At first glance, Green Onion in Marine Lines is just like any neighbourhood restaurant. It's a regular, family-friendly place, which apart from a couple of African customers, is normally filled with locals and those who work close by. You wouldn't suspect that, along with the regular Indian-Chinese, they also have a special menu which is never offered to Indian guests. It's only if you have a wandering eye that you might notice the African guests being served a large milky-white log tightly wrapped in cellophane, resembling a giant, boiled sweet, along with their gravies.
The big logs are light and fluffy steamed breads known as Fufus, and they are eaten by Nigerians at almost every meal. Green Onion is one of three restaurants in the city which offers a Nigerian menu, the other two being Puku's in Bhendi Bazaar and Wazobia Kitchen and Grill in Vashi.
While Puku's and Wazobia are older, the two-year old Green Onion, located on the ground floor of Hotel Sapna Marine, started offering Nigerian food about seven months ago. "Most guests from Nigeria come to Mumbai for either medical treatment or business. They stay for almost a month, often with their families and children. After a while, they start to miss home food," says Ruby Dogra, general manager, Green Onion, who says that it all began when the Nigerian guests were regularly making requests for home food.
A hotel management graduate, Dogra took up the task of giving them what they wanted. She began by consulting Nigerian women staying at the hotel. The women not only shared their recipes, but also instructed her in the correct cooking techniques. They taught her to make the stews and soups; how to grind and process the cereals for the Fufus; and also showed her which ingredients could be sourced locally and which had to be imported. After a few months, the menu was launched with a few of Nigeria's most popular dishes: Egusi, Ogbono, and chicken, mutton and fish stews.
Egusi, which gets its name from the egusi melon seeds that form the base of the whitish sauce, is prepared with big cuts of fried chicken, bitter leaf from Nigeria and spinach. It is rich and flavourful. "A full serving with semovita Fufu (moist bread made from fine semolina) is heavy enough to carry you through breakfast and lunch," says Dogra. Like Egusi, Ogbono is a thick sauce, but made from a base of African mango seeds. It gets its red colour from red palm oil and Scotch bonnet chillies. None of the food is spicy, but all of it has a pronounced fishy taste since dried fish and prawns are essential flavourings.
All the tangy-sweet stews are made from a similar tomato base, along with dried fish, being stock cubes. A surprising flavouring is Madras Curry powder, which Dogra explains, is traditionally used. One Nigerian dish that many in Mumbai might recognise is Puff Puff; it is served with okra sauce. Remarkably similar to fugiyas (golf ball-sized East Indian fried bread), the Puff Puff is sweeter, roughly the same size, but unevenly shaped.
Some ingredients like egusi seeds are available locally, but the ogbono seeds, red chilli peppers and red palm oil are imported. As is the bitter leaf, the semolina, cassava and yam flour for the fufus, and the rice for the Jollof Rice, which is tossed in tomato stew.
Dogra has not only received positive feedback from her guests, but many have even invited her to Nigeria, promising to teach her more dishes so that the restaurant can offer a wider range - an offer that she's planning to accept.