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Baku in Style
Amherst embraces Nigerian cuisine at Baku's African Restaurant.

- July 13, 2006

Baku's African Restaurant
197 North Pleasant St., Amherst, 253-7202
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 4-7 p.m.
Lunch entrées: $5.95-$8.95; dinner entrées $7.95-$10.95.
Delivery by Delivery Express: 549-0077

When Pat Ononibaku opened her restaurant, Baku's, last October, she filled one of the last remaining ethnic cuisine niches in the Valley. Ononibaku is a friendly woman with glasses and a huge smile, and she's enthusiastic about sharing the authentic dishes from her native Nigeria. She bustles about her small, casual eatery as if it were her own home, making sure everyone's happy with the food. She's cultivated a regular clientele, and almost wouldn't allow a group of diners to sit down without hugging her first. Although the dishes may be unusual, Ononibaku is always willing to tailor any meal to your desired degree of spiciness and sense of adventure.

"Have you ever tried pounded yam before?" she yelled from the stove with raised eyebrows when she heard the order I had given to her young daughter behind the counter. I hadn't, but assured her I was eager to try it anyway.

Luckily, an African man in a bright blue traditional two-piece robe was already enjoying a plate of pounded yam with egusi soup nearby and I was able to mimic his eating technique. He tore off a piece of soft dough, rolled it in his palm, and used it to mop up a mouthful of thick soup made from the ground seeds of a nutritious West African melon.

Pounded yam (also called cassava, yucca or manioc) is considered the ultimate comfort food in Nigeria, Ononibaku told me. It's easy to understand why. The pounded yam is a spongy white dough made from cassava flour with a mild starchy flavor and a consistency similar to a Chinese steamed bun. The melon seeds have a mellow, nutty flavor similar to the meat of pumpkin seeds that makes a filling mixture cooked in chicken broth with spinach and topped with a tangy curried tomato sauce.

Akara, black-eyed pea fritters, were another enjoyable discovery. The peas are ground to a paste and combined with onion and seasonings to form a batter that is spooned into hot oil. The taste is similar to potato latkes; the fluffy texture is reminiscent of hush puppies.

It's hard not to love plantains, especially at Baku's, where they come three ways. Ripe yellow plantains are sliced and fried to make dodo, a slightly sweet snack or side dish served with curry tomato sauce, or roasted to make boli, for a chewier, sweeter effect that is matched by a rich, creamy peanut sauce. Firm green plantains are sliced thin and fried to crisp chips served with mango salsa.

I had tried curried goat at a Caribbean restaurant in New York once, and found it tough and gamey. Baku's Supreme Curry Goat Meat was an extremely accessible version, with unbelievably tender pieces of mild-flavored meat cooked on the bone in a tomato-based curry sauce. I had asked for medium heat, but found it hardly spicy at all.

Vegetarian options are limited to an African version of beans and rice, made with black-eyed peas. Unremarkable boiled green beans were the vegetable of the day accompanying every dish.

Most entrées come with jollof rice, which is described as seasoned yellow rice but is actually quite reddish from tomato paste. A blend of dried herbs and warm spices gives it its signature aroma. When I asked what gives the rice its dominant flavor, Ononibaku laughed loudly, shook her head and declined to divulge her secret ingredients.

Ononibaku moved to Amherst from Nigeria in 1983 to study home economics and nutrition at UMass, where her husband was studying engineering. After completing her master's, she ran a successful catering business until opening Baku's. She is one of an increasingly rare breed of restaurant owners who bring to the business a particular affinity and flair for food.





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