By Nayaba Arinde
On today’s school lunch menu is: jollof rice and chicken, or egusi and fufu, with puff puff for dessert. This is a possibility that New York restaurateur Lookman Afolayan is hoping to bring to New York City schools. To that end, the owner of Buka NYC in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy and on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been treating after school students to the Nigerian fare for a few weeks now.
“I want to spread the Joy of egusi and fufu to the children of our city,” Afolayan, who has been setting up visits to after school programs citywide since February’s Black History Month, told the Amsterdam News. “Fufu is trending right now, and not only do I want to have our New York City schoolchildren sample it, I want to show them how to make it.”
Visits to his social media platforms show how excited the children are when he shows up with his dishes, which include the world famous jollof rice, and puff puff, a fried, doughnut-like sweet treat.
“The kids are so happy when they eat the food,” Afolayan said. “One child said, ‘Sir I don’t have a question, I just wanted to say thank you for coming.’”
At each presentation, Afolayan serves the dishes and gives a little story about them. While some children enjoy their dinner for the evening, “some of them ask for more and take the food home,” he said.
After over 10 years in his Brooklyn eatery, the Nigerian-born restaurateur recently moved to a new location in Bed-Stuy and has recently opened his second spot on the Lower East Side.
“Bringing the food to the children is my way of both bringing awareness of our delicious dishes, and also to say thank you for what their parents did in enabling us to come here and build lives. I want to share what we have and bring our food to them. It is fantastic to see how engaged the after school children are when we serve them the dishes.We want to make it a program in all the boroughs. We have been to [almost] every one now, and are just waiting on Staten Island,” said Afolayan.
Living in the U.S. for 26 years, the father of four is an international epicurean with a resume that includes construction; he built his restaurants with his own hands. He can also be found in the kitchen prepping, cooking, plating, serving, and pouring drinks behind his bar. A new age Renaissance Man, he said, “I was just going home one night, when the idea just came to me to bring our Nigerian food to the children of the city who may not yet be familiar with it.”
Afolayan said he serves between 20 to 30 children at the after school programs. So far, he said, “the response is amazing.”
Nigerian food is known for its culinary kick to the tonsils, and his after school dishes are child-friendly.
“I make the food myself so as to ensure that it is not spicy. There is no pepper at all,” DYCD Commissioner Keith Howard said with a smile. “We serve jollof rice and chicken; fufu, which is like mash potato but doughy made from yam; egusi, a stew made with melon seeds and spinach; and puff puff. Vegan and vegetarian. We serve it as if it’s a Nigerian party, where you have a choice. We give them a small taste of everything, and then they come back and request the one they like. I want our Black and brown children in the city to get to know our food.”
Hyped by the experience, he added, “I am working with the City, and I want the joy of egusi and fufu to be a permanent program. I also would like to introduce it to senior citizen centers. When we share our cultural experiences, we get a better understanding of who we are.”
Receiving citations twice from then-Borough President Eric Adams, Brooklyn-based entrepreneur says he does what he does for the love of the city. While it is free to the after-school programs, Afolayan says it does cost himself about $500 a visit. “I like the fact that these young people are being introduced to this new healthy and nutritious food. They enjoy it, and I just want to spread the joy of fufu and egusi.”
NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) Commissioner praised the initiative in a statement sent to the Amsterdam News.
“DYCD Is proud to partner with Chef Lookman Afolayan Mashood and his team at Buka New York to bring this outstanding cultural experience to young people—some who may be future culinary stars—at Cornerstone programs in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Opportunities such as this are pivotal in helping our youth expand their interests, thrive in cultural awareness, and keep them engaged.”
The DYCD told the paper that Chef Afolayan Mashood reached out to them to donate his experience, expertise and time to an afterschool program.
Thereafter, he met with young people at two DYCD-funded Cornerstone programs: Marcus Garvey in Brooklyn operated by the Research Foundation of the City University of New York, and Drew Hamilton run by the Children’s Village.
DCYD added, “The purpose was to introduce young people to the Nigerian culture by way of its cuisine. He prepared a tasting of fufu, pounded yam, and jollof rice.
He also brought additional ingredients to teach the young people how to prepare some of the most popular dishes of Nigeria.”
DYCD declared that they are “looking to continue this partnership and other cultural immersion initiatives.”