Chuku’s caught my attention a couple of years ago, in its supperclub era, not just because it was “the world’s first Nigerian tapas restaurant”, but because co-founders Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick are brother and sister. The pair grew up in Ilford, and talked constantly about food, trying to figure out how you distil a cuisine eaten by 200 million people, yet in the UK understood by relatively few, into a delicious, life-changing crash course in moi moi, suya and sinasir.
Bringing a dream to life with your sibling, I imagine, must be extra-specially magical, because the creativity doesn’t come from stiff breakout meetings or formal planning sessions; it is, rather, honed over several thousand conversations, in-jokes and dinner-table rants. Chuku’s in Tottenham, north London, has about it the sense of a blue-sky dream turned into bricks and mortar. From the moment you step in off the street into the vivid, modern, coral-pink interior – a nod towards adobe clay – to find Emeka being charming as heck at the door, Davido and Dice Ailes on the stereo at a triumphantly loud volume, and mango coladas and zobo sangria on the cocktail list, you’re no longer on Tottenham High Road but in a tiny slice of sleek, contemporary Lagos that serves a taste of Ibadan, Kaduna and Kano in a manner that will make newcomers to moi moi (a savoury, steamed bean pudding) wonder why they left it so long.
At Chuku’s, the moi moi comes in small, inconspicuous squares that, at first mouthful, are comfortingly bland, but then, like all the best carbohydrates, reveal themselves to be compelling. Those moi moi sit on the vegan side of the tapas list, alongside five other dishes that lose nothing at all by being animal-free; in fact, to my mind, you could treat Chuku’s as a vegan restaurant and not limit the experience.
Fried plantain dodo is soft, crisp-skinned and tossed in cinnamon, sugar and coconut, while the rich adalu – honey beans and sweetcorn slow-stewed in fresh red pepper and tomato – is the perfect foil to a bowl of cassava fries topped with ata dindin, a gloriously fiery, hot pepper dressing. The recipe for ata dindin varies by chef; some are hotter or sweeter or more thyme-based or curry-scented, but here it is vividly red with scotch bonnets. Since I went to Chuku’s, I’ve thought many times about their chicken ata din din – the bird shredded in an even spicier version of that sauce – which I could not finish because the capsaicin levels were quietly, determinedly assassinating me, but which was also far too delicious to stop picking at, because I knew that once the plate disappeared, I would not taste its like from any local takeaway. The folly of any chilli fan is that we never quite know when to quit.
For lovers of more mellow propositions, the folk at Chuku’s take plump king prawns and pan-fry them in a sweet, honey-based sauce, and they gloss chicken wings in a caramel and crushed peanut kuli-kuli-style marinade. I went with two friends on a Saturday lunchtime, and we ordered everything. The lot. All of it. There is no better way to deal with Chuku’s – just sit back and let them feed you.
Begin at the top of the list with the fresh, crunchy okra in a sharp, sweet, honey vinaigrette, nibble your way through fat, crisp ojojo (yam and mackerel croquettes), and definitely order the beef ayamase, which isn’t remotely pretty, because it’s just stewed beef in dark, fermented locust beans, but which packs a warm, enveloping punch. This is certainly a modern spin on Nigerian tastes and traditions, and there will no doubt be some customers looking for a taste of home comfort who will find Chuku’s loud, tangential and puzzling. They’ll wonder why the egusi bowl with yam dumplings is presented so prettily, or why there is chin chin cheesecake on the pudding section when Nigeria is not especially famed for cheesecake, or even for puddings at all. But if the Fredericks’ mission was to celebrate, trail-blaze and speak loudly the truths of what modern Nigerian-British food looks like in 2020, they’ve certainly achieved that.
“You did it! You finished the whole menu!” Emeka said with genuine joy as he collected a dozen empty bowls. “Could you do us a favour?” he added quietly when he brought us the bill. “If you, y’know, liked it, could you maybe tell someone? Maybe on Google?”
By this point, there was a queue of hopefuls snaking out of the door. They had been re-opened only a few weeks, but were already on a roll. Chuku’s motto is “Chop, Chat, Chill”, and I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather do after the last six months of distinctly unchilled existence.
“Sure, I’ll tell people,” I promised as I finished off a yam brownie and waddled out into Tottenham. “Maybe not on Google, but somewhere …”
• Chuku’s 274 High Road, London N15 (no phone). Open Thurs & Fri, 5.30-11pm; Sat & Sun, noon-11pm. About £20 a head, plus drinks and service.