One of the many unfortunate consequences of Britain's colonization of Zimbabwe, a southern African country that was called Rhodesia until 1980, is culinary. What is it that the British have in common with Zimbabweans? Both cultures are extremely poor when it comes down to the matter of cooking. And so, when the British entered the area that would become Zimbabwe, they brought their bad dishes to a place that already had lots of bad dishes. It was a void encountering a void. The result? Zimbabweans are stuck with one major dish: sadza with stewed meat and vegetables. (Sadza is a thick, flavorless, lumpy, sticky substance that's not only a staple, but something like the soul of the men and women of that landlocked country.)
Imagine if the French, a culture with a brilliant culinary tradition, had colonized Zimbabwe. True, they would have exploited us as much and as brutally as the British did, but at least our dishes would have experienced a terrific expansion in range and possibilities. It's hard to see how sadza—one of the plainest foods in the world—could have survived an encounter with French colonial rule. It would have been abandoned or improved beyond recognition. Under Britain, sadza faced no such challenges, and so, save the minor change of its source (maize instead of millet), it is here with us today as is: white, sticky, tasteless.
Senegal, a West African country, has a rich culinary tradition for three reasons: (1) It was colonized by the French, (2) it has a deeper and older connection with the Arab world and its spicy and colorful dishes, and (3) its own tradition benefited directly from the wonderful fruits of the sea (Senegal is not landlocked).
With all of this in mind, let's turn to Afrikando Banadir, a new restaurant in Rainier Valley. Until very recently, there was the Banadir Restaurant, a Somali joint that famously served goat (an animal I cannot eat, as its meat reminds me of the day, somewhere in the year 1979, my father put a huge knife in my hand and tried to make a man of me by making me kill one on a Maryland farm—it's a long and bloody story). Also until quite recently, a half-mile away, there existed Afrikando Afrikando, a restaurant owned by the lean, dark, and handsome chef Jacques Saar, which specialized in Senegalese food. These two closed restaurants have been reborn as Afrikando Banadir ("Your Destination for West and East African Cuisine") in Banadir's former location, a freestanding structure that has a patio and a view of the relentless traffic on Rainier Avenue.
Those who are fans of Afrikando, which opened in Belltown in 1997 and moved to Hillman City in 2008, will be relieved to learn that little on the menu has changed. Thiebou djeun, the "national Senegalese dish"—a big and bony fish atop a mountain of eggplants, carrots, cassava, and red rice ($12.95)—is still the star of the show, still a wonderful riot of bold spices that do not fuse into one sensation but coexist as a multitude of singularities. There is also the popular debe: grilled lamb served on a mountain of couscous, onions, and mixed greens dressed in a mangolike sauce ($14.95). And yassa au poulet: baked chicken, which is served on a heap of green olives, carrots, and jasmine rice ($12.95). And there is also a spicy fish-ball baguette that's served with a green salad ($9.95). Each plate is simply packed with food; each item on the plate is cooked without delicacy but with a sense of generosity and directness. You will not be mystified by this food; you will immediately recognize the meat, the vegetables, and the types of spices.
Afrikando Banadir also serves breakfast. Here things get a little complicated. What's offered at breakfast time (7 to 10 a.m.) are two Somali dishes: chicken suqaar, which I tried and very much enjoyed (it's composed of chicken cubes, chopped red and green peppers, onions, squash, and chapatti—brittle and buttery flatbread—and a red sauce, $10), and goat suqaar, which of course, I did not try (I will never forget that goat's eyes as it died). These dishes, which clearly used to be on Banadir Restaurant's menu, may or may not be served after breakfast, when Afrikando's menu appears. Also, Afrikando's dishes may or may not be served in the morning. The situation looks like this: Banadir happens in the morning, Afrikando in the afternoon and night. There is, however, nothing formal about this separation. While there for lunch recently, I saw a black American man order the goat suqaar, and he got what his heart desired.
And now for some theory. The founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, famously argued that capitalism was good because it made people kinder—meaning shop attendants or laborers offering some sort of service needed to be kind to gain or retain business. If you were mean, you would lose customers; if you were polite, customers would return and reward your politeness. My problem with this theory (a version of the rational actor theory) is that it wants us to see the human as a brute, a naturally bad animal that can only be corrected or improved by the disciplinary mechanism of the market. This is a capitalist fantasy.
At Afrikando Banadir, we get the sense that politeness is not a product of market discipline. The affability of the owners and servers feels spontaneous, not rational and self-interested. Instead of an empty, one-way politeness, you get the kind of politeness that engages both the sender and receiver.
"Do you know what you are eating?" asked Saar, who walked over to our table during dinner. We were strangers to him.
"Yes, we once even ate at your Belltown place."
"Ah, yes, I was a young man back then. Those days, I could eat a lot. Now I can't. I can only eat small plates. I'm such an old man now. Fifty-three. So old. Enjoy your dinner."
And we did.