Photo by Doug Young
Konkotey. Banku. Tuo Zafy. Egushi. Yoke Gari.
The words sound like a rhythmic chant from a distant land and, indeed, they come from a faraway place. But they are not incantations, they are delicious dishes from Africa, and there is only one restaurant on Long Island where you can get them.
For owner Isaac Asare, the Ellas—Taste of Africa restaurant, which opened two years ago in Deer Park, is not just a place for food, it is a way to open Long Islanders’ eyes to the culture and flavors of his native country, Ghana. You may not know what amala is when you sit down in his bright restaurant for the first time, or whether you would like something like krakra sauce, but before you have to guess, Isaac, his brother Paa Kwesi “PK” or his wife, Gloria, will not only explain, they will bring you a sampler of tiny tastes, so that you learn what you like.
“We bring customers free samples when they come for the first time,” says Asare, who came to New York with his family when he was 12. “We explain the menu. This is the first African restaurant on Long Island, so we have to show people.”
So a first-time diner learns by tasting that many of the dishes are based on vegetable mashes that PK calls “dumplings.” Fufu is the collective name for mashed vegetables but usually refers to green plantain mash, banku is corn mash, konkotey is yucca, and amala is mashed African yam. They are dense and meant to be dunked in stew or drenched in sauce. Tuo zafi is corn dumpling with okra sauce. Yoke gari is yucca with black-eyed peas. Krakra is spicy-hot pepper soup. Lovers of Cajun, Creole and Caribbean food will recognize, if not the specific dishes, the flavors and ingredients and techniques from which those cuisines developed.
“This is what we eat at home,” says Asare. “I learned from watching my mother cook.” But he did not learn all he knows at his mother’s side. A graduate of New York Institute of Technology’s culinary arts program in Central Islip, he has been a chef at numerous Long Island establishments, like the Huntington Hilton and Melville Marriott. “I have spent a lot of time in the field. So when I decided to open my own restaurant, I knew what to do.”
Photo by Doug Young
So today the Ellas (named for his three daughters, Isabella, eight, Gabriella, six, and Daniella, three) does a brisk business in sit-down dining as well as catering, takeout and delivery. He caters to vegetarians and vegans. The neighborhood has embraced his food, while others come from farther afield, drawn by curiosity, or for those who know Africa, nostalgia.
“I love cooking and I love to make people happy,” says Asare as he shows off the kitchen he repurposed for the Ellas. “Long Island didn’t have an African restaurant and I decided people would like something different.”
Ghanian food might be something different, but thanks to the Asare family, newcomers to it will feel right at home.
The Ellas: 1747 Deer Park Avenue, Deer Park, NY; 631.522.1118