Never Heard Of It is a collection of reviews of the countless and often extraordinary hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Lower Mainland that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. Explore the NHOI archive here.
I was a few minutes early so I went on a bit of a wander around the neighbourhood. For decades, Whalley – the most densely populated of Surrey’s six town centres, has been regarded as the roughest part of Metro Vancouver. Known for its biker bars, XXX shops, strip joints and notorious, often deadly gangsters, it’s notoriety hasn’t been entirely unwarranted. Tall shiny buildings of gentrification may have sprouted around the City Central skytrain station in the visible distance, but the main drag along King George Highway looks as rough as ever – if not more so. Up and down King George Highway are many old one and two-storey buildings and malls being left to rot while the area awaits further development. The cars speeding reminds me that the road is indeed an actual highway.
On 135A Street (running parallel), a tent city sprang up a couple of years ago and it remains a persistent encampment for dozens of the city’s homeless. The Strip, as it’s called, is also referred to as the “Downtown Eastside of Surrey” on account of its high number of ODs and petty crimes of desperation. Right in the midst of this dystopia is “Little Africa”, small cluster of African grocery stores, restaurants, beauty shops that share the area with Latin American, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern joints, all set in a familiar suburban pattern of strip malls.
The Taste of Africa is in the midst of this, a Ghanaian cafeteria-style restaurant that pulls double duty as a grocery store. In the front are a few small tables and a buffet. In the back are shelves stocked with a small selection West African staples like packaged starches (called fufu), dried fish, spices, peanuts — that sort of thing.
Becky, the matriarchal owner dressed in brightly coloured traditional dress, recognized us immediately from a previous visit. Dining over at the next table were four Ghanaian men who volunteered to further educate us on the finer points of Ghanaian cuisine.
As a refresher: Ghana is on the western side of Africa on the Gulf of Guinea. The food of the western countries along the Gulf (Ivory Coast, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, et al.) share many similarities. During what is now called the “Scramble for Africa” (1881-1914), European settlers defined new colonial borders without regard to pre-existing territories or cultural borders, splitting tribes and creating colonies with varying culinary styles. As a result, it is difficult to sharply define cuisines from one country to the next.
European traders and slavers brought chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, corn, cassava, and plantains from the Americas to West Africa, and they have all become ubiquitous components of local cooking, but the vast region’s strong culinary traditions persist despite this outside influence. Slave ships also carried African ingredients back to the New World, sometimes as seeds hidden in the pockets of slaves. We can still see the strong influences in the Cajun cuisines of the American deep south and the Caribbean countries – notably in Jamaica where the roots of Jamaican jerk – arguably that country’s national dish – can be traced back to escaped enslaved Coromantee Ghanaian Africans. Meat pastries (“patties”) – on the other hand – migrated the opposite direction: the Cornish pasty having come to the Caribbean via the English and then mixed with curry seasonings of indentured Indian servants in Jamaica and cayenne pepper from African slaves. These patties then went back to Ghana where they were morphed even more.
We ordered from the cafeteria style menu. Actually, we way over-ordered and we were happy for Becky to have made the executive decision to hold back a few of the dishes. “You ordered too much,” she laughs. “You can try the fish and the okro next time.”
The main dishes with jollof rice (a tomato rice similar to “Mexican rice”) run between $10.99 and $13.99, and you get a lot of food for that. The dishes we ordered popped with flavour and complexity. The highlight for me was the jerk chicken, which was sweeter and more complex than its more famous Jamaican progeny. The patties ($3) were expertly made; the pastry dough and meat fillings lighter and less oily than all the Caribbean versions I’d previously tried. The starches (rice, fufu, cassava) were interestingly served in the shape of hand-formed balls. The meat stews had the deep, umami-richness derived from dried stockfish, a commonly used flavouring ingredient in West African cuisine. A must-order is the fried plantain, a sweet foil for the savoury dishes. Wash it all down with Malta, a non-alcoholic malt drink that tastes somewhat like a sweet Guinness. It was some of the best food I’d had in ages.
As we were leaving we complimented Becky on her cooking. Seeing us leaving, one of the diners sitting next to us told us enthusiastically that we wouldn’t find better African food anywhere else in the Lower Mainland. Becky turned to us, smiled us on our way and said, “And now you know.”