>> Congolese Dinner in West Orange, NJ | Eat the World NYC

27 January 2020

Congolese Dinner in West Orange, NJ

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO 🇨🇬

So, for the sake of conversation, let's say there was a dinner invitation originating from West Orange, New Jersey that came with the promise of Congolese dishes made for the Congolese community and other interested Africans in the area. Customers were driving from the Bronx, Harlem, and all points relatively nearby to get their hands on foods from back home that are so rare around New York City.

This is obviously an invitation you should accept.

Chef Reine, who also goes by her childhood nickname of Lafee, or her Ghanaian husband Anthony will be there to welcome you into their home when you arrive. Officially, an invitation can take place on Saturday or Sunday evening starting at 4pm, but through later conversations about Africans and their relationship to time, this is more of a placeholder to let you know that things really begin after 6 or 7pm.

By 10pm, these floors might be shaking.

Lafee took the "scenic route" to becoming a chef despite a lifelong passion for cooking. After moving from Brazzaville to Moscow at 18 for university, four years later she came to the states via Ohio and then eventually lived in the Bronx where she remained until less than a year ago. The large commercial garage attached to their new home in West Orange serves as the main "event" space when they want to invite people over. Surrounded by colorful curtains and with enough space near the karaoke machine to dance, the space is perfect for hosting meals and providing entertainment.

She says, "Africans want to dance, eat, drink, and have a good time." This is what most conversations return to and what is the essence of the new operation. Chef Reine says she is inspired to eventually try her hand at some sort of business because of seeing a similar chef on Shark Tank get investment money and succeed.


Not knowing the rules and etiquette of timing, this first meal was supposed to take place at 5pm on a Saturday, but not everything was in its place and ready. Not wanting two people to feel alone in the large garage dining area, a table in the home nearer to the prep area was offered as the menu (photos on her phone) was perused.

From the moment you walk inside, hospitality envelopes everything. Anthony will bring bottles of water and offer other drinks depending on your mood. Both are happy and confident, not at all changed by the presence of strangers in their home. The TV will be switched over to some French-language African videos on YouTube, the kids from upstairs will pop their heads down the stairs to check out new faces, but after a few minutes it feels like being with old friends.

The River Congo, which forms a good portion of the border between the two Congos, and all of its tributaries are full of fish and has been a big part of the development of the cuisine for ages. Many freshly caught fish are grilled or fried immediately and eaten, but preservation also takes place in the form of smoking and salting. Makayabu, or saltfish, shows up in many places including two of the dishes ordered on this occasion, starting with the simple sauteed saltfish plate above that Chef Reine declared was her most popular dish amongst Congolese people.


By stroke of luck as this meal began, her sister arrived with luggage returning from Congo. Obviously tired after long flights, she did not look twice upon entering to see two strangers enjoying her sister's food and greeted everyone as family. By this time the dish she called bouillon sauvage (above) arrived, an okra soup full of both saltfish and smoked fish, as well as small mushrooms.

In both of the above photos, the pounded cassava known as chikwangue can be seen behind the dishes. This starch is cooked in banana leaves and cut into small pieces to be eaten with any dish. It is dense and chewy, and starts to fill you up almost immediately but is a pleasure to eat. She refers to it by the French name of manioc.


Last but not least was a plate of dibi (above), chunks of grilled lamb sauteed with onions. Lovers of West African cuisine from former French colonies will recognize this as a mainstay, but the dish has traveled to many parts of Africa and especially the Francophone nations. In Congo, the onion sauce relies less on mustard and vinegar and is sweetened by caramelization.

It is hard not to feel like the guest of honor by the time your belly is full. Coming early was nice if only for the chance to talk more with Lafee and Anthony, before they got busy when other invited guests would arrive and start to sing and dance. Maybe next time a later arrival will be selected though for a chance to get out on the dance floor with new friends.

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🇨🇬🇨🇬🇨🇬
WEST ORANGE
New Jersey

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