Earl’s Juke Joint has a different vibe tonight. The usual aroma of citrus, timber and the sharp punch of liquor is mixed with cooking smells and fragrant spices – the kind you get from frying onions, steaming rice and transforming tomatoes and meat into stews. Congregated by the bar is a crowd of hungry punters, many originally from West Africa, who have come to this Newtown cocktail bar to eat.
Ade Adeniyi, the man to thank for this evening, is the chef behind pop-up stall Little Lagos and an advocate for Nigerian food in Sydney. Aside from Adeniyi, you can find a couple home chefs operating backyard takeaway joints and the occasional serving of jollof rice (cooked in a base of tomato, onion and capsicum) in Sydney’s more general African restaurants (such as Guildford’s El Shaddai African Cuisine), but otherwise, Little Lagos is the only place to eat Nigerian cuisine in this city. And occasionally, you’ll find it popping up at Earl’s Juke Joint.
Every customer gets a cardboard box, which Adeniyi fills from the bar counter with foods such as caramelised fried plantains and meat pies that are similar to Chilean empanadas: doughy, hearty and filled with oniony mince, but more heavily spiced. “Nigerian food is very tasty,” says Adeniyi. “It’s full of flavour. We have this saying, other people don’t put spices in their food, it’s bland.”
Many of Adeniyi’s Nigerian friends are here, some to stock up for an entire week with boxes of jollof rice, ewa agoyin (peppery, slow-cooked black-eyed beans) and goat stew. “Stew and white rice is the classic meal that every Nigerian eats at home,” he says.
Nigerian stews aren’t like European stews, which are often thin and made from a base of wine, stock and maybe butter. These stews are made from a base of onion, tomato and capsicum, loaded with spice and have a curry-like consistency. But never use the word curry to describe them, says Adeniyi. “We object to the word curry,” he explains. “It's a cultural thing. We don’t believe we eat curry; our cousins in the Caribbean, they eat curry. Indians eat curry. But sometimes when I have to explain I go, ‘Alright, it’s like curry’.”
At some pop-ups he serves egusi (a soup made from spinach and melon seeds) and freshly made doughnuts, and he has plans to cook all these dishes – and more – regularly, once he finds space for a restaurant. “The plan is to have a little place in Newtown open five days a week,” he says.
It would be an incredible achievement for a novice chef who holds a full-time day job in the banking industry, and who only five years ago worked in medicine in Saudi Arabia. Adeniyi left Nigeria when he was 16 to move to Romania to study. “I wasn't sure about Romanian food. It was weird to me. There were some common things like potatoes and chicken but I couldn't eat that every day, so I had to cook,” he says.
He grew up with many sisters and was never in the kitchen at home, so in Romania he’d text or email them for cooking tips. He’d try replicating dishes from a local Nigerian restaurant and gradually learned everything he knows now. After he left Romania he lived in many places, including Dubai, before coming to Sydney in 2016 when he was 35, where he was shocked to find there were no Nigerian restaurants.
“It was painful. In Dubai we had a ritual: every Friday to Sunday we’d go to the Nigerian restaurant and eat. It was very authentic. You go in, wash your hands, eat with your hands. I looked forward to it every week. We were busy, working hard, but we’d hang out and spend quality time together,” he says.
“[But when I came to Sydney] I couldn't understand – there were so many people and restaurants here [but no Nigerian restaurants]. I was like, ‘What is going on? Why isn’t there even one?’ I was thinking I can do this. Even if no one goes there, I can hang out there with my friends.”
Little Lagos will be at Earl’s Juke Joint, 407 King Street, Newtown, on Sunday September 1 from 5pm to 9pm. Check Little Lagos’s Instagram account for future pop-up details.
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.