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A production of the Southern Foodways Alliance, GRAVY tells new and complicated stories about the changing American South.

Nov 30, 2022

In the episode “In Houston, Three Tastes of West Africa,” Gravy producer Kayla Stewart takes listeners to her hometown of Houston, Texas, which boasts one of the most vibrant international food scenes in the country. It’s a city where Black Americans have built their own communities and pathways to success, and where diversity is prized. It’s also where West African immigrants—from Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and beyond—have created their own stories, including through food. 

To find out why Houston is the center of this West African renaissance, Stewart starts at Safari restaurant, which Margaret and Hector Ukegbu opened in the 1990s. Safari helped appease the homesickness many Nigerians felt when they first arrived in the United States in the late 20th century.

To understand why the restaurant is so significant, we’ve got to understand Houston’s Black community and the landscape of Nigeria during the second part of the 20th century. During the 1960s and 1970s, decades critical to the Black Power Movement across the country, Black universities sought ways to connect with African countries, and vice versa. When the U.S. passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, it became easier for Africans to migrate to the U.S. Houston universities welcomed a huge number of students from several African countries, particularly from Nigeria. 

This was a period of political instability in Nigeria. The Nigerian Civil War was technically only three years, culminating in 1970 but the war created emotional, economic, and political ramifications. Many Nigerians sought new opportunities in the United States, as did immigrants from nearby countries like Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia. Houston, thanks to its numerous universities, ample job opportunities and hot, familiar climate, was appealing.

And once they were here, they looked for the foods they loved from home. Margaret Ukegbu started cooking and selling Nigerian food out of her home, such as rice dishes and plantains. Eventually, she and Hector opened Safari, which serves traditional Nigerian dishes like pepper soup with goat meat and egusi soup. For 25 years, they’ve served families and leaders from across the West African diaspora. 

Over time, Houston has become an incubator of sorts for West African chefs and restaurateurs to get creative and explore the possibilities of West African dining.

In this episode, Stewart interviews Kavachi Ukegbu, the daughter of Margaret and Hector, who currently runs Safari with her mother. She also speaks with Ope Amosu, the chef and entrepreneur behind ChòpnBlọk, a West African fast-casual restaurant in Houston, who’s on a mission to share the cuisine with American diners and change the narrative around the continent’s bounty. Finally, Stewart hears from Cherif Mbodji, the Senegalese-American general manager of the elegant restaurant Bludorn, about bringing Senegalese food and flavors to fine dining.