WaZoBia restaurant is one of the few restaurants in Philadelphia that serves authentic Nigerian food. Located at 616 N. 11th Street, WaZoBia is patronized by students, professionals, and families. The restaurant’s name is a combination of the phrase “Come in,” in the three major languages in Nigeria. Wa in Yoruba, Zo in Hausa, and Bia in Ibo. On Friday night, my friends and I decided to have dinner at the restaurant. We could smell the aroma of the foods being made even before we stepped into the restaurant. Once inside, my friends placed their orders, and I admired the artwork and pictures that adorned the wall. There was artwork of an African women, an African mother and child, and the map of Africa. There were framed newspaper articles about the restaurant, and a beautiful picture of Risikat Bola Jamiu, the owner, taken at the wedding of one of her daughters. While we waited for our food to arrive, I talked to Jamiu about WaZoBia.
Jamiu migrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1983. Her love for food and cooking led her to obtain a culinary diploma. One of the requirements for obtaining that diploma, was that she complete an internship at a restaurant. Jamiu had trouble finding a restaurant that was willing to take her on as an intern. When she finally found one that offered to pay her for the 500 hours of required internship, she accepted without requesting pay, because “I [had] been looking around and I found somebody to take me and I [did] it for free for them, and before I finished the internship, they hired me,” Jamiu said. After working at the restaurant for about two to three years, she was promoted to a managerial position. Jamiu worked at the restaurant for 17 years, but was laid off when the restaurant decided to change their menu and location. “The time they told me, I was upset, and I [cried] because [of] the way they [dropped] me. I [was] really hurt, but I just said what can I do? Where can I go? And I just decide [sic] to open my own restaurant,” Jamiu explained. And so in 2003, Jamiu bought a food truck, and sold Nigerian food. On her way back home from 11th and Washington Street, Jamiu drove by 616 N. 11th Street, “I saw this place [was] for rent. That is how I rented it and I start [sic] my business,” said Jamiu.
After my conversation with Jamiu, I returned to my table, and enjoyed a dish of iyan with egusi and spinach soup garnished with goat meat and cowskin. Iyan is traditionally prepared by mashing and pounding freshly plain-cooked yam, and modernly prepared using finely-processed yam flour. Egusi, grounded melon seeds, is mixed and cooked with ordinary spinach and flavored with ingredients like, palm oil, pepper and salt, crayfish, and stock cubes. The iyan is meshed into a dough, and served alongside the Egusi-N-Spinach soup. This dish is typically eaten with hands, not cutlery. A small piece of the iyan dough is dipped into the egusi soup, and swallowed. Amala, made from processed dried yam flour; eba, made from dried grated cassava flour; akpu, made from fermented cassava; and semo, made from processed wheat flour, are respectively mushed into a dough. They are eaten with soups like egusi, made from flavored ground melon seeds, and ogbono, made from cooked and flavored ground bush mango seeds. They can also be eaten with ewedu, flavored chopped Malukhia leaf, or okra. These dishes are casually referred to as “swallow” because one swallows the food without chewing. They are also my personal favorites.
WaZoBia restaurant has been in business for 13 years, and although it is neither big nor fancy, the food makes up for what it lacks in terms of looks. The servings are large, and the pricing is affordable. For first timers, Jamiu recommends jollof rice, a delicious, spicy red rice made by marinating ground tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, red pepper, hot pepper, stock cubes, and other ingredients with rice. Jollof rice is usually served with chicken, beef, goat, or fish and a side of plantain or spinach. Unlike the “swallow foods,” dishes like jollof rice, white rice and stew (or red spicy sauce), and fried rice, are eaten with cutlery. For a taste of Nigeria, a first timer can try the jollof rice. But for an authentic taste and a beautiful experience of Nigerian food, try something from the “swallow” section. Not sure what to choose? Try iyan and ogbono soup served with goat meat and cowskin, my all time favorite.
WaZoBia is located at 616 N. 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123. The restaurant is open Monday – Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Saturdays from 12:00 p,m, – 8:00 p.m., and closed on Sundays. The prices of food range from $10 -$14 per serving, and they only accept cash. They do not deliver, but should be available on UberEats soon.