THE THUNDER SHAKES the walls. It’s not the wicked snap of a warm-weather storm, but a long, rolling ache of the sky that seems to come only in the cold.
That it makes the walls shake isn’t a surprise; I’d imagine that a train passing on the tracks just a few blocks over would have a similar effect. I’d rushed in from the rain, passing a sign of a sailboat, Kontiki African Restaurant painted at its top, which was swaying in the wind. Once inside the house-turned-restaurant, I sat down with Christian Domingo, Kontiki’s owner. We take a seat off to the side of the restaurant’s main dining room, in what I think must once have been a bedroom. Where I imagine a bed and a dresser once stood are tables and chairs, salt shakers and napkin dispensers.
A server brings me a glass of housemade ginger beer, a sweet and pungent form of the drink we all know so well. I take a sip before asking Christian how he got here. “Here to America?” he asks, and I nod. A native of Sierra Leone, Christian has lived in the Little Rock area for almost 19 years, employed for most of that time as a mechanic, a job he still works during the day before heading to Kontiki each night. While 19 years may seem like enough time to settle down, for Christian, the adventure of Kontiki is just beginning.
His journey to America was a hard fought one. When civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in the ’90s, he sent his wife and daughter out of the country while he stayed behind to take care of his parents. “It was a terrible time,” he tells me. “People would leave their babies on the side of the road. People would leave their old ones on the side of the road. They would tell them, Go, my time is over, fight for your life and leave me here.” Tears wet his face, and it’s obvious that there will never be enough years or miles to separate him from the war. While his family was out of the country, they won a visa lottery and were allowed to immigrate to America. “It was a big shock,” he says of the winter day he first landed in Arkansas, “but you have to do it for your family.”
Soon after arriving in Arkansas in 1999, Christian, who had gone to technical school back home, began to fix cars in his free time. “I looked around and saw so many nice cars that could be fixed so easily, so I just said, OK, this is what I’m going to do.” He eventually went on to work at a car dealership as a mechanic before earning an associate degree in electrical engineering and attending diesel mechanic school.
He admits that his first food memories of Arkansas aren’t pleasant ones. He laughs as he remembers one of the first meals he shared with Americans. “I almost spit it out,” he laughs, thinking about a salad of raw spinach leaves. Eventually, he cooked Sierra Leonian food for coworkers and got a taste for how grounding and how transformative cooking for others can be.
Living in Alexander, just outside Little Rock, Christian had seen the small corner building that would eventually be Kontiki change hands several times. “One day I saw the building and it had been empty for more than a year, so I called the owner and we worked out a deal.” Opening an African restaurant had been at the edges of his mind for a while, and as Christian puts it, “If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right, and I want to do it now.”
“I grew up the hard way,” he says. Christian began cooking for his family when he was 6 years old. “When someone tells you to cook, you cook. That’s just the way it is,” he says. At 12, he went to live with a recently widowed woman in his village to help her around the house. “She’d pull her chair up to the stove and tell me what to do,” he says. They’d work through common local dishes step by step until finally she said he was on his own. “Whatever you cook, we’re going to eat,” he remembers her saying. There weren’t restaurants or other options, so Christian learned at a very young age that if he didn’t cook, he wouldn’t eat.
He grimaces when I ask him if he feels any pressure being many people’s first exposure to African food. “That’s why we put African in the name,” he says. “Let people come, let them try the food. Let them see what a man from Sierra Leone can come here and do.” His pride in his heritage is unabashed, and he’s anxious to share it with the world. So far, Christian says that people have responded well to the restaurant, with people driving well over an hour to visit. For many, especially those in Little Rock’s immigrant community, the restaurant is a rare chance—maybe even the first chance—to revisit the food of their childhood.
Was he nervous to open an African restaurant in Alexander? “Yes,” he says. “You tell people you want to do this and the first thing they ask you is how many Africans there are in Alexander and how many African restaurants there are around.” The answers are—of course—few and none, respectively, but for Christian that’s beside the point. “You don’t have to be African to eat African food.”
While for many the cuisine will be unfamiliar, its flavors won’t be. I’d visited Kontiki a few days earlier for dinner, and found that there’s an earthiness in its spiciness, an unctuousness, as if the flavors are yearning to return to the soil that grew them.
As I ate alone in my booth, each item on my plate was punctuated by a gentle heat, bright pinpricks of warmth on the palate, the playful nudge of garlic and the constant sway of ginger. While French cuisine’s mirepoix is based on the trinity of carrots, celery and onions, Christian describes the mirepoix of Sierra Leone as pepper, pepper and onions. “I just can’t eat it if it doesn’t have pepper.”
The African staple of jollof rice, a savory rice cooked with tomato, ginger and onions, finds its way onto several plates, along with other more familiar items such as fried plantains and couscous. Though for each dish that contains a hint of the pedestrian, there’s yet another that manages to be completely and wholly African. Christian laughs when I asked him about the fufu. “Yes,” he smiles, “everybody loves it.” Fufu, a putty-like blend of cassava flour and water, is served in a mound ready to be dipped in a rich and savory bean-and-okra stew.
Another entirely African dish, and my personal favorite, is akara, a slightly sweet, bread-like ball of rice flour, mashed banana, and sugar that, though offered as an appetizer, could just as easily work for dessert. When it came time to assemble the menu, Christian just went with his favorites, the things he’d eaten all his life. He admits to being unsure what his guests would gravitate to, considering that for most, this would be their first experience with food from Sierra Leone. One of the most popular dishes so far? Cassava leaves served with smoked fish over a bed of rice.
AS THE STORM rolls on, Christian points out the window to where the restaurant’s sign is still being battered by the wind. “Kontiki—do you know what it means?” I shake my head. “It’s the name of a raft,” he says. The Kon-Tiki was a handmade raft built by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in the mid-20th century using only tools that would have been available to native South Americans hundreds of years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Heyerdahl built the Kon-Tiki to prove that it would have been possible for South Americans to sail to and populate the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl’s expedition launched from Peru in 1947 and, some 100 days later, ended on an island in French Polynesia. “I almost named my daughter Kontiki,” Christian admits, an idea his daughter snickers at from across the room, and when it came time to name the restaurant, Kontiki still called to him. The restaurant’s sign and logo feature a bright orange boat, yellow sails unfurled and billowing with the wind.
For Christian, the boat is a metaphor for the restaurant itself. “If I have the upper hand and the wind, then I can unveil [Kontiki] to the world.” He pauses and thinks for a moment. “The restaurant is in the boat, the kitchen is in there, my family is in there, our community. America is in there, Sierra Leone is in that boat.” To hear Christian say it, to hear the way his voice swells with pride, is enough to make me want to stop eating and start rowing. “We’re all in the boat together,” he says, and it’s clear that for Christian, who moved his family to the other side of the planet for a better life, Kontiki is not just the destination but the means of arrival. Not a target, but an arrow.