Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Taste of Sierra Leone (in Washington, D.C.)

I don't have vast experience with West African cuisine. I'd say I've been to fewer than ten West African restaurants, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Paris. The owners have been from Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, and now Sierra Leone. While the restaurants have varied in quality, there is much overlap among the cuisines of these nations, including the staple starches and sauce preparations. While Sumah's, in Washington, D.C., is probably the most humble of these places, the food is quite possibly the best West African cuisine I've experienced.

Sumah is the name of the man who runs the place, a friendly, low-key guy from Sierra Leone. The shop, near Howard University, also sells CDs and DVDs. There are four or five tables, but it seems to be geared to take-out business. Indeed, when eating in you're served from takeout containers.

There were a few items I hadn't seen on other African menus, including potato leaves and cassava leaves. When I asked Sumah about the different dishes, he said, "I'll make you a plate and you can taste a little of everything." This was a free plate, mind you, and the menu does say "With an open mind we let you sample all of your dishes the first time you visit us." The plate he brought us didn't have everything on the menu, but I suspected it was everything he had that day. It consisted of jollof rice, okra, spinach, potato leaf, cassava leaf, peanut sauce, and tomato sauce. Any of the sauces can be ordered with beef, chicken, or fish. My friend and I tasted the various sauces and pretty much agreed that the cassava leaf and tomato sauce had the best combination of deliciousness and uniqueness. We ordered the cassava leaf with chicken and the tomato sauce with fish. The tomato stew was served over jollof rice and the cassava leaf was served over white rice. The menu was a little confusing, and it wasn't until after we ate that I realized that one could also order any of these stews with alternate starches, like couscous, fufu, or attieke (Ivorian grated cassava).

The dishes came in styrofoam takeout containers and were served with plastic forks. When we asked for spoons and knives, those items were metal. I think Sumah should consider investing in some plates and forks.

The cassava leaf was a puree and was mildly spicy. I'm not sure how to describe the taste. It wasn't quite a bitterness, more a mellow richness that went quite well with the chicken. It was mildly reminiscent of Indian chicken saag. The tomato sauce was also wonderful, a perfect match for the croaker fish (caveat: it's served with skin and bones). There was also a small amount of stewed beef along with the fish, so if you don't eat meat be sure to specify in advance. I can't put my finger on the spicing, but there was a liveliness of flavor to everything. The tomato stew was served with spinach on the side, a bonus I hadn't counted on. Another bonus was the order of fried sweet plantains that were either on the house or a side with something we ordered. Sumah's homemade ginger beer is an excellent beverage to accompany his food.

The food at Sumah's really is wonderful. An enormous portion of any sauce with your choice of meat over rice is $12. You can get a medium size for $10.50, but why bother for the small difference? If you live in D.C. it's probably a better bet to do takeout, but if you're visiting don't let the limitations in atmosphere put you off. Sumah's food has earned a permanent place in my taste memory.

cassava leaves with chicken


fish stewed with tomato sauce


Sumah's in Washington

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent Peter! I'm glad u were able to get a tase of West Afr in DC. Also visit Roger Miller [941 Bonifant St] Restaurant on Ave in SS, MD.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous cassava said...

yes ... I like this and very delicious

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Tastytrix said...

This was almost exactly my experience at Sumah's! The food is simply amazing, and it sparked a real obsession with West African food for me. The next time you go, you must try the Pepper Soup. Spiciest thing I have ever eaten, yet simultaneously one of the richest. In no way did the heat obliterate the flavor.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your description of every aspect is dead-on. We had tomato sauce with fish and peanut sauce with fish, plus two kinds of fufu. We also started off with the pepper soup, which was quite possibly the most flavorful MEGA-spicy thing I've ever tasted. Amazing. We also had the outstanding homemade ginger drink.

And the confusion in the menu is very real. We had a Laurel-and-Hardy worthy back-and-forth with Sumah before we understood how the whole starch thing works. But we're planning a return visit in the next few weeks. This is definitely a very special place.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hahah, hey there Tasty Trix!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sumah's offers Excellent Food and Service!!!

This restaurant was recommended to me be one of my Nigerian classmates. I am so happy I found this jewel!!! The food is really good and very flavorful, and the customer service is undeniably wonderful. I am an American, and I have never tasted an "African" dish before. So when I came in to Sumah's, I was offered a sample of the top dishes, and I choose a platter of the Potato Leaves and Cassava Leaves with Goat meat. Both dishes were amazing!!! The food was so good and the prices were beyond reasonable, that I ordered the same platter frozen to ship it overnight to my family in Texas. Most American dishes are extremely salty, but the African dishes at Sumah’s were no salty at all, which was exactly what my mom and I were looking for. Do yourself and your friends a favor and try the food. You will not be disappointed!!!

12:50 PM  

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