Baka Serkoukou and chef Epepe Tukala Vuvu, the owners of Villeray’s new African street food counter, want you to know that African cuisine isn’t one cohesive thing.
“There’s so much variety and it’s so dynamic and way more modern than what many expect,” Serkoukou says. “We wanted to create a space that opens the door to all of that.”
Enter Mokili, which debuted over the weekend on De Castelnau Street, with dishes like kachi kerri, a chili-spiced mango salad found in Kenya; ntaba, a Congolese meal of grilled goat topped with onion confit and dollops of creamed safu (a fruit, sometimes called African pear or bush pear, native to the continent); and kelewele, a Ghanaian snack food of fried plantains dusted with spices and roasted peanuts. Other items inspired by the culinary traditions of Senegal, Morocco, and Mali, also figure in the menu — for now.
Countries in the continent’s northern reach — Algeria and Morocco, for example — are already relatively well-represented, culinarily speaking, in Montreal. But restaurants offering dishes from sub-Saharan Africa are more scarce, with the Plateau’s Le Virunga and a handful of Ethiopian eateries around town being among the exceptions. To address that lack, the duo plans to revamp Mokili’s menu every few weeks to include other recipes, originating from other countries across the continent — and making sure to always identify them as such. That last detail is important to the couple, who take issue with how the continent, home to 54 countries — more than any other — often gets pegged as a fixed and singular entity, much like its cuisine.
Take, for example, peanut stew. Plop those words into a Google search bar and the results fed back will likely include recipes for “Soul-Soothing African Peanut Stew” or “One-Pot African Peanut Stew.” But get Tukala Vuvu talking, and it becomes clear that a version of the dish that could actually live up to a label as wide-ranging and generalized as “African” simply doesn’t exist. In Zambia, the peanut stew is frequently cooked with boar and/or greens, while in Senegal, chicken, carrots, and veggies are the norm, Tukala Vuvu explains. Meanwhile, in his native Congo, the stew calls for finely chopped fumbwa (vine leaves). The variations go on.
Tukala Vuvu became attuned to some of these nuances as a teenager when he, his parents, and seven siblings were forced to leave the Congo. For years, they travelled throughout Africa, landing in refugee camps, and getting to know others doing the same — and the flavours that transported them back home.
Trying to recreate some of these foods, now, at Mokili, in a way that manages to embrace their commonalities without flattening their differences, requires plenty of research, close community ties, and, crucially, an in with Congolese farmer Papy Bulembi. Bulembi is the person behind l’Île-Perrot’s AgriTropiQ, a 10-acre plot brimming with otherwise hard-to-find produce from Africa. “Over there, we can get fresh African greens, eggplants, and peppers, that you wouldn’t be able to get at the market.”
Other than street food, Mokili customers can pick up jarred sauces, like fiery pili-pili, made with red habaneros and stew bases perfect for bringing home and submerging veggies and meats into. Mokili’s shelves are stacked with spices, beans, and other African pantry staples, and for those who’d rather eat inside, there are four counter seats, with eight more on the way.
Though a first-time brick-and-mortar, Mokili has existed in various permutations for longer. The idea to open a restaurant committed to unravelling the perceived homogeneity of African foods first came to Tukala Vuvu and Serkoukou four years ago, after a trip to the Congo. But it wasn’t until late 2019 that they were compelled to stage their first pop-up, at now-closed Café Le Mastiff in Saint-Henri. Shortly after the pandemic started, the pair began offering a series of barbecue dishes for takeout, largely sold via social media. Then came a meal prep service, and Tukala Vuvu hints that this latest evolution of Mokili, into a takeout counter and grocery shop, may not be the last.
Tukala Vuvu did, after all, earn his stripes at the likes of French bistro Café Cherrier, Montreal fine dining giant Toqué, and most recently during a stint at Michelin-starred Le Clos des Sens, in France. Still, his most formative experiences — or at least those which appear to most anchor this latest venture — are the cross-cultural encounters of his teenage years. “That’s really how I learned about the diversity in Africa — that we are the same in a lot of ways, but also very different.”
Mokili is open Thursday to Sunday, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., at 93 Rue de Castelnau Est.