West African Flavor

Ismael Lawani brings the food of his home country to Tucson at Alafia

The goat soup is what got them some recognition, but the good people of Tucson seem to be still a bit wary of the small corner restaurant called Alafia. This needs to be remedied. With proud flags waving in bright greens, reds and yellows as vibrant Congolese rhythmic music plays, Alafia (currently) is the only place in town to get true West African cuisine, so you need to get there and experience it all for yourself.

We are a town of culinary distinction and we pride ourselves on being adventurous eaters, so please do not be afraid of a delicious dish made with an animal more commonly associated with a tart cheese or balancing precariously on sheer cliff surfaces. It is a sumptuous and generous bowl of spice, tomatoes and tender meat, something that truly can be labeled as a "signature dish." In the tight space and even smaller kitchen, chef and owner Ismael Lawani creates a bounty of offerings from his home country of Benin. One of the more invigorating and slightly intimidating is the Attieke plate that comes complete with a whole tilapia fish smothered in a flavorful broth and garnished with fresh tomatoes, onions and cucumber. It is a sight to consider once it arrives and placed in front of you, a hint of the flavors and history of the country that gave the world voodoo. Once you cut into the fish and admire the care that went into its preparation you'll wonder why there aren't lines around the block to get in.

What is so amusing is that Ismael has no culinary training.

His size matches his confidence. Ismael is a bold figure in his restaurant, one that he likens to so many food stands from his home country, but knew that he could re-create regional dishes just by observing his mother cook and prepare meals for the family. After meeting his wife, Alyson, during her tenure with the Peace Corps, the two decided to return to her home territory, Southern Arizona, and bring the flavors and culture of Benin to Tucson. This is, and was, a risky venture seeing as there are literally no other restaurants around town that serve up food from not-very-well-known West African countries.

Speaking mainly French and only having a basic grasp of English, Ismael opened Alafia a little over two years ago and business has been, well, good. But it could—and should—be better. It is that confidence paired with Ismael's wide smile and positive attitude that keeps the couple, along with their two young sons, determined to win the hearts and stomachs of Tucson over.

"Alafia" is a general word used throughout West Africa that means peace or good health, both of which can be found here. Growing up in cities reliant on what the environment provides, Ismael studied the street food vendors, fell in love with their cuisine and does a surprisingly amazing job of honoring those dishes on just memory and a deep conviction alone. One would think that melding ingredients such as chili peppers, peanuts, okra, red palm oil and a seed based bullion called sumbala with such ease to chicken, beef, vegetables and, yes, goat, to create a simple yet refined flavor, the big man in the lean cooking space was trained by professionals or had been doing this for decades. Perhaps both.

Nope. He just kind of went for it.

His take on Kedjenou Sauce au Poulet (red sauce with chicken) is stunningly brilliant. Cooked for a good length of time in a covered pot, the ginger, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and thyme seep slowly and beautifully into rustic cuts of chicken, making the meat ease off the bone through such loving attention to a rather austere dish.

Same goes with the often elusive Tchep Djen plate, which is not always on the menu. When it is, this is a time when nations unite. Again, it is the simple purity that brings it all together; the fresh cabbage, the chunky cut carrots, the tender eggplant, the delicate sweet potato and a perfectly cooked whole fish—it somehow tastes of absolute familiarity but from a country and continent several thousand miles away. The supple and subtly sweet fried plantains pretty much go with any item Ismael serves up. For the adventurous, his ginger juice is about as palate cleansing as a swift wash from the Oueme River if it was flush with the hot, pungent root spice. Be warned: this juice packs a wallop and if you have an aversion to ginger, stick to the bissap (a refreshing hibiscus flower drink).

We have now told you about Alafia twice, so it is up to you, as adventurous eaters, to explore this region, take it all in and allow Ismael and his family to guide you through all of the possibilities a small African nation has to offer, food wise that is. We have confidence in you Tucson!

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