Astoria, Astoria Arrivals, Food and Drink, Neighborhood, News
Aug 25, 2020

New Eatery Nneji Brings A Taste Of West Africa To Astoria

The new Nneji on 34th Ave has three words on its sign: “Africa. Food. Kindred.” And you’ll definitely feel that warm, familial spirit as you walk through the door. Nneji was (…)

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Claire Leaden

The new Nneji on 34th Ave has three words on its sign: “Africa. Food. Kindred.” And you’ll definitely feel that warm, familial spirit as you walk through the door.

Nneji was started by Roosevelt Island local Beatrice Ajaero. Its very first beginnings came from her capstone project at the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, which was focused on expanding food options in college towns.

“My mission is to make West African food a mainstay at every table and at every gathering, big or small, and to prepare highly nutritious food with ingredients that can be accessed from local producers,” she said.

She’s been inspired by the similarities across global cuisines, particularly African and Mediterranean, and decided to bring that to Astoria with Nneji.

The eatery offers, for takeout, classic West African stews, salads and drinks, along with coffee from local roasters Mighty Oak, and Greek and Italian pastry desserts and breads from local bakeries. They also sell accessories like bags designed with fabrics from West Africa and specialty imported food items. Ajaero also owns Ibari, an African food and gift shop that started as a vendor in the Roosevelt Island Farmers Market and is now a brick-and-mortar shop at 26-16 23rd Ave.

Egusi: melon seed, spinach, tomato, onions, blend of savory spices

Beatrice says that her three siblings, Donna, Fatou and Bakore, inspired her to open her businesses across the East River, here in Astoria. They have been students at Astoria Lutheran School for nearly a decade and Donna graduated from St. John’s Prep, also in the neighborhood. She currently attends Canisius College as an honors student in Finance, and is the youngest member of Alpha Kappa Psi fraternity.

“They are integral parts of decision-making around strategy, customer experience, and branding,” Beatrice explained. “They have shown me that Astoria is home to many food businesses dedicated to sharing heritage and we believed that we could join these efforts by locating here.”

West African Red Stew: blend of savory spices, tomatoes, bell peppers and cayenne

The business is centered on family, which can be seen everywhere including the name itself. In its full expression, Nneji a kola m translates to “May I never be without maternal kinship,” which is a celebration and affirmation of family. Nne is the Igbo word for “mother” and “ji” means to hold, link or connect. “Our mother’s work at LIC for well over 20 years as a history teacher (she is now retired) further solidifies our kinship ties here in Astoria/Long Island City,” Beatrice said. “Her students and colleagues, many of whom are from Astoria, are part of our extended family.”

Sisters Beatrice and Donna are often in the shop together, greeting visitors warmly and often sharing samples and explaining the ingredients and flavors of the dishes for those who may not be familiar.

The main menu is made up of small-batch stews with grains, including: egusi (melon seed), West African red stew, okra & spinach, and yassa (onions marinated in mustard, black pepper, and bay leaf) which comes with garri (cassava) or fonio grains. You can keep it vegetarian or vegan, or add a protein like chicken or salmon.

“My mom helps guide the menu, I focus on the managerial side of sourcing and the team that helps us prepare the soups, and Donna curates the final presentation of our offerings,” she said. “Fatou and Bakore play a key role in identifying new international fine foods and which seasonal dishes will appeal to different palates. As a team, we choose dishes that appear in several countries in West Africa, making our menu regional, rather than country-specific.”

Yassa: marinated onions in mustard, black pepper, bay leaf and house blend of spices

Nneji officially opened in June, right in the middle of the pandemic. Beatrice says other local businesses were essential supports during this time, like Rose and Joe’s Bakery on 31st St. and Optima on 48th St.

“They recognize Africa’s connections and our shared history, which is evident in our shared food traditions with Southern Italy and Greece,” she explained. “The prominence of high quality oils and tomato, as well as communal eating, are just some of the examples of these traditions. In these business relationships, we have seen a renewed kinship and wider connections to various parts of the world where food traditions remind us of our one human ancestry.”

Sisters Beatrice and Donna Ajaero

She also said there was such an outpouring of support and positivity from Astoria locals, who have been anticipated Nneji’s opening, that “made any challenge we faced appear minimal.”

Nneji is located at 32-20 34th Ave, and is available for takeout (stop by or call 917-832-7338), or delivery through Seamless. You can also follow them on Instagram @nneji_astoria and their sister store @ibari.nyc. “The heart of Astoria is a very real concept for me and my family,” Beatrice said. “And this is the invaluable mission of our business: to form a type of kinship with wherever Ibari and Nneji make a home.”

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