I remember my click of recognition when I first saw a West African recipe for black-eyed-pea fritters with hot sauce, since my family in the South had always doused black-eyed peas with hot pepper sauce. African captives brought their food culture with them, and it survived in the southern United States. It still does -- boiled peanuts, tomato-seasoned rice, yams, collard greens, even catfish.
Although some of those veggies and even the fish exist in slightly different incarnations in Nigeria and are prepared and served in different ways, if you make up your mind to be adventurous, you'll find plenty of intriguing and slightly familiar dishes at the Village Restaurant.
Owned by Toyin Wilcox/Olatunji, who also oversees the kitchen and does a good bit of the cooking, "The Village" has become a popular gathering point for workers in downtown Pawtucket, Rhode Islanders of African heritage, and curious gringos like ourselves, always eager to travel to distant lands via our taste buds. The staff was universally friendly and patient with our questions, though not all the servers knew how to describe some of the dishes.
Actually, the menu has two pages of pictures of offerings, but they can still be hard to figure out. If egunsu stew ($10.95) is explained as having melon seeds and stock fish, you have to ask yourself: What kind of melon? What is stock fish? The latter is a dried, salted fish, chopped into tiny pieces; the melon could be any melon, though the seeds (also chopped) were white. Stock fish is used in many ethnic dishes and, drawn in by the cooked greens, tomatoes, and fiery spices, I didn't realize that the whole dish would just taste too fishy for me.
Our friend Baiba got a different stew (there are six to inquire about) called "vegetable stew" ($10.95). We mistakenly thought that this would be just veggies (there's a separate "vegetarian" menu section) but turned out to have small pieces of beef, also spicy hot, also with greens, and she liked it so much that she polished her plate.
And to do that polishing, she used moist chunks of iyan and eba, steamed breads made from white yams and cassava, respectively. The consistency of these "breads" is almost pudding-like, though you can fork off a chunk to dip into your choice of stew. Two others are apon and ewedu, both containing okra, and a third, gbegiri ewede, made from beans, peppers, and onions, was placed squarely in the "slimy" category by our waiter. I'm willing to go back and try one of those, though, now that I've rejected anything with stock fish.
Bill and our goddaughter Tarra took a bit safer route: jollof rice with chicken and fish, respectively ($10.95). Jollof rice is cooked with onions, chili peppers, and tomatoes for a deep, rich flavor. Bill's chicken addition turned out to be four drumsticks. Tarra's choice of fish was tilapia or catfish. She chose the latter and liked it. But perhaps their favorite thing on the plate was the fried plaintains.
For appetizers, the three meat-eaters split the sausage rolls ($1.99), which they gobbled down, and a "meat skewer" ($5.95), which had both beef and tripe chunks on it. The two "B's" pronounced the tripe "chewy but edible"; the beef they called "dry and tough." Bill also had the pepper soup ($5.95) which was, indeed, peppery, too hot even for him, with plenty of the aforementioned beef (though more tender in the soup) and more tripe, which he welcomed, in a burst of nostalgia for Campbell's pepper pot.
We also tried a side order of chin chin, which were tiny crunchy fried dough pieces dusted with sugar, akin to "pretzel nuggets," and usually eaten by Nigerians as a snack. We might have chosen them for a bit of dessert, but what we did choose was even better: a side order of those marvelous fried plantains ($1.99). We fought over portions.
Although some in our group later declared a disinclination toward Nigerian food, I'd give it another chance. Based on the Village's careful preparations of the food, the warm staff, the menu items we didn't yet taste, and those plaintains, I think it's definitely worth another far-ranging trip to Pawtucket.