When chef Howsoon Cham was first working at the acclaimed Georgia Brown, a staple of D.C.’s culinary scene serving up soul food since 1993, he was surprised to discover that the menu featured dishes he recognized from his own childhood in Gambia.
Or at least … kind of.
“The gumbo, I looked at it, and the first thing I did, I laughed,” he recalls. “Right there, I knew that they were trying to imitate something.”
The ties between the cuisines of West Africa and the American South are, of course, far-reaching, dating to enslaved people whose ingenuity led them to recreate the dishes of their homelands with the ingredients that they had at hand.
At his recently opened Moi Moi, Cham toys with this interplay, boasting a menu featuring dishes that read as West African with a Southern American accent, but also the opposite, all with a high-end flair. Mac and cheese and collard greens are paired with short rib braised in Gambian kinkeliba tea; pork tenderloin is glazed in a combo of sorghum and chipotle, and served with candied yams. Some dishes are pure Southern, like North Carolina head-on shrimp with “Geechie boy” grits, while others are West African mainstays, like the chicken yassa Cham dubs the Gambian national dish.
“I wanted to do something that I grew up eating,” he says. “I wanted to introduce my food to the people.”
D.C. is a particularly interesting place for Cham to be exploring the intersection of his old home and his new, given the way in which the city’s cultural identity frequently feels in flux. The U.S. Census bureau places Washington in the American South, but in 2011, the Washington Post posited that the capital was becoming less and less Southern; the same year, the Atlantic delved into whether D.C. had ever really been all that Southern to begin with. In 2015, NC State grad student Joshua Katz compiled a map of American dialects that seemed to show that D.C. does indeed skew North, given its preference for “you guys” over “y’all” and “soda” over “Coke,” but in 2021, Reclamation Magazine put into question the categorization of Washington as anything but Southern, due to its very design as a place where elected officials could bring enslaved people with them when serving in office.
When it comes to its food, D.C. continues to toe this line, home to beloved soul food spots including Hitching Post, Oohh’s and Aahh’s, and Vidalia, the latter of which Cham worked at under Jeff Buben and Peter Smith.
But his experience cooking both West African and Southern cuisine isn’t the only thing influencing Cham’s food. The son of diplomats, Cham has been living in D.C. since 1987, but he is also a keen traveler and has gleaned influences from all over the world. Indeed, he has spent the last five years on a round-the-world journey, absorbing flavors from Senegal and Switzerland, Paris and Mexico.
“I knew that I would open another restaurant, and I wanted to use my time to eat different stuff, try out different dishes, meet different people,” he says. “If I was free tomorrow for like a week? I would jump on a plane.”
His travels are evident, for example, in his duck breast dish – one of his proudest accomplishments on the new menu – made with a house-made red mole and a reduction of Vimto, honey, and smoked jalapeño peppers. The rockfish, served with bok choy, oyster mushrooms, umeboshi, lemongrass, and ginger, is a testament to his love of Asian flavors — and a hint at the next destination on his bucket list.
His flavors may be far-reaching, but his sourcing is all local, from Maryland crab to halal goat, oxtail, and lamb. His attention to these details is an indication of his deep understanding of D.C.’s food culture, evident, too, in his careful crafting of house-made desserts down to his hibiscus sorbet and ice cream scented with peak milk in place of vanilla. He plans on offering a cheese plate in summertime, so locals can sit outside with a glass of wine and goat cheese scented with house-made harissa.
Despite the fusion flair that seems almost innate to his menu, Cham also takes care to feature some classics with no modifications whatsoever. For some, his jollof rice will be an invitation to a far-flung locale; for others, it’s merely a return home.
“I was talking to a lady the other day who used to live in Senegal,” he says. “She was like, ‘I just want to hug and kiss you, but I can’t do it, my husband is right there.’ But she understood the food.’”
Perhaps the best example of this desire to appeal to his fellow expatriates is evident in the very name of his restaurant: Moi moi is a dish he compares to a tamale, made with black-eyed peas. Known as moi moi in Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, in his native Gambia, it’s known instead as oleleh.
“I had two choices, which sounds better? Which sounds more interesting?” he says. “But I figured moi moi was easier, and more well-known, for West Africans to understand.”
It certainly worked for one new fan of the restaurant – a Cameroonian man working security at the building next door – who immediately exclaimed,
“’But this is where I’m from! In Africa! Is this an African restaurant? I make moi moi every day!’” Cham recalls. “He couldn’t believe it, that the restaurant next door to his job was called Moi Moi.”
It was in part to perfect this dish, which he serves as an appetizer with fresh mackerel and baby arugula, that in his time traveling, Cham returned to Gambia four times in the same year: to revisit the dishes of his childhood with the person who knows them better than anyone.
“My mom is there,” he says. “She was planning on coming here, actually, soon. Because there’s some stuff that I’m not making it the right way or the perfect way.”
This, he says, is notably the case for his akara, the black eyed pea fritter he serves with spicy yassa onion jam and sourdough toast.
“Hers is like a million times better,” he says, with a chuckle. “She said she’s gonna come show me how to do it right.”
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