Nneji Shares Heritage Through West African Food Traditions
By Brandon Romagnoli
Beatrice Ajaero is the owner of the new West African restaurant, Nneji. The values of the restaurant are displayed on its storefront sign: “Africa, Food, Kindred.” Beatrice’s desire to share her family’s culture comes from her mother who loved sharing it with her children: “Growing up, my mother designed diaper bags, backpacks and clothing integrated with African fabrics that she felt were difficult to find in mainstream culture,” says Beatrice. “This, combined with my interest in the culinary world, inspired me to share my heritage through art and food as I see no distinction between the two.”
This goal started with an African art gallery and evolved into her family’s food stand at the Saturday Roosevelt Island Farmer’s Market. Beatrice is also determined to make her business ventures sustainable and environmentally conscious. She attended Bard College where she received her MBA in Sustainability, a program that focused on expanding sustainable food options in college towns.
Before Nneji, Beatrice opened a gift shop in 2019 on 23rd Avenue called Ibari. The shop features home accessories, decor and non-perishable food items. Ibari fulfilled the art side of Beatrice’s goals, but locals felt something was missing. “In the early weeks of opening Ibari, our customers asked when we would add authentic West African food. The warmth of our neighbors and customers encouraged us to find a way to offer this,” says Beatrice.
Nneji opened its doors in June of 2020 and is a welcoming and colorful space. As you walk in, you’re surrounded by imported food items from around the world and decorative handbags. Nneji serves a variety of food, but the main attractions are the flavorful soups and stews. The Egusi consists of squash seed sauce with spinach, tomato, chili pepper and palm oil while the Yassa stew includes onion, mustard and black pepper, and both come with either garri or fonio grains. You can keep these dishes vegetarian or add protein such as chicken or salmon. Then you have the traditional West African Red Stew: this hearty mix of tomato, red pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, beef chunks, cow foot and cow skin offers a major kick of spice that will certainly keep you warm during the winter. The food they serve at Nneji is representative of several countries throughout West Africa, making the menu regional. Every decision in the business is inspired by family in one way or another, including location: “My family and I saw Astoria as a window of opportunity to share our culture because Queens is the world’s home,” says Beatrice.
When opening in the middle of the pandemic, other local business were essential supporters of the restaurant, including Rose & Joe’s Bakery. Beatrice features their cookies, rolls, and biscottis to solidify the partnership. “We believe the beauty in sharing comes from maintaining strong partnerships with local businesses,” explains Beatrice. Nneji is available for takeout or delivery and welcomes all to enjoy the kindred family spirit of West African Food.
32-20 34th Ave. | 917.832.7338 | @nneji_astoria