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At Onwa’s restaurant, a clubhouse for Phnom Penh’s West African diaspora

Clockwise from top left: stew, okra soup, fried plantains, fried beans.
Clockwise from top left: stew, okra soup, fried plantains, fried beans. Eliah Lillis

At Onwa’s restaurant, a clubhouse for Phnom Penh’s West African diaspora

Hanging on the wall of Onwa’s Food, a West African hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Boeung Tumpun, is a traditional Igbo fan made of animal hide.

This fan, belonging to the head chef and owner Chief Christian Igwebuike, identifies him as Onwa, a traditional Igbo chieftaincy title that he was granted in his native Nigeria. Meaning ‘moon’, Onwa marks Igwebuike as a highly accomplished and respected ‘man of the people.’

Established in 2013, Onwa’s Food first catered primarily to the city’s large community of West African competitive and recreational football players, who had difficulty accepting the taste of Asian food. Its allure has continued to grow.

What shines at Onwa’s Food is not just the authentic tastes of Nigeria, but also what the place represents as a communal space for Phnom Penh’s Nigerian community.

On a muggy weekday afternoon, a group of Nigerian men gather at the nondescript, humbly-furnished restaurant tucked away in the maze of cramped and dusty roads in the southeast of Phnom Penh.

The solidarity between owner and customers is evident in the group’s familiarity with Onwa’s Food. Though none of them work for Onwa, they are intimately aware of the happenings of the restaurant.

One of them, an entrepreneur named Emeka Mewo, describes himself as a publicist for Onwa’s Food.

“Onwa is a custodian of culture, someone of the traditional institution … When the moon comes out, it shines on all, something that covers everyone. That’s what it means. No enemy – everyone connects to everyone,” he says.

According to Mewo, four out of five orders at the restaurant are meal deliveries to all over Phnom Penh.

“It is a little difficult for Africans to do without African food,” he explains. “We cannot go a long period of time without African food, maybe every other two days.”

Chef Christian Igwebuike.
Chef Christian Igwebuike. Eliah Lillis

Onwa uses traditional recipes he learned from his father, and at Onwa’s the ingredients are mostly imported from West Africa. Indigenous spices like ogiri are the soul of Nigerian food. Traditional soups, meanwhile, are the mainstay of the menu at Onwa’s.

“Soup for Cambodians is actually a little too watery. For us, it has to be thick, it has to be spicy, it has to be pepperish,” says Mewo.

Made from a base of red palm oil, tomatoes, pepper and a variety of condiments, what differentiates each soup from the other is the choice of thickener used, after which the soup is named.

On offer at Onwa’s is egusi soup, made with ground melon seeds; bitter leaf soup; and okra soup, among several others. Each soup comes with the option of beef or fish for $6, or goat meat at $10. The oil and protein-rich egusi gives the soup a heavier mouthfeel, while bitter leaf imparts an earthy depth of flavour to the strongly-spiced, robust base.

Okra changes the texture of the soup completely, not only thickening it but also giving it a sticky, slimy texture. Mewo prefers egusi, though he says bitter leaf is the traditional option for Nigerians, which Onwa makes well.

Traditionally served alongside the soups are rice, beans, fried plantains, or garri, which is made from cassava. But rather than eating cassava, most diners opt for an alternative – a dough made by mixing rice flour with hot water.

Other than food to order, the condiments and spices are also available for purchase at Onwa’s. According to Mewo, a large number of Nigerians in Phnom Penh have Cambodian spouses, who came into contact with African cuisine through their significant others.

“They were looking at this food originally from the outside and thinking that it was difficult to consume,” Mewo says.

Now, these locals buy the ingredients to make African food at home.

Onwa’s appeal is not limited to Africans or Cambodians; some of his regular patrons are from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia, though Nigerian food has an undeniably special place for West Africans craving a taste of home.

“The stomach is everything to an African. This is the rallying point. [Onwa] keeps the people alive,” Mewo says.

Onwa’s Food is located at #18G Street 52, Boeung Tumpun. It is open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 10pm.

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