Oslo-Based Restaurant Njokobok fosters community and conversation through Senegalese cuisine

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Oslo-Based Restaurant Njokobok fosters community and conversation through Senegalese cuisine

Following on from Norwegian artist Beharie’s A COLORS SHOW that came out earlier this week, we decided to keep our spotlight on Scandinavia a little longer to find out more about Njokobok, a socially-minded Senegalese restaurant in Oslo founded by chef Youssou Diop and artist, architect, and educator Apolonija Šušteršič. While it started life as a cold-pressed juice brand, Njokobok now serves up African-inspired grill dishes and runs community-focused programmes encouraging open conversation about topics ranging from gentrification to migration.

Apolonija and Youssou, you are partners in life and work. How did you first meet? 

Apolonija Šušteršič: I was in Sweden finishing off my PhD and we met at a party. We started talking pretty early on about our work and interests. I was working (and still work) a lot with social engagement and participation, which crossed over a lot with what Youssou was doing.

Youssou Diop: Before I moved to Scandinavia, I had a company in Senegal promoting handcraft culture and tourism. The idea was to build bridges between private and public institutions, between the cultural minister, tourist agencies, and handcraft artisans, for example. Through that work, I managed to get a diplomatic passport to move to Sweden. During my time there, my house was always full of people. I’d gather people together who didn’t have a place to sit or eat, and I’d take care of them.

Bringing people together, and feeding them, is a key motivating factor behind Njokobok, your restaurant in Oslo, Norway. It started off as a juice brand—can you tell us more about that?

YD: We moved to Norway because Apolonija got a professorship at the Oslo National Academy. I didn’t have a job though, so I started making juices based on traditional Senegalese recipes and selling them on the streets.

AS: People weren’t used to seeing things like this on the streets of Oslo. It’s quite a provincial city. Nowadays, there are more migrants than before, but other than that it’s not very colorful. Youssou’s first recipe was a cold-pressed ginger and pineapple juice—he was selling this way before ginger shots became popular! I designed the logo for the label. It features Youssou’s trademark Bobino hat and the name “Njokobok” which means “it’s ours”, “you’re welcome”, or “we share it” in the Wolof language.

Youssou Diop and Apolonija Šušteršič

YD: They were very popular. At the same time, I got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, but after a while, I realized that in one hour of dishwashing, I made half the amount of money people would pay for one bottle of my juice. So I found someone from the Senegalese community to replace me and started to focus full time on my juice business. It was tough, and I had many problems with the social services over it, but I kept going because it was my dream.

Eventually, we got offers to stock the juice in a hotel here in Oslo. It didn’t work out with them because I was making all the juices myself at home, and it didn’t align with their food safety regulations. Later, I teamed up with Røtter, a famous natural food store here, which was happy for me to sell at their shops. With them, I also started developing other flavors using ingredients including hibiscus, baobab, and turmeric.

How did the juice business grow into what Njokobok is today?

AS: There were a lot of ideas on the table for how to expand the spirit of Njokobok. For example, we wanted to extend the project back to Senegal, to create a project with the community there, and to create a cooking school for homeless children. That’s still in progress, but the restaurant has definitely taken off!

“When you come into Njokobok, you feel that energy…

… it feels special because of all of the people who came, brought their power, and gave us their help for free.”

AS: We found this rundown space for the restaurant at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It wasn’t easy and we had a lot of issues with investors, contracts, and rent. But when everything was sorted, we renovated it with friends. Everyone came with a brush and helped us paint it.

YD: When you come into Njokobok, you feel that energy. Everyone who visits the restaurant says that it feels special because of all of the people who came, brought their power, and gave us their help for free. Ken Litzheim, our gardner, for example, gave us all the plants in the space as a gift.

AS: People who had tried Youssou’s food really wanted him to have a restaurant. Including me, I made all the furniture myself and did all of the design and carpentry. I was so excited to see the space finished, not just so it could be a business for Youssou, but also so that it could become a place for the neighborhood and for the community.

Let’s first focus on the food. Can you tell me more about how you designed the menu?

YD: I started out focusing on grill-style food. No matter where you go in the world—Argentina, Japan—everyone understands grill. The food still had an African touch and spices, but in the beginning we weren’t serving the Senegalese national dish, Thieboudienne, for example. I was cooking everything on my own, so I needed to keep it simple.

AS: The menu has been developed from Senegalese street food. Youssou learned to make Dibi—a Senegalese dish consisting of fire grilled meat seasoned and cut into pieces—from vendors back in Senegal, for example. He’s also created his own dishes, such as vegan alternatives and desserts, which are not very common in Senegalese cuisine. All of the original juices are on offer too, of course!

Njokobok is not trying to be a fine dining restaurant. It’s trying to be a place where everybody is welcome and where there is always something for everyone to taste. We want to have a social impact in terms of promoting the sharing of food—not in the sense of “small tapas dishes” like you see in many hipster restaurants today though. We want people to get full at Njokobok!

What type of people come to Njokobok? 

AS: Njokobok is quite a rare space in Oslo. Most other restaurants cater to the white, “hip” population. By contrast, Njokobok visitors range from people from members of the African diaspora to Youssou’s connections in the fashion world to my network from the art world, and our neighbours of course! Here, you can see old Norwegian ladies sitting at one table, rappers at another, as well as influencers and politicians!

YD: Njokobok is located in front of a mosque. For a long time, we had no interaction with the people who worshipped there. For the first Eid after the pandemic, we came together and had a grill. Now, the mosque’s community uses the restaurant for some of their events. I’d like to collaborate with this community more in the future because it’s a part of our neighborhood. Njokobok is here to create a bridge between people who thought they’d never have anything to do with one another.

How do you go about creating a sense of community and making the restaurant a place that fosters exchange and conversation? 

AS: We got some funding from the Norwegian arts council to organize arts and discursive programmes. We invited filmmakers and other artists to contribute and give performances. It wasn’t very big, but we’d like to do more things like this in the future.

We also foster community through our ‘Neighborhood Mondays’, events we produce in collaboration with Sarah Kazmi, and that are part of The Migrant Assembly art project by Bobrikova & de Carmen. Every Monday, we invite people to come and cook with us. It is organized very simply. People don’t have to register; they can just turn up at 6 pm, cook, chat, eat, and if we have food left over, we send it to a homeless shelter.

Njokobok's 'Neighbourhood Mondays'

AS: This project has its roots in my socially engaged art practice. Before the restaurant even opened, we organized another similar project together with Sarah Kazmi, an artist from the neighborhood, and Migrant Assembly, an initiative run by Bobrikova and de Carmen. We invited active people in the neighborhood to bring an ingredient to add to a soup that we’d all cook together outside. Meanwhile, we’d talk about food and what they do. It was very interesting because the invitees would also bring along friends and it created a certain portrait of the neighborhood.

The soup we made was very tasty, but I’m worried that, in the future our “neighborhood soup” will become quite boring due to gentrification. I’m afraid that the direction of Oslo municipality politics will displace the interesting people from our neighborhood because it’s becoming unaffordable to live here. In Norway, it’s the government rather than the private sector that is driving gentrification. It’s hard to sustain a place like Njokobok here. In Oslo you have to be super proper. It’s not allowed to be too off-site or punk. The rules are hard and the taxes are high. It’s a struggle.

“The way I understand life is through solidarity and mutual help…”

Njokobok at the Diriyah Biennial, Saudi Arabia

“… food is a tool for connecting people.”

What other issues, alongside gentrification, are key discussion topics at Njokobok? 

AS: We also talk about how to embrace otherness, gender, religion, migration… all the different layers that Njokobok represents by being located where it is and by being supported by so many different individuals.

YD: After being supported by so many different people, I feel like it’s my duty to give back to the community. Even if we struggle for money, we will still run our ‘Neighborhood Mondays’ and provide food for people. The way I understand life is through solidarity and mutual help.

Have you ever expanded your events and discussions beyond the walls of Njokobok? 

AS: Recently, we were invited to set up a bar as part of the Diriyah Biennial in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. You don’t really get bars in the Islamic world, as alcohol is forbidden. They are more familiar with coffee houses. So, we created a coffee house-cum-bar hybrid space serving non-alcoholic juices. Youssou created a special juice in collaboration with the AlZahrani eco farm in Diriyah, mixing together Senegalese hibiscus with habak, which is Arabic basil. Here, we ran a storytelling program where we invited migrant communities in Riyadh to share their unheard stories. Half of the population of the city comes from outside of the country. We wanted to hear that half.

Why do you think food and drink—and restaurant and bar environments in general—are such good facilitators for open conversation?

YD: It’s easy to gather people around food because it’s a daily need.

AS: Food carries layers of culture and history. It has so many different aspects that it can create connections between people. Also, people often feel more comfortable communicating in informal environments. Food is a tool for connecting people.

What are your hopes for the future of Njokobok? How would you like to see it grow? 

AS: I’m very focused on developing our cooking school project in Senegal. We’re also building a guest room and residency space in Oslo for students and artists. The money will go back into the Njokobok community. Other than that, I don’t think Njokobok has to grow or change. I just hope that it can reinforce it’s position in the neighborhood and stay there.

YD: For me, it’s for the place to become a place for everyone. We’d like to crowdfund so that we can buy our venue and ensure that it stays here for everyone forever. That’s the challenge for me—to see how we can keep this place no matter what gentrification throws at us.

Njokobok is a socially-minded Senegalese restaurant in Oslo founded by chef Youssou Diop and artist, architect, and educator Apolonija Šušteršič. Find out more about their work by following them on Instagram. Want to delve deeper into Norwegian culture and music? Why not check out our A COLORS SHOWs with Norwegian artists including Beharie, Lil Halima, and Charlotte Dos Santos?

Text: Emily May
Photography: Apolonija Šušteršič and Bengt Gabrielsen

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