The story of Comfort Kitchen, a restaurant and cafe that opened last week in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner, can be told through a plate of okra.
Comfort Kitchen’s menu brings together the flavors and ingredients of the African diaspora, dispersed over time and across borders through the slave trade, commerce, and immigration. “Our whole concept is based on following the history of ingredients through the African diaspora and South Asia, and through the maritime spice trade routes as well,” says chef Kwasi Kwaa, who runs Comfort Kitchen with manager Biplaw Rai. Their respective spouses are also partners — Rita Ferreira oversees branding, Nyacko Pearl Perry development and strategy — with chef de cuisine Shelley Nason and beverage director Kyisha Davenport rounding out the team.
“Okra essentially tells the story of the diaspora,” Kwaa says.
The green pods traveled a long way to get here, although their exact route is in dispute. One possibility is that okra originated in Ethiopia, spread throughout Africa, then from Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula, India, and beyond. There are tales of enslaved people weaving the seeds into their hair so they might bring the crop with them to America — perhaps apocryphal, yet indicative of okra’s deep importance.
At Comfort Kitchen, the pods are seared until they are lightly charred, resembling shishito peppers but with distinctively slippery interiors. They are served over tart yogurt spiced with garam masala and topped with crisp plantain crumbs. Rai’s mother, Saraswati (a.k.a. “Amma,” or mom, to the restaurant staff, which she is part of), ate something similar as a snack when she was growing up in Nepal. She told Kwaa about it, and he was inspired. The plantains are his addition.
“The interesting thing about this for me is what completes it is the plantain crumb,” says Rai.
“It’s very much a West African thing, but it works so well together,” Kwaa says.
The business partners also traveled a long way to get here, to discover the complementary flavors of their upbringings. Kwaa was born in Ghana and grew up in Somerville. Rai came from Nepal to the United States for college. They met in 2009, working at Hi-Rise bakery in Cambridge.
“We come from two different continents, with different stories of how we got here,” says Rai. But like many immigrants, both found a landing place in the restaurant industry. “It’s a safe space for a lot of immigrants, a lot of immigrants’ first jobs. I don’t think immigrants get credit for our input and journey in it.” This is another story Comfort Kitchen wants to tell.
When they arrived, each longed for the taste of home. Within the local food scene, they discovered dishes from other cultures that reminded them of their own. Rai found African cuisine used many of the spices and ingredients he was raised on. Kwaa had a similar experience with Colombian, Salvadoran, Brazilian, and Caribbean food.
“Exploring those different cuisines posed a question in my mind, like — ohh, these are similar for a reason,” Kwaa says. “I’ve always been into history, and that focus shifted to food history. I started diving deep into ingredients, cook methods, why certain things are similar.” These ideas would eventually form the basis for Comfort Kitchen.
In 2015, Rai cofounded Dudley Cafe with Shanti restaurateurs Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury, in what is now Nubian Square. The goal: to create a space for the surrounding community to gather, celebrate, collaborate, and eat nutritious, delicious food. There he reconnected with Kwaa, who with co-chef Nason brought in a street food pop-up called the Chop Bar, inspired by Ghana’s roadside restaurants.
All of this experience converges at Comfort Kitchen, which gained a following as a pop-up from 2020 through last year, with an extended run in 2021 at now-closed restaurant Little Dipper in Jamaica Plain. Entering the restaurant on Columbia Road, you’d never guess the cozy stucco building used to be a comfort station, or public restroom, serving Boston’s streetcar riders.
Now it is light and bright, filled with draperies and nooks. A staffer pulls a curtain that extends from the ceiling around one table to create an instant, atmospheric column of privacy. The open kitchen brings together the worlds of cooking, drinking, and eating. There, Davenport can be seen concocting and serving drinks (both with alcohol and “free spirited”) made with Nepali timur pepper, West African suya spice mix, Middle Eastern sumac, and more. The Chiya Punch features the same spice blend used in the cafe’s chiya, a Nepali tea drink similar to chai. The drinks list is stocked with wine and beer from BIPOC producers.
After the okra and its point-counterpoint flavors and textures — smoky, tangy, warm; slick, creamy, crunchy — we eat beef kofteh, spiced meatball skewers with tahini-yogurt dressing and cucumber salad. The dish is warmed by Turkish Urfa chile. A trout preparation, inspired by the Moors, features crisp-skinned fish over smoked eggplant puree with green onion chimichurri, tomato salad, and brown butter. Yassa, the menu explains, “is a single-pot dish originating from the Casamance region of Senegal” that spread throughout West Africa. Here, chicken leg and thigh are stewed with lemon, mustard, and onions, accompanied by starchy, comforting cassava dumplings. For dessert, there is Basque cheesecake with orange blossom caramel sauce.
On our list to try next time: jackfruit sliders, featuring the flavors of the Caribbean; jerk roast duck with rice and peas, bringing together the influences of Jamaica’s indigenous and enslaved populations; and potato curry cake, a salute to the potato croquettes that are comfort food throughout South Asia.
The dinner and daytime menus share many ingredients, minimizing waste and labor. Comfort Kitchen continues the work of building community through food that Rai undertook at Dudley Cafe. “If you look at Uphams Corner and Dorchester, it’s a very mixed-income community. Dinner is very intentional and well thought out. There’s a lot of labor in it,” he says. The daytime menu is priced lower, so as to include a wider range of customers. A guava and cheese pastry has been an early hit. For $10, customers can get Comfort Kitchen’s spin on the flavors of bagel and lox — Iggy’s rye toast with caper and olive cream cheese, a seven-minute egg, and house-cured fish (currently trout, but the kitchen will use whatever fish is on the dinner menu). Tea is also a focus and a point of pride, made with premium leaves from Nepali Tea Traders.
During the first week, Comfort Kitchen has seen a mix of new customers and longtime friends, including many regulars from the Jamaica Plain pop-up. Many of the staff members have been working together for years, Kwaa says: “We’re a friends-and-family business for real.”
The story of Comfort Kitchen can also be told through its relationships. It is a story of flavor and place, and the ways food can anchor us and bring us together. It is a story about traveling long distances to finally reach home.
“We’ve been nomads for three years now,” Kwaa says of Comfort Kitchen’s journey from pop-up to building of its own.
“It feels like homecoming,” Rai says. “It feels like home.”
Comfort Kitchen, 611 Columbia Road, Dorchester, 617-329-6910, www.comfortkitchenbos.com. Cafe Mon-Sat 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Restaurant Tue-Sat 5-10 p.m. Reservations required for dinner.