For Ndeye “Queen” Ndir, July 21 marked a lot of firsts. Not only was it the day she opened her first restaurant, Ndindy African Cuisine, at 2600 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., but it was also the first time she ever cooked in a restaurant kitchen.
“Cooking for two, three or 10 people at home is nothing like running a restaurant,” says the chef, who lives in Chalmette with her husband and four children, including her son Naby who was born in November.
Ndir moved from her home in Dakar, Senegal, to the U.S. to attend college. Motherhood changed her plans, and Ndir raised children and braided hair to earn a living. After she came to New Orleans and met her current partner, she helped her husband in his AZ African Clothing business in the French Market. There, many merchants of African descent and Muslims asked her to cook the foods of home for them.
“When I’m cooking, I’m happy. Nothing else matters,” Ndir says. “It takes stress away. I’m so in love with food and making other people happy. I know it’s what I was meant to do.”
She had been looking for a restaurant location for a while, but nothing was a good fit. Then a friend told her about the place for rent on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“It was really perfect,” she says. “It took my husband a minute to feel comfortable with the location — he put up cameras and alarms. I was pregnant when we opened, and he wanted to be sure I was safe.”
Open for lunch through early dinner hours Wednesday through Sunday, the restaurant draws a steady stream of her countrymen and neighbors.
Ndindy (pronounced nin-dee) is named for her great-great-grandfather’s village. His father was Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, a Sufi saint and religious leader and founder of a large Islamic brotherhood.
“He is well loved in Senegal, like a Gandhi — a good and humble person,” she says. “He’s an important part of our family history.”
Most of the dishes at Ndindy are Senegalese, although there are also specialties from Nigeria and Ghana, as well as a few Jamaican dishes that she loves to eat and cook, including curried goat, jerk chicken and slow-braised oxtail stew. Shrimp, chicken and steak shawarma also are offered, with a bit of her signature blend of spices.
“I can’t leave home behind no matter what I make,” she says. “I make shawarma traditionally but use a different sauce and spice.”
Dakar NOLA chef Serigne Mbaye is a close friend. “Queen’s food is really homey,” he says. “I send people to her all the time to get a taste of real Senegalese cuisine.”
Serigne Mbaye recently turned his pop-up into a brick-and-mortar restaurant on Magazine Street.
Senegalese food is an amalgamation of influences from North Africa, France and Portugal and relies heavily on braising, grilling over charcoal and dishes made with cassava, millet and plantains. Yassa chicken is a big seller that coaxes deep flavor from simple ingredients: grilled chicken with a hint of smoke, caramelized onions, bright citrus and ginger and spicy Scotch bonnet chilies.
Egusi is a popular Nigerian soup made with a traditional one-pot method that combines melon seed, pepper, leafy vegetables and meat. Many of her fish dishes have a nutty taste derived from palm oil, a common cooking ingredient in Senegal.
New Orleanians may find her okra soup a kissing cousin to gumbo, without the pork. Jollof rice is similar to jambalaya, although it’s traditionally cooked over an open fire so the flavor is smoky. She makes fantastic fataya, or seasoned ground beef pies which are similar to empanadas or Natchitoches meat pies.
The restaurant does mostly takeout business, although there are a few tables for guests to dine in. A bright blue color palette is accentuated with art and artifacts from across Africa. “My customers bring me things when they go home to visit,” Ndir says.
As she continues to learn the business, Ndir wants to bring more of her country to New Orleans and beyond, including an African baby clothing line. She also dreams of adding a second restaurant location in the French Market or French Quarter, but for now she’s taking it one step at a time.
“I just started,” she says. “I am very happy.”
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