You’ve probably seen West Africans plying various ticaret-related activities on the streets of the city. Well, a busy young salesman yearning for the tastes of his homeland has to eat somewhere, right? The places they go for some home cooking here are basically apartments: the semi-speakeasies of ethnic food in the city that are not totally hidden, but not exactly easy to find.
These unofficial, scantily furnished eateries in places like Kurtulus appear by no means to be licensed or inspected. Wazobia, deep in the belly of Mecidiyekoy (next to the Gülbağ bus stop) is an example of such a place. It has a paltry 1-review presence on Yelp! and can hardly be deemed a formal restaurant. It’s more like a West African version of the esnaf lokantası: spartan, simple, with a few staples and a menu du jour.
We found Wazobia by accident while searching for, similar place that a friend recommended. The friend who told us about the place had said, ‘go to thus and such street, find an African person, and have them take you to their dinning spot.’ After having spent half an hour perusing the desolate residential street in question and finding not a soul to fit the profile, we ventured into a busy intersection and found three African women waiting for a bus. Sean and myself made awkward attempts to question them about the restaurant in the various languages we had at our command, only to be rebuffed and made to feel like we were full-on ruining their vibe.
After about an hour of walking up and down the steep streets of Mecidiyeköy, we finally made it — only to a different restaurant. We had no luck finding the restaurant we were originally looking for, though we weren’t sure as we didn’t know the name, but when we searched online for an African restaurant in the area, it turned out a Yelp! search yielded Wazobia. It turned out to not be the same eatery our friend had originally suggested.
Alas, what did we know? We were greeted enthusiastically by some men hanging out front of a beauty parlor, which had no sign, only some small photos of hair styles tattooed on a florescent-lit window.
They led us down some stairs next to the kuaför to a basement one-plus-one flat retrofitted into an ersatz restaurant. A small open kitchen made up the front room, we sat in the “living room”, which had six tables, couches around the perimeter. A big-screen TV on the wall was showing Polish pop music videos, which we hypothesized was the channel that showed the most scantily clad women. The floor was a pre-school-esque colorful jigsaw puzzle motif, and posters on the wall featured an African concert and an amateur football match from 2015.
The staff and patrons were friendly enough. A young man around college age showed us our table. We asked what kind of food was served. My knowledge of Nigerian food was limited to this article on Buzzfeed, which was not readily accessible on my phone when it came time to order. With no menu to give, the waiter explained us our options in heavily accented English: beef, chicken, and possibly turkey, not to mention “stew” and “spicy rice”.
A pair of men seated next to us were curious as to where we were from. We listed the states we hail from in the USA. He said he had lived in New York for some years before coming to Istanbul. He and his buddy both found Turkish wives on Baidu. Apparently, these African men found Turkish wives on a Chinese web portal. In fact, they were surprised that we hadn’t met our Turkish wives on Baidu. Globalization, baby.
Then our food came. The waiter gave all three of us the same thing, chicken with tomato sauce, and a mixed plate of white and spicy yellow rice with vegetable garniture. This all came with bottles of Vita Malt, a B-vitamin fortified, non-alcoholic beverage that, Chris said, Turkish mothers drink when breastfeeding.
The chicken (Chris corrected me by saying the waiter had called it turkey) was of the size, consistency and taste of a small game bird. It was covered in the sweet tomato sauce, perhaps the highlight of the evening’s offerings. The chicken itself was tough, not very meaty, and of so-so flavor. The spicy rice was tasty. It seemed to be heavily imbued with some sort of chili, making it potently spicy, but not overpowering.
Midway through our underwhelming mean, a young man next to us received a tray that had something resembling a pile of white mashed potato , an Indian dal-looking stew and a small tub of steaming water. He broke off bits of the banku, the potato-looking corn and cassava dough, rolled them in his fingers and dipped them in the stew., then cleaned his fingers in the steaming water. Very practical, we thought. Let’s try! which was right after we simultaneously inwardly shouted “Why the hell hadn’t the waiter mentioned this before?”
We ordered one of these dishes to share, and began rolling the earthy tasting mash in our fingers, then dipping it into the stew. The “beef” pieces in the middle of the stew were disgusting. Not beef, not like any meat I had tried before, I spit it out immediately.
Finally, when we went to the kitchen to pay, we at last got a reprieve from awful Polish pop and treated to some appropriate West African music. The young waiter wrote down our tab: 110 lira. We tried to bargain to no avail. “Next time you come we can make it cheaper”, he said.
Though I would be open to eating West African again, it doesn’t look like there will be a next time at Wazobia.