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The Damel Celebrates Africa's Widespread Culinary Influence

Senegal-born chef Oumar Diouf has lived in Argentina and Brazil, and he highlights dishes' African roots while infusing them with his own West African touch.

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It's easy to think of fusion food as a social media phenomenon: ramen burgers, poke nachos, bulgogi burritos. But Oumar Diouf, chef-owner of The Damel, will tell you that cross-pollination of cuisines has a long history, especially when it comes to Africa's influences on world cuisine.

Diouf was struck by the similarities between the food he grew up eating in Senegal and the food he encountered when he lived in Brazil. That's because starting in the 1500s, the Portuguese brought 4 million West African slaves to the Bahia region to work on the sugar plantations. Slavery forever transformed Brazilian culture, including the food. By Diouf's estimation, 80 to 90 percent of the food in Bahia has African roots.

"I [saw] ... the same process[es], same techniques, same ingredients that I grew up seeing my mom and my grandmother using," Diouf said.

Diouf started cooking at 13 to help his mother after his father passed away. After college, Diouf moved to Argentina to play soccer professionally. But when an injury ended his soccer career, Diouf attended culinary school in Argentina.

Afterward, Diouf opened an Argentine-style empanada shop near a university. It was next to a popular empanada chain, but every day at 5 o'clock, students lined up for his empanadas. He kept some traditional, but others, like the lamb, were infused with flavors from Senegal like ginger, garlic, and cumin.

"An empanada itself is just a way to deliver food," Diouf said. "I take something that's easy to put different flavors in it and different cultures in it."

Diouf then moved to Brazil, where he worked in catering and hotel restaurants. But unlike Argentina, where Diouf was adding African touches to the food, Diouf saw that Brazilian food had clear African roots, from the ingredients to the names. Acarajé, for instance, is a popular street food in Brazil made with fried black-eyed peas; in Senegal, similar black-eyed pea fritters are called àkàrà.

"When I was in Argentina, I didn't feel that connection," Diouf said. "When I was in Brazil, I felt that connection right away."

Diouf moved to the States two years ago and started a catering company, Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, which combines influences from West Africa, Argentina, and Brazil. With no customers in the beginning, he had no way to pay for marketing. So he made 500 business cards, started driving for Uber, and passed out his cards to passengers.

That's how Diouf got his first catering clients, and business has grown. In June, Diouf opened The Damel, a counter-service restaurant inside 25th Street Taproom in Uptown Oakland. Some of his repeat customers are ones he met while driving for Uber; others are curious about trying Afro-Brazilian cuisine.

Diouf has also gained a following of customers looking for a taste of home. A group of Brazilians gather weekly after their pickup soccer games for acarajé. It's made by cleaning, peeling, and puréeing black-eyed peas, then deep-frying them. The fritters were crisp on the outside, yet fluffy inside. Diouf's version, like the Brazilian one, was stuffed with a filling called vatapa, a creamy, piquant sauce made with cassava root, coconut milk, palm oil, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Though acarajé is traditionally accompanied by dried shrimp, Diouf topped his with fresh, succulent grilled shrimp. On the side was a cup of vinagrete, a Brazilian sauce similar to pico de gallo, and another cup of caruru, a smooth, garlicky sauce made with okra. Caruru is a common accompaniment to Brazilian acarajé, but Diouf spiced his the Senegalese way, creating a true blend of Senegalese and Brazilian flavors. It's a lot of work to make acarajé, Diouf said, which is why you won't find it at many other Bay Area restaurants.

"But I wanted to make sure that I have it, because if I want to claim what Africans brought to the world, that's one of them," he said.

The empanada-like fataya is actually Senegalese, not Argentinian. It was deep fried, then stuffed with shrimp, tuna, tomato, garlic, and onion. The shell shattered upon biting in. Inside, the shrimp was firm and bouncy, while the tuna was flaky and rich.

The Argentinian empanadas incorporated subtle influences from Africa and Brazil. Spinach is a common Argentinian empanada filling, but Diouf added pumpkin, an ingredient from his childhood, along with feta and tomatoes for more complex sweet-savory flavors and textural contrast. The pollo cremoso, chicken in a creamy sauce fortified with white wine, was inspired by a Brazilian-Lebanese dish called sfiha.

Dibi, a Senegalese dish of grilled meat often sold by street vendors, is always on the menu. The traditional lamb version was tender and juicy, without any gaminess. The tangy, acidic flavor of house-made mustard helped cut the richness of the lamb. A pile of grilled onions on top added a hint of caramelized sweetness. It came with slices of bread to soak up the juice, along with a choice of two sides. The coconut rice was creamy and al dente with just a touch of well-balanced sweet-salty flavor. The plantains were a must-order, with a hint of toasted sugar crispness around the edges and creamy, sweet interiors.

There's also an African or Brazilian special most days. On one of my visits, the special was thiof, a Senegalese-style grilled whole branzino topped with grilled onions — a dish you'd find street vendors selling during evenings on the beach in Senegal. The skin was crispy with just the right amount of char, while the fish was buttery, flaky, and moist thanks to its overnight marinade in olive oil.

Jollof rice was also on offer that day. It was the first dish Diouf learned to cook at 13, and he's been tweaking his recipe since then. The rice grains had a pleasantly nubby texture, while the tomato added a just-right bit of sweetness.

Diouf has a lot in store for The Damel. Next week, he'll add lunch and weekend brunch, and he'll add more African and Brazilian menu items. Diouf is working on frozen empanadas that'll be sold in grocery stores. He's also started a cookbook — one that focuses more on ingredients than on recipes. "I want to showcase [African and Brazilian] ingredients — what I use for my cooking, and the origin of the ingredients," Diouf said. "Here in America, a lot of people don't know where food comes from."

Diouf wants to start an empanada chain where customers can order empanadas online for delivery. He even wants to take his chain international. The first place he'll expand? Senegal, where he wants to provide youth job training opportunities. Because that's what The Damel is all about: paying homage to his West African roots.

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