African Hut cooks up continental specialties

Peanut stew. Sweet yam fries. Slow-cooked collard greens. Rice steamed in a seasoned tomato sauce, then served with chunks of chicken or stewed spinach.

We never got to the Mindinmindin – ice cream layered with molasses-baked apples, tropical liqueurs, bananas, cream and secret spices – because there was no room or time left. So we will gladly visit again, just for dessert. This one means “sweet tooth” in Nigeria’s Yoruban language.

Spend an hour with Moji Adedokun, and what do you learn? She and husband Yinka are devoted teachers as much as they are accomplished cooks. They have operated the African Hut Restaurant in downtown Milwaukee since 1993.

It is a snowy day, and Moji produces a steaming pot of honeybush tea, a soothing herbal brew from South Africa. We sample akara, which looks like an ordinary, deep-fried hush puppy.

Inside is a smooth blend of vegetables, spices and black-eyed peas that are hand-shelled. The production is painstakingly slow but a labor of love.

“The Katanga sauce – the children drink it like soup, but it is like a ketchup, for dipping” the akara, zanzi (yam) fries or samosa (flakey appetizer triangles), Moji says. She is patient and laughs easily, delighted when first-timers quiz her about what they are eating.

The friendly couple is eager to dispel myths about their homeland of Nigeria. Students on field trips sometimes visit for lunch: They learn about the diversity within Africa, taste recipes indigenous to the area.

“Africa is really many different Africas,” the Adedokuns say, online. Their western Africa nation is only one of 53 on the continent.

Elementary school to college classes “come for lessons in food, culture and geography,” says Moji. They see bamboo light fixtures, exotic textiles, ceremonial dress, symbolic wooden carvings and hear traditional African music.

“We want to show another side” of Africa, says Yinka, the son of a textile broker. “The country is not just about starving people with protruding bellies.”

Everybody cooks with peanuts, he explains, “because they are in every country” in Africa. Food is not imported, so “if you can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.” The diet is loaded with vegetables, savory sauces and aromatic spices.

“A day without peppers is a sad day” – that is a longtime African saying. The food is not bland, but neither is it throat-burning hot.

Entrees often are stews, simply and slowly prepared, perhaps taking six or more hours to create.

“So there is food,” Yinka says. “Our bigger problem is that people are fighting each other, so farmers can’t farm the land. Oil has made hunger a problem.”

Native dishes include jambalya, but it is made without sausage or other pork. “That was added in New Orleans,” Moji says.

Among the other myths: There is only one kind of yam. Moji can count 27 types. Odunkun is what they use in fries, cassava yams go into stew and a sweet version becomes pie for dessert.

“They are not like the sweet potato,” she chuckles and, no, you can’t shop for them at Copps.

Yinka and Moji have known each other since childhood, growing up in the urban area of Ibadan, Nigeria, before moving to Wisconsin in the 1970s. He studied at UW-Stevens Point, then earned a master’s degree in hospitality from UW-Stout.

Hotel restaurant work took them to Atlanta for a while, but they returned to Milwaukee to open their own restaurant. They considered an African restaurant “the missing link” in Milwaukee’s cuisine.

“With Yinka’s experience, background and personality, my adult graduate students not only receive a great dining experience, they receive an education consisting of culture, customs, nutrition, textiles and music from a first-hand source,” says Tom McEvilly of Viterbo University, La Crosse, whose testimonial is online.

Working to educate and bust stereotypes is an ongoing project, particularly during student visits, and the couple works hard to make it fun. Their own children, now in their 20s, are studying medicine and public health in college.

“We’d like people to have a good experience here,” Moji says, of her restaurant. “This is an extension of our dining room table.”

African Hut Restaurant is at 1107 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee. For more: www.africanpresentations.com, 414-765-1110. It is open for lunch and dinner; closed on Sundays.