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The SK COOKKS concept began five years ago after chef and owner Sasilka Shallangwa migrated to Toronto from Nigeria in 2011. At the time, Nigerian food wasn’t really represented in Toronto’s restaurant scene. She realized early on that a whole generation of young first and second-generation professionals like herself were in need of nostalgic home cooked meals that could be stored over the course of a work week. This inspired her to launch what she calls “bulk catering,” a model where hungry customers could order up to three menu items that would cover a week of meals. The “SK” in the name stands for a Nigerian term for “food coma.” The success of the West African bulk catering service led to expansion into the GTA and client demands for an actual restaurant space, which arrived in Liberty Village just as COVID lockdowns threatened to shutter the business.
Spoiler — it didn’t.
Luckily, SK COOKKS is now fully operational with a decent sized indoor space and a spacious, street-facing patio space out front. Shallangwa, a self-described “zillennial,” wanted to merge modern West African cuisine with a space that was expressive of her culture but welcoming to all who entered. Upon your arrival, you’ll pass a raised patio with unique octagonal picnic tables decorated with lush greenery and perfect for people watching. In the evenings, overhead lanterns give off flattering mood lighting, and if you’re ever in doubt of your GPS, a wall mounted neon sign against an emerald green background is there to let you know you’ve found “The Patio By SK.”
As you descend a single stair past the red and white storefront awning into the restaurant, you’ll be greeted by a landscape mural representing life in Nigeria. Created by the owner with help from a graphic designer, the mural is steeped in meaning for her and imagines a typical scene on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where Shallangwa is originally from. Bus stops, women preparing street food like jollof rice and puff-puff for day labourers, and the Lagos skyline are all represented on the wall art, setting the mood for your soon-to-arrive meal.
On the opposite wall, wallpaper with a leafy floral design provides an excellent backdrop for the antique coat hanger subbing as a plant holder. The suspended plants also have meaning since the leaves of some of them are actually part of the Nigerian diet. The leaves are dehydrated before shipping from Africa, rehydrated in the SK kitchen and used in some of the meals.
About the food — according to Shallangwa, everything from the alcohol to the spices is imported directly from Africa to ensure an authentic taste in every bite. Of course, supply chain issues and food costs have created challenges to making that happen on a regular basis. Those challenges have sparked another idea from Shallangwa of investing in an ethnic grocery store downtown, an idea she’s in the process of bringing to fruition. That’s another story for another day, but right now, let’s talk food.
Cordon Bleu-trained head chef Imoteda Aladekomo has been integral in curating the fusion aspect of SK COOKKS's “new” West African menu launching this month. The idea is to introduce non-Nigerian foodies in Toronto to the authentic flavours of Nigeria in a more high-end, cosmopolitan way. Perfect for sharing, the meal arrived en masse on a straw platter with imported Nigerian beers like Orijin and Star and a classic, non-alcoholic drink called Zobo, made in-house with a citrusy but refreshing sorrel, pineapple and ginger blend. On its own, it’s a winner. Although it doesn’t come this way, spiking it with some spiced rum would make this a drink of champions.
Beef samosas here appear similar to the South Asian version but come with a sweet chilli sauce that delivers a perfect balance of sweet and savoury.
Flakey pastry gives way to tender ground beef that mingles in your mouth and preps your palate for what’s to come.
Puff-puff, angelic cinnamon fried dough served with a caramel sauce that’s just too good, is what I’m calling a levelled-up Nigerian Timbit. It’s under the “small chops” appetizer menu but deserves its own place under a proper dessert listing.
This doesn't feel like a starter to me, but I would be very happy to finish this way. In fact, a bowl of these with another bowl of caramel sauce would probably be all I need to feed any sugar addiction.
Efo Riro is a sauteed dish of African spinach greens that arrives stewed in tomatoes, palm oil, and other vegetables as a soup and is essentially the “salad bowl” you actually want to eat.
Paired with balls of pounded yams for dipping and spooning, this tasty offering is also great for sharing or can act as a meal on its own.
Peppered Beef with Jollof Rice and Plantains is the main event at my table. The tender chunks of beef are tossed in a secret sweet bell pepper sauce with a smoky heat that sneaks up on you but is easy to take and doesn’t linger. The sauce is fabulous on the Jollof, a rice dish traditionally prepared with tomatoes, onions, spices, beef, chicken, or seafood. Although my version is vegetarian, there’s more than enough beef to make this a mouthwatering meal for any carnivore. Plantain and a creamy coleslaw outdo each other on my plate, and if I was a vegetarian, a plate of THIS minus the beef would make me just as happy as anything the meat eater next to me was having.
SK COOKKS is more than just a welcome addition to Liberty Village. It is another in a long line of incredible entrepreneurial newcomer stories that make the promise of a multicultural city like Toronto more of a reality. From a bulk catering service to a sit-down restaurant in a desirable end of downtown Toronto, Sasilka Shallangwa has managed to create a cultural space for West African expats and everyone else.
What better way to bring people together than over a meal, surrounded by your host’s happiest memories while making new memories of your own?