Shubbie Aishida, co-owner of Golden Safari in Hayward, is picky about her spices. And she should be. Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, her father owned a business selling meat pies and beef suya, while her mother worked as a fashion designer and catered meals for office workers on the side. As the youngest of four children, she and her siblings were always competing to see who could cook the best. Dinnertime guests were a constant.
“Any person who walked into the house had to eat something,” she laughed.
Being raised in a household that loved to cook and eat, Aishida always wanted to work in the food business. After graduating from college in Lagos, she moved to London. There, she met her husband, Bisi Oparinde, who also loves to cook. She worked as a project manager while catering parties on the weekends. Nine years ago, she moved to the United States. While raising her children, she took time off from work and began catering more frequently along with her husband. The feedback she received from customers was positive, she said, and customers encouraged her to start a restaurant of her own.
In November 2017, Aishida and her husband opened Golden Safari — the only Nigerian restaurant in Hayward. There, she’s dedicated to making her food taste just like it does in Lagos. With the help of her mom and sisters, who still live in Nigeria, she imports spices for her suya and pepper soup. “I grew up in the suya business, so I’m very particular about the taste,” she said.
It’s always a good idea to start off meals at Golden Safari with an order of suya, or grilled meat. The beef suya was grilled, thinly sliced, and topped with spices and red onions. The beef was tender and juicy, and the toasty flavors of ground peanut and a hint of cayenne pepper were the ideal complement to the astringent red onions.
I loved the moi moi, a steamed orange-colored cake made of puréed beans, bell peppers, and onions. Many versions of moi moi include eggs, meat, or fish, but Aishida keeps hers vegan to offer more vegetarian and vegan options. The texture was smooth and custardy, with a comforting mingling of sweet, starchy, and zesty flavors.
Or consider sharing a starter-sized portion of goat pepper soup, a dish that can be customized according to customers’ spice preferences. The spicy version had a welcome assertive kick of heat, though it was nothing that a sip of the excellent zobo (a housemade hibiscus drink) or housemade ginger beer couldn’t take care of. Beneath all that spice, I loved the deep, rich goat broth, which was flavored with ingredients like African nutmeg and mint.
On my first visit to Golden Safari, my server steered me away from the stews and toward the jollof rice. “It’s your first time here,” she said. “Get the jollof rice.”
Jollof rice is eaten in many parts of West Africa, and is such a fiercely beloved dish that a couple years ago, the Internet erupted into Jollof Wars comparing the different versions of the dish from Nigeria and Ghana. Though it’s typically made with beef or chicken broth, Aishida has developed her own vegan version. There’s no sacrifice when it comes to flavor, however — the rice was smoky, with some spice and sweetness. The fried plantains on the side were light and greaseless. For an extra upcharge, I added fried whiting fish, which was delightfully crunchy on the outside and moist and flaky inside.
I also attempted to order the egusi soup, a leafy green stew that’s made here with spinach and served with a side of fufu, or pounded yam. My server resisted. “Have you had this dish before?” she asked. “Yes,” I lied meekly. She finally gave in.
I enjoyed the slight bitterness from the greens combined with the sweet, acidic tomato broth, and the egusi melon seeds thickened the stew and made it fluffy and light. The egusi soup also comes with your choice of meat. I loved the bone-in chicken, which was boiled and then lightly fried to create a crisp outside and juicy interior. The fufu, which is used to pick up the stew with your fingers, was dense and starchy — the ideal canvas for the complex flavor of the stew.
Seeing our totally cleaned plates, another server beamed and asked us if we liked the food, offering us a laundry list of suggestions for our next visit. At her suggestion, I tried the edikaikong on my return visit — another leafy green stew, this time made with a base of dried stockfish, crawfish, and smoked fish. The bitter blend of collard greens and spinach balanced the delightfully pungent flavors of the fish.
The ayamashe stew was another recommendation. It’s also known as designer stew thanks to its popularity and premium price back in Nigeria, Aishida explained. This stew, unlike the others, came with a side of white rice. The meat, meanwhile, sat in a dark, almost black sauce that had a spicy, charred, smoky flavor.
On a whim, I also chose the abula soup, which turned out to be my favorite. You’re really getting three soups for the price of one: a red tomato stew with your choice of meat; gbegiri, a yellow soup made of palm oil and puréed beans; and ewedu, a green soup made of jute leaves that give it its characteristic slippery “draw” texture similar to cooked okra. It’s served atop a base of amala, a purple-colored variety of pounded yam that I found a little fluffier and more floral tasting than the standard fufu. The tomato stew was comforting, rich, and slightly sweet, while the gbegiri tasted almost buttery.
One minor drawback is that the restaurant tends to run out of a lot of items. I tried twice to order the puff-puffs without success; the restaurant was also out of yam pottage and goat on one of my visits. So don’t go with your heart set on any particular item, but rather, with an open mind.
Along with bringing a taste of home to fellow Nigerians and West Africans, Aishida wants those who are unfamiliar with Nigerian food to learn about it and appreciate it. Beyond Golden Safari, her next step is to get Nigerian food products in mainstream grocery stores.
“At the grocery store, you see Italian food, you see Mexican food, you see Asian food,” Aishida said. “I don’t think there’s anything African or Nigerian on the shelf in the store. So we are hoping to get there. … Fingers crossed and God willing.”