The leftovers were meant for the family and employees at Star Halal Meats and African Grocery, but once customers got a whiff of the lamb, all charred and smoky on the small grill in front of the shop, they wanted a taste for themselves.
“People started coming in and telling me, ‘Oh, that smells good. Can I try some?’ I was more than happy to give out samples, but then they starting telling me, ‘Can I buy it? Can I buy some?’” Omar Koite recalls. “I’m like, ‘No, this is lunch for us. We’re not selling it.’”
The requests, however, kept coming, and eventually Koite caved. He began preparing, seasoning and grilling extra meat for the folks who found themselves attracted to the butcher shop not just for lamb or chicken, but for Senegalese dibi, a word in the Wolof language that’s associated with barbecue and grilling. A local star was born at Star Halal.
The Koite family (pronounced QUAH-tay) has long since ditched the small portable grill in favor of more commercial cookers. They have a pair of large-capacity, direct-heat grills that they roll into place each Saturday at the farmers market at RFK Stadium, but at their new sit-down affair in Silver Spring, the family has had to adapt the dibi tradition of open-fire cooking to the kind of equipment favored by county health inspectors. Omar and Adja Koite, the brother and sister chefs, rely on a Vulcan charbroiler, which uses both gas and a charcoal smoker base to cook the meats. The cookers are a far cry from the basic fourneau grills found in many backyards in Senegal.
Cooking technology, even with contraptions that rely on an element as old as fire itself, is an ever-evolving field. Flavor, however, is a constant. Omar and Adja approach their grilled lamb, the meat most associated with dibi, with the same reverence that pitmasters approach brisket in Texas. Less is more. Just ask about the seasoning they use on the lamb.
“It’s just salt,” Adja tells me during a joint phone interview with her brother. “That’s the secret.” She laughs at the absurdity of salt as a secret ingredient.
“The charcoal does a lot of the flavoring,” Omar interjects.
The Koite approach to dibi lamb, you could argue, is a departure from numerous Senegalese preparations, which marinate the meat in vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, garlic and other aromatics, often to subvert the gamy flavors of lamb. Omar prefers a less-adulterated dibi lamb. Perhaps that’s because he comes from a family that butchers its own meat: They value the natural flavor and texture of lamb, end of story.
The Koite clan still runs a butcher shop and grocery, but it now operates under the name Koite Grill in a small College Park strip center (4936 Edgewood Rd., 240-965-6550) where you can get lamb, chicken and beef cut to order. But you also can order dibi dishes and kebabs, because Koite Grill offers a limited takeout menu at the same address. The point is, the meat is butchered fresh for both Koite locations, sometimes from whole animals.
Regardless of location, the lamb dibi is, more or less, an unfiltered taste of the star protein. After sitting overnight in salt and taking a turn on the grill, the bone-in lamb sports a little crust and smoke, as you’d expect. But it’s also firm and meaty, a texture so different from those ubiquitous Mediterranean-style lamb chops that have been marinated in yogurt until soft and floppy. You can eat this lamb straight off the bone, or dunk bites into the accompanying mustard sauce, with its blast of habanero, and feel the vinegar and chile pepper ricochet across your palate.
Onions play an important role in Senegalese cooking. Rings of softened white onion, sprinkled with black pepper and Adja-brand seasoning, will be frequently draped over your grilled entree at Koite, whether dibi lamb, beef suya skewers (a chewy bite ignited with a pepper-heavy kankankan spice blend) or dibi chicken (which, unlike its leaner lamb cousin, is fortified with a robust marinade that includes garlic, black pepper and tomato paste). These onions can accessorize your forkful of grilled meat, or they can serve as a chaser: warm, fragrant and indelible.
Onions are even more integral to Koite’s line of yassa dishes, which venture beyond the classic chicken prep known as poulet yassa, the name a lingering reminder of French colonialism in Senegal. You can order the lemon-enhanced onion sauce with a number of proteins, including red snapper and tilapia (the latter of which I’d recommend, with its sheen of vegetable oil that absorbs all the favors of its environment). But whether fish or chicken, the protein is baked before it’s slipped inside the caramelized onion sauce, a cooking technique that lends the dish a different flavor profile than, say, the grilled poulet yassa at Chez Dior in Hyattsville.
Some dishes are easier to procure at Koite than others. The appetizers, including the deep-fried fataya fish patties or the grilled K7 wings with your preferred heat treatment, are delights that can be had any day the restaurant is open. Same goes for the maafe, a chicken or lamb stew that mixes peanut butter from two continents, North America and Africa, the former spread a tad sweeter and lighter than the latter. Maafe assumes a heady and slightly oily personality, the side effect of peanut butter as it breaks down, but the stew pairs beautifully with jollof rice, that side of broken rice animated with onions, bell peppers, garlic and so much more.
Other plates, however, are rarer birds, such as thiebou dienne, the Sengelese national dish featuring a stuffed fish simmered in tomato-and-tamarind sauce. It’s available only on Friday and Saturday. Thiere, a time-consuming preparation that combines a side of millet couscous with a hearty meat stew, has an even smaller window of availability: It’s offered only on Friday, which helps to explain why I have yet to sample it. It pains me to say this because the couscous dish originates with the Serer, the ethnic group that includes Adja and Omar’s mother, Ndiagna, the north star of the family.
Ndiagna immigrated to the United States in 2001 to join her husband, Daning, the head of security at the Senegal Embassy. A year later, she brought her five children to America where she started work as a caterer. Ndiagna, perhaps channeling the independent essence of the Serer, has always followed her own path. She had her own traditional Senegalese restaurant in Dakar before building a business in America, including co-ownership of the Silver Spring restaurant with Adja. Her life has been a guiding light for her children, who now number seven. Five work full time for Koite Grill, and two others, still in high school, contribute when they can.
“We got the passion and the motivation from her, definitely,” Omar says.
“And,” Adja adds, “the entrepreneurship.”
8626 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 240-847-7016.
Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: $2 to $32 for all items on the menu.