The palm oil, okra, and tomato sauce spiced with cayenne peppers coated the fingers of my right hand. The fish I had used those fingers on was now just a skeleton. The thin napkins I had quickly stained were done. I got up and went to the sink that was located in the back of Papaye, the restaurant on the Grand Concourse where our group had just dined. I cleaned the grease from my hands and wiped them dry with a paper towel. As I returned to our table, a man who I had noticed also eating fish with his right hand while deftly holding a phone to his ear, called across the table to me
“Have you ever been to Ghana,” he asked.
I pointed at myself. “Me?”
“Yes, have you been to Ghana?” he asked again
“No, never,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“You eat the fish just like we do in Ghana,” he said with a smile. “So I think you might have traveled to my country.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m just an expert at eating with my hands…or any other utensil,” I added.
The utensil in question for this meal was actually a plastic-wrapped ball of banku. Following my eating instincts, I used it to scoop up the gravy from the bowl—with my right hand of course.
We were in the Bronx, steered there by Gerry after a seemingly inexcusable faux pas. Suffering from a momentary lock of his ancient brain, Gerry’s first choice was a Pakistani restaurant, also in the Bronx that he himself chose for our group several years ago called Rawal Ravail and was written up in these pages (see Biryani Joy). When realizing his mistake, he righted himself quickly with his choice of Papaye. And after our delicious dinner there, his blunder was immediately forgiven.
Our waiter at the family-run Papaye struggled with his English and Eugene struggled with him. “You have to help me here,” Eugene pleaded to the waiter. “I don’t know what to order, but I want that fish.”
He pointed to the photo on the menu of the grilled tilapia smothered in peppers and onions.
“Fish?” the waiter wanted to make sure.
“Yeah, with the peppers and onions.”
“With fufu, plantain, rice?” the waiter asked.
Eugene was lost. If it isn’t something served in a chafing tray on a cruise boat buffet, it’s all foreign to him.
With our aid, Eugene settled on the accompaniment of jollof rice.
We started with skewers of meat; indistinguishably grilled beef that was high on the chewing quotient. Thankfully, the skewed meat was the only low point to our meal.
The meat options were limited, pretty much to either goat or fish with the variables in what accompaniment you ordered. I, as I said, chose the banku, a mound of mashed fermented cornmeal that was wrapped in plastic while the crimson-tinged jollof rice that came with Eugene’s bloated tilapia was enough for the five of us to share. Gerry and Zio both had fufu; mashed yucca formed into what looked like a softball floating in their rich gravies. Also within the spicy gravy were pieces of tender goat that Zio picked apart with the plastic utensils provided.
Mike from Yonkers, in an attempt for something firmer than the plastic spoon he was given, requested repeatedly for a metal fork to be able to eat the goat and rice balls that came in his huge bowl. “I just can’t eat this with this thing,” he said, waving the greasy spoon at the befuddled waiter. Eventually a metal fork and spoon came his way and as he usually does, he then methodically worked his way through the bowl with uninterrupted diligence.
After cleaning my hands and accepting the compliments on my African eating habits from the man from Ghana, I sat back down and, along with the others, waited, as we always do, for Mike from Yonkers to surrender to whatever might be left on his plate before we could pay and make our way back out to the Grand Concourse.
Each of our one dish meals contained enough food (and starch) to sustain a man (or woman) for many hours before their next meal. But in Zio and my case, that wait was just a few minutes as we spied a Carvel ice cream shop down the block also on the Grand Concourse.
“I think we need some ice cream to calm our over stimulated palates,” Zio suggested.
And I didn’t disagree.
2300 Grand Concourse