Although Godwin Ihentuge (ee-hen-too-ghee) grew up in Detroit and had his first culinary experience working in Wayne State's cafeteria, his Afro-Caribbean cred is a Nigerian father and relatives in Jamaica. He says a goal of Yum Village, opened in March in Detroit's New Center, is to spread not only the food but other aspects of the two cultures, say, through art and through cooking classes. The south side of his building at Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue is haunted by paintings of Yoruba Eyo "guardians" that walk spirits from one side of the life-death divide to the other. The restaurant's slogan, which you can get on a T-shirt, is "African raised, Detroit made."
Ihentuge is serving familiar dishes like jerk chicken, jollof rice, and plantains alongside some that may be less so: akara, a fritter of black-eyed peas; maafe, a hot peanut stew from West Africa; and African-style cheesy bread.
When I expressed puzzlement about cheesy bread as an African or Caribbean dish, an employee told me, "They don't eat much bread and they don't eat much cheese, but it's the Nigerian spices that let us call it that." Its chunks of pretzel bread are deep-fried crisp and then sprinkled with Parmesan and Romano — nearly as much cheese as bread — with the spice blend for garnish. I didn't notice the spices, but the unmistakable doughnut-like flavor of fried dough was prominent. It was really hard to stop eating.
But my very favorite dish at Yum Village was ginger curry chickpeas. A companion remarked, "A nice little crust on the outside, creamy on the inside — it shows they know how to use heat." The chickpeas are lightly fried, tossed with a house ginger curry blend and agave, and finally topped with coriander and cumin. I think the coriander is the hook.
Also on the less-hot end of the spectrum is curry chicken, with the intensity that stewing brings. My friend said it was "mild, but you know you're eating curry." Jerk chicken is, of course, high on the Scoville scale but not so hot you can't taste it; I hate it when that happens. Lemon-pepper jerk chicken is a good variation, nice and peppery, with little chunks of whole lemon cooked in the dish.
Suya fried chicken is a dish that's fairly complicated to make but ends up tasting simple. It involves roasted peanut powder (kuli kuli), cumin, ginger, Cameroonian peppers, and habaneros. Chicken is roasted with this suya mixture and garlic, then fried, then tossed in some more suya powder, then treated to an agave syrup. The bird is succulent, and there's a very thin veneer of sweetness in the skin.
Senegalese maafe leaves the lips pleasantly tingly; it includes corn kernels and the occasional flash of peanut flavor. Brussels sprouts are roasted with garlic and then tossed with red onions and pickled yellow, orange, and red bell peppers, sort of like a bright warm salad. I would've let them roast longer to soften them more.
Ihentuge says it's the fact that he never went to culinary school that leads him to try some unusual tricks, like braising a lamb shank in cranberry juice. The lamb is available just on Fridays as a "special protein" for $10. He makes a house-blend dry rub of Northern and Western African flavors, including sumac, rosemary, thyme, nutmeg, and the dried and ground kernels of the njangsa tree. "The fat when it melts into the cranberry juice — it gives a very intense, full-bodied flavor," he says, and I agree.
The huge mahogany-brown shank is served in a cardboard take-out box in which it does not fit, so given those constraints and my plastic fork (no knife), I picked the leg up and ate it with my hands. So satisfying. I doubt if there are many other spots you could get this much lamb for $10.
Other Friday-only proteins might be shrimp, salt-fish fritters, or hot pepper beef short ribs. All meat is halal. All dishes are served in take-out containers with plastic cutlery.
I ordered a bottle of the ginger variety of Vitamalt, widely popular in the Caribbean, in the mistaken belief it would be akin to ginger beer. No. There's way too little ginger bite, too much sugar and malt. The "classic" Vitamalt is said by its makers to be like sweet unfermented beer, so if that appeals to you, go for it.
I preferred house-brewed cold teas: ginger-lemon, hibiscus-raspberry, or orange spice with cinnamon and nutmeg. Another possibility is coffee brewed with coconut water. A liquor license is hoped for. Yum Village sells the teas retail, along with bottled spices, sauces, marinades, dry rubs, and soaps and candles also made with seasonings.
When he was hiring, Ihentuge chose a novel way of making sure employees could get to work on time: half his staff lives within a half mile of the store. He met prospective workers by walking around the neighborhood and noticing who was wearing chef's whites. "I wanted people who would take an investment in the store because it's bettering their own community," he says.
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