining the appetizers to us, the one which seemed to excite him most was something called moin moin. We couldn’t help but be caught up in his excitement for this traditional Nigerian steamed bean dish made from a mixture of black-eyed beans, onions and freshly ground peppers then served in a single-portion timbale shape. Texturally, it is similar to Thanksgiving dressing, but more dense. Tiny red flecks of piquant peppers foretell the light heat emanating from this small, but delicious appetizer. It’s no wonder Alex enjoys this dish so much.
Alex also sold us on African spiced suya,essentially a Nigerian shish kebab (roasted skewered meat) with a peanut-spice rub. In Nigeria, it is offered both in restaurants and by street vendors and is a favorite national snack. It bears little semblance to Thai and Malaysian satay which is typically served with a sweet peanut sauce. The peanut-spice rub used on suya is savory with pronounced heat generated by cayenne peppers and other spices. At first bite, the meat may seem a bit dry, but that’s just the presence of spices talking. Flavor-wise, the meat is reminiscent of a terrific beef jerky with a complex spice flavor.
The menu isn’t entirely West African. A selection of Caribbean dishes is also available on the Talking Drums menu and that, too, makes sense considering how many people were transported as slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and how ingredients indigenous to the Caribbean were transported back to West Africa. The most obvious commonality is the use of piquant chiles which were introduced to West Africa by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Almost synonymous with Caribbean cuisine is the term “jerk’ which describes the seasoning and preparation of meats in a style originated in Jamaica. The meat is first marinated for hours in a spicy blend of peppers, scallion, thyme and pimento seeds then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood over low heat. The low heat allows the meat to cook slowly, retaining its natural juices which are infused with the flavor of spices and wood.
At the risk of hyperbole, the jerk chicken at Talking Drums is not only the best we’ve experienced in New Mexico,but perhaps everywhere else. Served on a bed of white rice, two chicken thighs are infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call. The chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning. I should qualify that for me it was pleasantly piquant. My Kim’s coughing, sputtering and watering eyes must have said something else though she couldn’t stop eating it.
Among the more intriguing items on the menu are pepper soup meals, a traditional Nigerian specialty as esteemed and beloved in Nigeria as chicken or tomato soup are in the United States. Despite the name and prominence of piquancy, peppers are far from the only component of this dish. A mixture of local (to Africa) herbs and spices lend the qualities of pungency, fragrance and herbaceousness. By itself, the broth is fantastic, as wonderful as any broth on any soup we’ve had in New Mexico, but this isn’t solely a broth-based soup. Three options are available: assorted meat (including tripe and entrails, goat meat and fresh fish. The fresh fish is a thick and meaty catfish served in its entirety head to tail (don’t dare turn down the catfish head which is replete with flavor). Plucking the fish from the scales is an easy and delicious adventure considering how well the fish is prepared. This is a Souper Bowl award-winning quality elixir!
Because I don’t have a drum to do my talking for me, this review will have to suffice. Talking Drums is an exciting find, one adventurous diners should not miss. Before you leave the premises, visit the Zenith African Caribbean Market next door and pick up African and Caribbean comestibles.
1218 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 17 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Fresh Fish Pepper Soup Meal, Jerk Chicken, Moin Moin, African spiced suya