When I told my server at Buka that I was a vegetarian, she patiently pointed out the few items on the menu that were appropriate. There are not many options, she said, because Buka specializes in authentic Nigerian food; like many other West African cuisines, it relies heavily on dried fish. But those dishes that are vegetarian are quite filling, due to the other Nigerian staple: yams. We're not talking the orange Thanksgiving sweet potato that supermarkets mislabel as yams, but the large white starchy tubers that serves as the base for many Nigerian dishes.
Take the dundun ($5), or yam fries, that started my meal. Though at first they resemble the more familiar french fry, as soon as you bite into them the firm texture lets you know this is no ordinary potato. The crispy outer shell is nicely seasoned, though the interior is a little dry. Take advantage of the tomato and onion dipping sauce that comes with it—rich, slightly acidic and almost smoky, it improves the blandness of the yams dramatically.
Another vegetarian appetizer is akara ($5), described as a crispy bean cake. Instead of a falafel-like interior, the crispy outside reveals a silky, creamy white interior that tastes strongly of beans. It's also slightly spicy, and is served with a spicy dipping sauce that doesn't add much flavor but certainly adds a good amount of heat. Take note: the other vegetarian-sounding appetizer, moi moi, a steamed honey bean cake, is made with dried fish.
Buka actually offers two vegetarian entrees, both priced at $10 and both featuring yam. I considered the asaro, a yam potage made with fresh herbs, but settled on the more whimsically named yam and eggs. I wasn't quite prepared for what came out of the kitchen—two giant hunks of steamed yam, each about as big as my fist, topped with scrambled eggs which where laced with tomatoes and strips of fiery peppers. My server offered to leave the peppers out, but I like spicy food so I elected to keep them. The eggs were well seasoned, but the volume of the bland, slightly dry yams overwhelmed the flavor of the eggs. I decided to pour the remains of the sauces from my appetizers over the dish for a little extra moisture and flavor, and was glad I did.
The bottom line is that the function of yams in African cuisine is to provide cheap, filling food. They don't have a lot in the way of flavor, thus the reliance on spicy peppers and flavorful sauces. Buka makes the most of both the yams and the sauce. There may not be many vegetarian options at Buka, but vegetarians will certainly not leave hungry.
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