When I was still a stranger to the bounties of the Bronx food scene, Papaye served as my introduction to the comforting promises of West African food. I knew little about Ghanaian cuisine then, and was content to bask in the blistering heat of my chicken soup spiked with shito, the Ghanian pepper sauce often just called "pepper."
I've since had many more meals of rice smothered in potato leaf stew and Sauce Claire, as well as earthy fayoke and toothsome egusi soup. Shito has now taken its place as one of my most beloved condiments.* But one thing hasn't changed: Papaye remains my favorite of the Bronx's Ghanaian restaurants.
* The owner of Ebe Ye Yie confided in me that she would fall into despair without shito, sometimes eating the sambal straight out of the jar. It inspires deep and unusually fervent passions.
Situated on the Grand Concourse, an afternoon lunch at Papaye could precede a trip to the nearby Edgar Allen Poe House or, by bus, the Bronx Zoo. From fufu with chicken in peanut butter sauce to okra and beef, it's hard to go wrong here. Portions lean toward family style, so dinning solo is not the most advisable tactic. If you're looking for something with breakfast potential, try the palaver sauce with white rice and fish ($11).
Popular throughout the region, palaver is at its base a stew of taro greens (cocoyam), ground egusi seeds, and palm oil. Regional variations apply; meat, smoked fish, and other vegetables are common additions. Though the dish's origins aren't explicitly clear, the word "palaver," points to a certain significance: The Imported Ghanaian offers that the name derives from it being served during negotiations with European traders.
The primary ingredients of Papaye's palaver are spinach—a common cocoyam substitute used by the West African diaspora—and ground egusi seeds. Palm oil leaks onto the plate, a radiant orange against the cooler colors of the dish. Mixed in with the fluffy rice, the stew is supremely satisfying: the soft egusi and wilted spinach smother the rice in sauce. The tilapia, served as skin-on chunks in a red-brown gravy, bursts with the kind of flavor you don't expect such a typically boring fish to carry.
Papaye produces two varieties of homemade shito. The black version, colored by the dried fish product momoni, is more complex; the red, which friends have deemed "Ghanaian salsa", is sharper and more fresh. Mixed in with the oily palaver, it provides a lighter, brighter touch—with an immediate, unforgiving kick.
Koose with koko, fried bean balls with corn or millet flour porridge, can be found at earlier hours and comes as close to dessert as you're going to find here. If you're feeling risky, grab a couple Guinness Extras to wash down your momoni-flavored and egusi-thickened soups and stews. Just don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
2300 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY, Bronx, NY 10458 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress. He can be reached at [email protected]