Having a meal at Dept of Culture is as much an educational experience as it is a culinary one. From Wednesday through Sunday night, 12 diners sit around a communal table at the Brooklyn restaurant, where owner Ayo Balogun seamlessly slips between the roles of chef and professor-espousing the virtues of Nigerian cuisine.
“Everybody knows the African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,'” he says. “My goal is to let people form a village here each night around the communal table.”
Located in a modest space formerly home to a barbershop, Dept of Culture is a small outfit without any stoves or ovens. The restaurant’s four-course meals and ever-changing tasting menus are made on two electric burners and a convection oven. Balogun prepares dishes native to Kwara State, where he was born-including red snapper fish pepper soup, egusi, and dodo ati, or fried plantain, with vanilla ice cream.
During your meal, you might learn that West Africa accounts for more than 30% of global plantain production. And dodo, as it’s called in Yoruba, is typically enjoyed as a snack served with a peppery plate or rice or with a bowl of stewed beans. But Balogun will tell you that classic vanilla is the best accompaniment to the sweet, caramelized plantains.
It was sort of by chance that Balogun ended up in the restaurant industry at all. Originally, he’d wanted to make a documentary about the changing gender dynamics between men and women, but he needed funds to get started. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to go work in a restaurant and make enough money to buy my own cameras, and do all of that,” he says. However, fate had other plans.
“The first job I had I was dicing apples at Gobo,” he recalls. “I think I must have done it well enough that they kept either promoting me or giving me more responsibilities, and so I jumped around.” Little did he know, this was the beginning of his career as a professional chef.
Ironically, Balogun never thought that he would end up serving the cuisine of Kwara State. “I’ve always said I was never, ever going to do Nigerian food,” he says laughing. However, as someone who has lived between the two worlds-Nigeria and New York-Balogun wanted to address two issues: the lack of Nigerian dining options in New York City and the monolithic view of Africa still prevalent among far too many Americans.
“When people look at Africa, they always put all of us in one big group,” Balogun says. “People ask you, ‘do you see lions?'”
This persistent tendency to lump all Africans together in one big jungle landscape, is a lasting legacy of European colonialism, and it shamefully obscures the immense cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity found all throughout the continent. This is part of the reason that Balogun decided to focus specifically on North Central Nigerian cuisine.
“I’m from Kwara State in the North Central [part of Nigeria],” he explains. “There are some herbs that we have and then you go to the East, or to the Southwest, and there are things that we don’t even have names for where I’m from.”
In fact, Nigeria is home to more than 200 million individuals, who can’t possibly eat exactly the same way. Balogun wants people to understand that they don’t. “When we cook here, we’re telling people I grew up in Kwara State,” he says. “I’m cooking food with the spices and herbs from the North Central. And that’s what we do. We don’t do more than that.”
Dishes highlight signature flavours from Kwara, like blazing hot ata rodo peppers, roasty iru (fermented locust beans), sweet pepper paprika famously found in jollof rice, or fragrant cilantro used to complement a flaky piece of hake. But Balogun doesn’t believe that highlighting the differences in Nigerian food is about separating people-quite the contrary.
“I think our differences are actually what brings us together,” he says. “Everybody knows the African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ My goal is to let people form a village here each night around the communal table.”
Often, the formation of those villages is cemented with a serving of sweet, sticky dodo and cold, creamy vanilla ice cream.
Dodo Ati Ice Cream Recipe
Yield: Serves 4
• 1 plantain
• 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
• ½ cup packed brown sugar
• ½ cup vegetable oil
• Dash of sea salt flakes
• ¼ cup water
• ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1. Peel plantain. Slice down the length of the plantain and then slice in half crosswise. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and red pepper on plantain slices and toss until covered.
2. In a small frying pan, bring ¼ cup water to a boil. Add the brown sugar, reduce until caramelized.
3. Warm vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat and fry plantain until golden brown. Add the brown sugar reduction to the fried plantain and continue cooking until plantain is covered. 1 minute or so. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
From June 29 – July 31, 2023, Red Rooster is serving up free food items, a chance to win $10,000 or one of 10 merch packs valued at $400 and other fun prizes. All you have to do is sign up as a Red Royalty member and spend $5 on at a location near you or online.
Each week there’ll be new delicious deals and prizes to win. The week one deals have already dropped and they’re looking pretty tasty. You can get access to them via your Red Royalty account. The more you purchase, the more chances you have to win.
Spoiler alert: you can get 10 chicken nuggets for free, right now. Brb running to Red Rooster.