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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 24, September 3 - 9

Restaurant Guide
by Josh Lindenbaum

Timbuktu Restaurant and Bar
Second Floor New Ark Hotel, Zaoying Road, Maizidian, Chaoyang District
Tel: 6594-7733 ext. 2058, 1350-125-1064
Hours: 11:30 am-2 am
Food: *** Ambience: *** Service: ** Cost:$
African band Mitabe plays at Timbuktu every Saturday at 10pm

The Chinese word suibian accurately describes the attitude of Timbuktu restaurant and its owners: do as you please, help yourself, chill out and be casual. In other words, everything Beijing is not .

Unless you happen to be Isaak Dinesen, having a good time in Africa does not involve safaris, pink gin and silly colonial clothes. A good time in the real Africa means good food, talking, drinking and dancing to an extraordinary variety of excellent music.

The last of which is very difficult to find in Beijing unless you know a small bar on the second floor of the seedy New Ark Hotel, just east of the Great Wall Sheraton. Jammed between a karaoke parlor frequented by Japanese businessmen and a canteen-style Chinese restaurant, Timbuktu is an African bar and restaurant where you can get a genuine taste of modern urban Africa without any theme bar trappings, and boy am I happy about that.

Unbeknownst to Euro-American expatriates ensconced in villas, Beijing is home to thousands of Africans. Some come to China with embassies, many more come as students and on business. The Beijing government gives a lot of scholarships to African students, and even without a scholarship, studying here is cheaper than in Europe and America. But not necessarily more fun: surrounded by a formal, karaoke-singing culture, Beijing can feel like a long, long way from Mother Africa.

Timbuktu exists solely to satisfy cravings for African vibes and African food. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant serves food from all over the continent. The Southern African 'Walkie Talkie’ is a simple treat consisting of two roast chicken drumsticks, so named because they look like two-way radios as you lift them up to your mouth to eat. Matoke - fresh stewed bananas - is a dish from northern Kenya that tastes like potatoes. Spicy curries served with rice or couscous have a slightly different flavor from Asian curries, but they are hot enough to satisfy a chili craving.

Timbuktu’s chef is a soft-spoken young man from Nigeria named Titus. He explains the origin of Sukimawiki, an East African dish consisting of fried onions and tomatoes. "When you eat it, it looks like you are sucking down a length of wick from a kerosene lamp." Egusi Sauce, Titus explains, is made from "ground-up melon seeds which provide a base for the meat and vegetable sauce. Egusi is what my tribe back in Nigeria call melons." Everything on the menu is made with fresh ingredients, most of which are purchased locally. Although Titus is from West Africa, he has learned to cook food from all over, with the assistance of chefs from various African embassies.

Customers often come to Timbuktu for the food, but they stay late into the night to dance and socialize. With a big collection of African music, reggae, soul and hip-hop, the tiny bar gets packed soon after 10 p.m., and tables have to be moved aside to make way for dancing. The languages spoken at Timbuktu vary as much as the food: on any night you can hear Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba, West African patois and a host of other tongues including English, French, Chinese and on our visit, Korean. The owners are happy with the variety (and no doubt the quantity) of the clientele:
"Business is great, our only qualm is the size of the place: it is getting tight in here," says Samuel, a tall, dreadlocked Ethiopian man who is one of three owners. The other two are long-time China residents Turay, from Sierra Leone, and Young, from Nigeria. Turay and Young used to share an apartment that became a nightly gathering place for African friends working in Beijing.

"We used to cook together like a big family," says Turay. "Now we have simply moved the location of our party out of my apartment." They spent a long time thinking about the name of the bar. 'Timbuktu’ is not a made-up name, nor - to Africans - is it a symbol of remoteness like it is in the West. It is the name of a city in Mali, at its heyday the biggest trading center in Africa and renowned throughout the African and Arab worlds as a city of learning, a little like Alexandria.

"We wanted a name that as Africans we could be proud of," says Turay. "Even the name Africa is a colonial legacy, made up by some European."

Timbuktu may seem a world away from the PRC, but the Chinese word suibian accurately describes the attitude of Timbuktu and its owners: do as you please, help yourself, chill out and be casual. In other words, everything life in Beijing is not. Sometimes the service is a little slow, and not all the menu items are available all the time, so be a little suibian about what and exactly when you eat, but who really cares how long the food takes when it tastes this good and when you can break up your meal by dancing to the latest dance track from Kinshasa, Zaire.

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