Your guide to African cuisines in St. Louis from James Beard Award-nominated chef Rob Connoley
When I returned home to St. Louis six years ago, the International Institute of St. Louis invited me to partner with Ugandan chef Christine Sseremba, formerly of Olive Green International Cuisine restaurant, for a fundraising event. Sseremba’s smoky goat curry, pungent with resinous green cardamom, sharp black pepper and earthy cloves, provided a perfect flavor punch to be sopped up with my sweet, nutty acorn financiers. Today, you may be fortunate enough to find Sseremba at food festivals serving sambusa (meat-filled samosa) and mandazi (doughnut-like fried bread). The complexity of her flavors mirrors a tangled history of imperialist dominion, civil wars and the resulting struggles of countries vying for self-rule. Curries – light on heat but heavy on spices – reflect Arab, British and Indian influences on Ugandan food staples. Sseremba’s ex-patriated food opened a world of possibilities to me that I previously hadn’t experienced, despite my culinary training.
Soon after, I saw signs of life behind the steamed fall windows of Waaberi (3445 S. Grand Blvd.). I had noticed the Waaberi sign on the window for over a year each time I exited the South Grand Schnucks’ parking lot, but the restaurant space appeared shuttered until fall 2020. Walking in for the first time, I saw a sparse room of booths, soccer playing on the mounted television, and smelled vaguely familiar spices steaming out of the kitchen and condensing around the edges of the weathered window frames. This is when I met the owner, Mohamed Abdulkadir.
Abdulkadir had taken over the space from his cousin, who previously ran Nasiib restaurant in the same location. He emigrated from Mogadishu in 1996, fleeing the Somali civil war that had been raging since 1991.
At Abdulkadir’s suggestion I found myself sitting with a hot plate of steaming, mounded basmati and a variety of curries (suqaar), including lamb and beef with a bit of perfectly piquant hot sauce (basbaas) reminiscent of raw tomatillo salsa. Abdulkadir explained the challenges he had faced opening the restaurant, including the lack of signage and menus caused by Covid delays. But at that point, the restaurant already served as a gathering place for the Somali people (and other Africans) living in St. Louis – cultures which value family and neighbors at the core of community life. Restaurants like Waaberi provide a welcoming space to those living far from home and offer a bit of food sovereignty in the process, food that is so easily fused into the host country’s cuisine. “Before I opened this restaurant I thought that I was going to sell food only – I didn't know that I was going to open a community center. It’s never a dull moment,” he said.
The friendliness of Abdulkadir, and his willingness to share his culture with me, sent me down the road of learning the differences between some of the various representations of African food in St. Louis, in both restaurants and groceries. Here, you will find a guide to explore on your own with my picks for dishes.
Rob Connoley is chef-owner of Bulrush. Prior to opening Bulrush, he owned and operated The Curious Kumquat in Silver City, New Mexico. He has received James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef: Southwest as well as Best Chef: Midwest. He is also author of Acorns and Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm and Field.
African Palace Bar & Grill (Western African/Caribbean) 4005 Seven Hills Drive, Florissant, 314.921.4600, africanpalace.org
What to try: yam fufu with egusi (melon seeds and collard greens stew), spicy goat pepper soup
Chez Ali (Caribbean/Senegalese) 3730 Foundry Way (inside City Foundry STL), St. Louis, cityfoundrystl.com/directory/chez-ali
What to try: oxtail, when available
House of Jollof (Ghanaian) 503 Paul Ave., Florissant, 314.384.9153, myhouseofjollof.com
What to try: jollof (spicy tomato-cooked rice with a variety of meats), waakye rice (a rice and bean dish featuring sorghum leaves)
Merhaba (East African) 6665 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.833.4477, merhaba-restaurant.business.site
What to try: The doro wat chicken stew with alicha (cabbage and lightly stewed mixed vegetables with seasoned butter)
Meskerem (Ethiopian) 3210 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.772.4442, Facebook: Meskerem
What to try: miser wat lentils, lega tibs beef and the coffee service
Shaw Market (Eritrean) 4200 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, 314.771.3544, Facebook: Shaw Market
What to try: The meat or vegetarian combo platter available on some Wednesdays; call or check Facebook for availability.
Waaberi (Somali) 3445 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314.449.1124, Facebook: Waaberi restaurant
What to try: beef curry, hot chai
Grocery Stores & Markets
African Depot 9944 W. Florissant Ave., Dellwood, 314.868.9555, Instagram:@africandepotgrocerystl
Ceta International Market 12671 New Halls Ferry Road, Florissant, 314.449.3218, Facebook: Ceta International Market
East Africa Grocery 3616 Chippewa St., St. Louis, 314.939.4561, eastafricagrocery.business.site
Nasiib Halal 3702 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314.771.3487, Facebook: Nasiib Halal Store
Ogbah’s African Store 815 Lincoln Hwy #108, Fairview Heights, 618.722.9010, ogbahsafricanstore.company.site
Tawakal Halal Grocery 3308 Meramec St., St. Louis, 314.752.5633, dutchtownstl.org/places/tawakal-grocery
Worldwide International Foods & African Market 8430 Olive Blvd., University City, 314.994.0229, facebook.com/africanshop/
Zain’s African International Store 3949 Gravois Ave., St. Louis, 314.696.2292, zains-african-international-market.business.site
More stories like this
This week on the Sauce podcast: Le Ono, Annie Gunn's and Madrina
This week on the Sauce podcast, Meera and Michelle discuss a variety of new restaurants in ...
Levels Nigerian Cuisine takes African food to the next level in downtown St. Louis
At Levels Nigerian Cuisine in downtown St. Louis, the food is unabashedly bold.