As a concept, ‘Nigerian tapas’ might sound like a culture-clashing (con)fusion too far. But who cares, says Zoë Perrett, when that term really just means a menu which enables diners to discover an array of West African flavours in a single meal?
Chuku’s may not be new, but Nigerian culture is newly having what is often irritatingly referred to ‘A Moment’ in London’s collective consciousness – and it’s one it feels like we’ve been building up to all year.
A few moments contributing to this current Moment: West African fine-diner Ikoyi being awarded its second Michelin star back in February; Akwasi Brenya-Mensa taking his lauded pop-up permanent with the opening of Tatale at The Africa Centre this summer; the seemingly endless rise of Arsenal Player Of The Year Bukayo Saka’s star; and, most recently, the publication of Jimi Famurewa’s Settlers, a loving and meticulously researched exploration of Black African culture in the Capital.
I’m certain I’m not alone in believing that a culinary crash-course is one of the fastest routes to establishing at least a rudimentary understanding of a culture that’s not one’s own: and it’s certainly the tastiest way to commence an education.
So to Chuku’s. The enduringly popular South Tottenham hotspot is self-styled as ‘London’s only Nigerian Tapas restaurant’ – which as a description is about as grating as ‘A Moment’, but as an eating experience actually just means small portions styled for sharing so you and even a modestly-sized gang can try the majority of the menu in a single sitting.
Works for me – as do the clear dish descriptions and a super-friendly waiter chatting us through what to order, highlighting favourites both personal and customer. He also advises how much to order, which we of course ignore completely, but he seems to approve of our gusto.
Decorwise, the compact dining room has got real appeal to the Gen Z/Millennial market – its orangey-pink walls adorned with a laden bookshelf and framed graphic prints. The difference here is those things are about more than earning Chuku’s an #aesthetic hashtag on Insta: the wall colour references adobe clay; the books on that shelf are African-authored; the prints feature Nigerian sayings.
Some of those sayings are in-jokes, initially relevant only to those who’ve grown up in a Nigerian household – but the atmosphere that brother and sister team Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick have fostered means that everybody’s brought in on the jokes at Chuku’s, irrespective of heritage.
And judging by the current clientele, it’s endeared itself to pretty much everyone. I’m definitely late to the party but at least I’m here now, and I’m enjoying it immensely.
Three-quarters of Chuku’s menu is vegan if you care about such things – which I don’t, but I am pleased that when I come with plant-based pals they’ll eat as well as I do.
For a dinner-a-deux, we make our way through eight almost-all-great plates.
Firm, plump suya prawns bathe in a smoky-spicy-sweet honey dressing which I end up just straight spooning into my mouth. Chicken wings are glazed with salted caramel, which, combined with peanut-based kuli kuli seasoning, brings to mind (my mind at least) the addictive flavour of Skippy honey-nut peanut butter.
A Northern Nigerian pumpkin-peanut stew tops a crumpet-like rice pancake which shares the same comforting character as that toasted British treat – the light fermented tang of the sinasir pancake an excellent foil for the gorgeous, jaggery-like sweetness of the miyan taushe topping.
There’s a more pronounced sourness to the dense grated cassava dumplings served with Chuku’s egusi bowl – an acquired taste I’m yet to acquire, although I’m all about the Nigerian tricoloure of stews they accompany: a rich red pepper and tomato sauce; a yellow melon seed number with an intriguing flavour that’s not quite herbal, not quite bitter, not quite nutty, but somehow all of those things; and a thick spinach coriander and fennel puree with oodles of umami depth – its character same-same-but-different to Indian saag or Persian ghormeh sabzi.
Ojojo might have caused our waiter mirth when I attempted to pronounce it, but it’s me who’s smiling now as I bite into one of the greaseless, light, crisp-shelled croquettes.
These Yoruba water yam fritters are apparently a popular street food snack, but for this restaurant table they’ve been gussied up with smoked mackerel – an ingredient which I later read is known as Titus fish in Nigeria after an eponymous canned brand; genericised in the same manner as Hoover for any vacuum cleaner or Biro for the nearest ballpoint pen.
I digress, but I enjoyed the anecdote and I hope you do too.
Back to the food. Jollof quinoa and rainbow slaw are more filler than killer, but lamb asun brings fire and flavour to the table in spades. In what is essentially a meaty salad, diminutive cubes of smoked lamb are coated liberally in a mix of ginger, garlic, red onion, coriander and an abundance of scotch bonnet seeds which cling menacingly to the meat and to my poor scorched tastebuds, which still can’t help themselves craving more.
Interesting flavours, food that appeals to those who already know as well as those who want to find out, and a welcome almost as warm as that lamb asun: it seems apt to reach for the English translation of Bukayo Saka’s Yoruba forename, ‘adds to happiness’, to describe the vibe at Chuku’s.
MAKE IT REAL