Joseph Sambou brings the Gambian experience to Mississippi with Sambou’s African Kitchen
n the village where Joseph Sambou lived in the Gambia before immigrating to America as a teenager, stout baobab trees grew straight and tall, with thick trunks supporting squat cano pies of branches and leaves. Their shade was enough to cool the sand the villagers trod, often barefoot, despite a year-round average high temperature of 90 degrees.
This memory stuck with Sambou, and as he readied for the opening of his first restaurant, Sambou’s African Kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, two decades later, he commissioned an artist to reimagine that exotic scene across a 20-foot-wide wall in the dining area.
“Even though we’re in a different country, a different culture, you can look around and see something that makes you feel at home,” Sambou says. “That’s what we want customers to feel, especially Africans. They can look around and see something that reminds them of back home.”
Not long after Sambou arrived in Mississippi in 2007, his mother began inviting their new friends over for Sunday dinner to share the flavors of their homeland. “They were just blown away,” Sambou says. “Like, ‘Wow, all we know is American-type food. We’ve never had something like peanut butter soup. We’ve never had meat seasoned this way or cooked this way.’”
When Sambou was developing the concept for Sambou’s African Kitchen (which was nominated for a 2023 James Beard Award), the chicken yassa, peanut butter soup, and oxtails he served friends formed the foundation of a culinary experience few in Jackson had known. But after the restaurant opened with a small menu in March 2022, enthusiastic customers began inquiring about other Gambian dishes.
“People were exploring, which was encouraging because that was the idea—to introduce people to African society,” he says. “That made them go online and look at more food. Now, we have fufu. We have egusi, which is deeply, deeply traditional. They look them up on YouTube and say, ‘I saw this; this looks exciting. Can you guys do it?’”
While Sambou curates the menu, his mother, Sally Veronique Demba, oversees the kitchen, and his sister, Bibian Sambou, operates as head chef. Their authentic Gambian meals begin with ingredients that often originate in their native country. They prepare wonjo, a sweet nectarine juice, exactly as they did back home, with hibiscus flowers shipped from Gambia.
The delicate, slow-cooked oxtails are a fan favorite, but the jollof—a rice dish cooked in a thick tomato soup with onions, seasonings, and meat—best represents Gambian food, Sambou says.
The few compromises they’ve made along the way account for the differences in spice tolerance among their customers. “We like to go heavy [on seasonings] so once you try the food, you can almost start picking out every single item, like the black pepper, the curry, the cumin, and how long you leave it to set so the seasoning can seep into the meat,” Sambou says.
If you want the full heat of Gambian spices, though, you have to ask: “Sometimes people will say, ‘I want the Gambian-style seasoning.’ That’s what you gotta say to get it the exact way we would eat it.”
What to Order at Sambou’s
Gambian Meat Pie
Meat pies are an important part of Gambian cuisine, often given to friends and family on special occasions and religious days. This flaky pastry is stuffed with a mixture of meat, corn, and beans and fried golden brown.
These deep-fried doughballs, formed in an egg shape by a spoon, are drizzled with cocoa syrup.
The most popular dish at Sambou’s is oxtail with carrots and peppers, cooked until the meat falls off the bone and seasoned with ginger, thyme, and soy—plus allspice for a Caribbean flair. Coconut rice and stir-fried cabbage are the usual sides.
Egusi Soup With Fufu
This hearty traditional stew, made from melon seeds and palm oil, is essential for getting the full Gambian experience. Sambou’s serves the dish with a side of fufu, a doughy mash made from a cassava root.