In Nigeria, a developing nation in sub-Saharan Africa, a lusty soup or stew is usually the main meal, supplemented throughout the day with fritters, dumplings and other snacks, known as "small chop." The stew is ladled over a starch, such as yams, plantains, rice or cassava, a mild root vegetable with crisp white flesh. Dried slices or grains of these starches are pounded into flour and stirred into boiling water to make tuwo or foofoo, a mush similar to the Italian peasant dish polenta. Fatima's offers a choice of these starches, including semolina, a coarsely ground wheat flour.
Sometimes the starch is part of the stew itself. Such one-pot dishes are practical: Food is not presented in courses, because most Nigerian families can afford to serve only one dish at each meal and a shortage of firewood makes it sensible to cook everything at once. Spices are costly, too, but throwing in a few fiery red chili peppers gives the food a dash of piquancy. In Fatima's version of jollof rice, a ubiquitous West African one-pot meal, hot chiles make only a hasty, bashful appearance. This rice stew is always tinged red with tomato paste, but its other ingredients vary from one region to the next. In Senegal, where most families eat the dish every day, fish and shellfish go into the cauldron. In Ghana and Nigeria, fish is available only smoked or dried, so chunks of meat or chicken flavor the stew. The starch is also cooked into the stew in Fatima's earthy yam porridge asaro, in which yam and potato nuggets are stirred into a spicy purée of tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and garlic. Although Americans -- especially Southerners -- often use the terms "yams" and "sweet potatoes" interchangeably, the tubers are different species. Yams usually have ivory rather than orange flesh, contain more water and are a bit sweeter.
Jasmine rice and beans, perhaps the most intriguing dish on Fatima's menu, is made with black-eyed peas, which are really beans, or a type of legume. They're called "cowpeas" in much of the world because they were once used mainly for animal fodder. The black crescent is the hilum, the point at which the pea attaches to the pod. Cowpeas, an important West African crop second only to peanuts -- called "groundnuts" in Africa -- are curiously absent from Fatima's menu. The black-eyed peas, sharpened with a peppery tomato sauce and spooned over a layer of rice, are served with chicken, fish or goat. We chose goat, a well-done cut that was marbled like lamb but had the flavor of brisket. Fatima's also uses black-eyed peas to make moin-moin, a bland, crumbly cake that's as chalky as a slab of limestone. The wan square was dewy with condensation, yet its parched edges had begun to curl and darken as it withered.
Fatima's is in the Market in the Loop, a breezeway-cum-food court in University City that's a wretched place to have a meal. In the winter you have to keep your coat buttoned, because frigid air forms a jet stream between the double doors on each end. The crowded, clattering room has a high industrial ceiling and an uneven tile floor, so that the pedestal tables wobble as you eat. If you use the restroom, you must wash your hands afterward at a serviceable stainless-steel basin outside the toilet, in full view of other diners. To enjoy your meal in more comfortable surroundings, take your order to go.
Fatima's narrow bay has a cluttered order counter and a glass display case in the front, facing the communal seating corral, and a cramped food-preparation and storage area in the back. A menu board is posted, but pick up a copy of the printed brochure. It's more detailed, although perplexing phrases and duplicated descriptions make both menus confusing. The extensive list of offerings is plainly too ambitious for such a tiny kitchen. Many items we requested -- fried spicy snails, cow leg, melon soup, carrot salad, chicken pie -- weren't available. Others were made with substitute ingredients that changed the character of the dishes. For example, white rice seems to have been used in every rice dish, including one billed as seasoned brown rice. In fact, you never know what you'll end up with -- even a straightforward side order of steamed jasmine rice was inexplicably served with an unidentified joint of meat squatting on top. Perhaps, though, this apparent fickleness merely reflects the harmonious Nigerian way of eating: The cook prepares the meat and vegetables that are in the larder that day, and those who gather to share it are simply grateful for the meal.