Eats from the Underground: A Senegalese Café

 

              At my school cafeteria one day, I asked a group of my former students whether they knew where the African migrants go to eat in Istanbul, they all said no. A minute later, however, one of them, a boy from Senegal named Suleiman, admitted that he had been to a Senegalese restaurant near Aksaray. The way he divulged this information, as though confessing having visited a brothel, gave me pause. Only three weeks had passed since visiting the African restaurant of Wazobia, where the Ethnic Istanbul crew had been charged exorbitant prices for nearly inedible fare.  

Suleiman placated my concerns by describing the restaurant as: ‘a place that has food one would feel comfortable eating’ and one that ‘could be trusted not to kill me’.

The next day I found the boys where they had agreed to meet me, outside the Yenikapi Marmaray Station, congregated around a vendor of fake leather belts and sunglasses. Suleiman, the one who had claimed he knew the restaurant well, was asking for directions.

‘I thought you knew where this place was,’ I said.

He looked startled, having perhaps assumed that I wouldn’t have understood enough French to follow the conversation.

‘Of course, teacher,’ he said. ‘There’s no problem.’

After forging a convoluted route through Aksaray, we arrived  in front of a flight of stairs leading into a basement. The weathered sign above the door read ‘Call Center’. Inside, the clientele, all Africans, sat on benches against the wall, waiting for one of the two phones to be free. I was on verge of demanding an explanation from my students, as to where the hell they had taken me when I became aware of the smell of food; a not entirely unpleasant aroma of oniony rice.

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The restaurant was hidden from view by a narrow corridor partially covered by a curtain. There were close to a dozen patrons inside, dousing their plates of food with bottles of maggi aroma. Two African ladies stood behind a buffet bar ladling rice, smothered onions, and some kind of meat into take-away containers.

My students ushered me to a table in the back of the room, where I found, to my surprise, a menu. The menu had two sides, displaying sixteen exotic dishes — among them, pigeon — illustrated with miniature color pictures. Soon everyone was engrossed in the menu, trying to decide what to order.

One of the server ladies came over, picked up the menu, looked it over as though seeing it for the first time, and pointed to one of the pictures. Then she spoke to Suleiman in Wolof — one of the more common languages of Senegal — for nearly five minutes.

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‘This is all they have today,’ summarized Suleiman, pointing to chicken and rice.

‘What? Did they run out of everything else?’ I asked.

‘No, it’s not like that. They only cook one dish a day.’

‘Then what’s the point of having a menu?’

My other two students laughed at my remark, but Suleiman, perhaps feeling the need to defend the business practices of his compatriots, kept it serious. He dutifully relayed my question to the server even though, judging by the strain of his expression, it posed a bit of a challenge in translation. Unfortunately, instead of trying to offer something resembling an explanation, my company changed the subject and began talking about what big hopes they had for the future of the restaurant. Then the food arrived.

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We each got a plate of chicken and rice with smothered onions. Also included in the dish were chopped cucumbers, a quartered hard-boiled egg, and a piece of mystery meat, probably sheep. The rice itself, having been cooked in chicken bullion and chilli powder, was tasty. Although the meal wasn’t anything particularly special, I felt like the quality was a step up from Wazobia. Another thing I appreciated was that instead of showing Polish music videos, the television was tuned to a real Senegalese station, a fact that Suleiman pointed out to me by identifying a local politician from Dakar, and exclaiming: ‘you don’t have to know what you are talking about to be on TV in my country.’

As all the bottles of maggi aroma -the only available condiment- were in use at other tables, I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to drown my food in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which would have been fine except that the server ended up bringing a bottle to our table when I was two bites away from finishing, taunting me with the possibilities of what could have been.

After we had finished eating, I got Suleiman to interview the servers again, asking what we could expect to eat should we return another day. I was surprised to find that there was nothing random about the daily menu, and that it varied little from week to week.

Lunch

Monday: Rice with fish in a red sauce.

Tuesday: Domada (lamb in a spicy pepper sauce).

Wednesday: Rice with fish in a white sauce.

Thursday: Rice and beans with vegetables

Friday: Okra with chicken rice

Saturday: Rice with two kinds of meat

 

Dinner

Monday: (not chicken, maybe sheep?)

Tuesday: Meat stuffed with eggs… (From what I could understand)

Wednesday: Vermicelli noodles with chicken

Thursday: Meat with peas

Friday: couscous with peanut sauce

Saturday: Meat stew

Although they never mentioned being closed on Sundays, they offered no menu for that day. Their breakfast, served daily, is a house-made mayonnaise sandwich. They also insisted that the menu could be changed if enough people requested a certain dish for that day. For our meal, the price per person was 10 TL, but I was told to expect a little more or a little less depending on the dish.

As we emerged from the subterranean lair, I remembering the trip to Wazobia, and how disappointed I had felt upon leaving. After this experience, I felt significantly less disappointed, but there was still was one question that was dying to be asked.

‘What are the chances of me getting ripped off if I were to come here alone?’

Once they had managed to control themselves, for they all laughed hysterically at my comment, they affirmed that I could only expect as much.

‘You are white, so you are rich,’ said one student

‘Even if I dress in rags, and have all my teeth knocked out?’

‘Yeah. No matter how you look, you’ll still be the rich guy.’

 

Epilogue

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Before parting ways, I thanked my students for their help. They just shrugged and said that they already had business in Yenikapi anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal.

‘What kind of business?’

‘Teacher, we’ll go get our hair cut now.’

‘Oh yeah? You got a prefered hairdresser around here?’

‘Every African in Istanbul prefers this place because it’s the only one that knows how to cut African hair.’

I had them take me to the spot: the Afro Kuaför. It was packed to capacity with both men and women, with more standing outside. My students estimated the waiting time at three hours, and then, noticing my bulging eyes, assured me that it was normal. They mentioned that there was another restaurant across the street: a Nigerian place. I asked the students if they were up for another meal while waited their turn for the barber, but they claimed that they didn’t think the food was that good. 

‘Have you tried it?’ I asked.

‘No, teacher, but it’s run by Nigerians. It’s a different culture.’

I gave my student an accusing look.

‘They speak English!’ he protested.

Tempted though I was to uncover more of these hidden establishments, I didn’t feel confident enough in my negotiating ability to go into the restaurant by myself. The hidden Nigerian cafe would have to be an experience saved for another day.

Location: near the corner of Mithat Paşa Caddesi and Mollabey Sokak, in Beyazit. Look for the Call Center sign.

 

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