November 25, 2008

Turay's Place - Heart of Deliciousness

Beijing is blessed with human and culinary diversity. Residents have the good fortune to not only sample all of China's regional dishes, but can also eat their way around the world without ever leaving the city. One hidden gem exemplifying this is Turay's Place, which serves pan-African home style cooking. Turay's, the eponymous brainchild of a long-term Beijing resident hailing from Sierra Leone, has a down-to-earth atmosphere which is a cross between a local diner and your own living room.

The make yourself at home comfort of Turay's isn't surprising given how the restaurant got its start. Turay and other friends craving the flavors of home regularly host dinner parties which can attract more than 20 people. It was the encouragement of these friends, and their need for a larger venue, which led Turay to open his own restaurant. Turay began by finding a quiet, out of the way, location so that the intimacy of the home dinners wouldn't be lost. Then, his wife trained their cooks until they could flawlessly reproduce African dishes from her own family recipes. His wife has done such a great job that many of their friends mistakenly think she's in the kitchen preparing the dishes herself.

Turay shows me the difference between a yam and a sweet potato about 5 kilograms.

One of Turay's biggest challenges is that he must satisfy cravings for home-style food for people from all over Africa. Someone from the meat loving south of Africa might not appreciate the vegetable focused dishes of the east, those from coastal regions will prefer a fish dish, and someone from West Africa will want a spicy kick to their meal. To provide his patrons with food like their mom used to make, Turay is constantly asking for customer feedback and getting recipes and tips from friends. Judging from the rave reviews of other patrons, he has succeeded; when an African diplomat at a neighboring table took a bite of a yam dish he said, "Turay, where'd you get these yams!? I feel like I'm back home". Surprisingly, yams are one of the few items Turay imports from Africa; an Asian variety is available, but it doesn't meet his customer's high standards for authenticity. Chili pepper and palm oil are some other ingredients which must be imported.

Left to right: cassava fufu, maize fufu, and peanut butter & oxtail soup

Since we were novices, Turay divided Africa for us along culinary lines. From North Africa was couscous; from West Africa was spicy rice, chicken wings, peanut butter and oxtail soup, and also ndole, which was my favorite dish. The national dish of Cameroon, ndole is made primarily from bitterleaf, peanuts, onions, garlic and palm oil. From Central Africa was fufu, a white starchy ball made from the cassava plant, along with a type of fufu made from maize. A ball of fufu, which can be quite hot to the touch, is pinched off and used to scoop up the soup.

We were fortunate enough to be joined by Emmy, Turay's very friendly and precocious daughter. Emmy recommends the chicken wings, originally a Senegalese recipe which is now a West African favorite. Be sure to try them if you visit!

Turay says that for people from Sierra Leone, "a meal without rice isn't a meal at all". Turay's uses only long-grain rice, because of its fragrance.

Rating (out of five): 串串串

The dining experience at Turay's is unique to Beijing; the friendly service will make you feel at home whether you've come for oxtail soup like mom used to make, or if you don't know your fufu from your ewedu.

Turay's Place

1 comment:

zackchen said...

Checked the place out last night, I wasn't fortunate enough to have the company of Turay himself though...

The food was interesting, me and my wife tried the jolof rice and pepper soup, both of which we found a bit too oily to our taste, the meat pies reminds us of curry puffs, not necessarily detox-friendly but tasty, the place was clean and warm, only the waitress seemed to have difficulties understanding us, we ended up getting 2 soups and 2 meat pies while we thought we'd only ordered 1.

Worth a visit if you happen to be around, but double check your orders.