How Le Virunga blends African flavors with the local flavors of Quebec
Mother-daughter duo brings the flavors of their Congolese heritage and love for the African continent to Quebec in creative ways
In Montreal’s neighborhood of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the Pan-African restaurant Le Virunga is introducing locals and tourists to the rich cuisine of the African continent with some inventive twists.
The cozy, 28-seat bistro is owned and operated by mother and daughter Maria-José de Frias and Zoya de Frias Lakhany. They combine the flavors of their home, the Democratic Republic of Congo, with concepts from other parts of the African continent and diaspora and a focus on sustainability by using local produce and meat, especially game such as guinea fowl or elk.
The result is an inventive experience diners will not likely find in other parts of Montreal or Canada. De Frias said her culinary mantra is “Respect the philosophy, respect the ingredients, respect the seasonality. But bring a little bit of a modern twist to the recipes.”
One of the dishes that exemplifies this approach is loanga, which consists of marinated and slow-cooked guinea fowl, finished in the pan for crisp skin, and served with palm nut cream, pan-fried corn, and broad beans. The guinea fowl — a staple in Quebec, a province known for its game meat —also comes with mieliepap, a South African dish similar to fufu, but made with maize meal. A hearty side of Le Virunga’s homemade pepper sauce transforms the dish, made of a smoky and scorching scotch bonnet.
Le Virunga’s mission is to collaborate with the community, and showcase talent from the African diaspora and spark discussions. That applies to providing gallery space to Congolese artists such as Moridja Kitenge Banza and a local food producer who grows African produce such as African eggplant, okra, sweet potato and taro.
The menu feels familiar to anyone from the African Diaspora, even as the meals are completely reimagined. Mutton is a seasonal feature and a local fish — when I went, it was a tender trout — in an aubergine and tomato sauce, served with pounded cassava.
Some might consider this nearly sacrilegious, but de Frias Lakhany said, “We want the food to be very authentic with the flavors, very authentic with the experience, very authentic with who we are. But for people in the African diaspora especially, they have to have an open mind when they come here. It’s less like you’re going to get a specific, traditional food and more like ‘I’m gonna enjoy some food and then maybe I’ll travel back home without even knowing it.’ Because on paper, it doesn’t look like anything like you’ve tasted before.”
Although Le Virunga is inspired by the women’s travels in the African continent and diaspora, their backgrounds are the guiding principle. They reject categorizing their food as “elevated” versions of African food traditions, although it’s a box they say others try to force them into. De Frias Lakhany said she once met a representative of the Belgian government, who, upon learning about Le Virunga’s style, expressed surprise at the idea that the food was “refined.” She didn’t take it as a compliment. “It was belittling like they look down on traditional African food. And also implying we’re less African.
“I wanted to share a vision from my culture,” de Frias said. “My food is my interpretation of my culture.”
De Frias, born to a Portuguese father and a Congolese mother, grew up in Kinshasa and fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1991 during a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, decimating a country already faltering due to economic decline and the genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Moving to Belgium with a young Zoya and her son, de Frias struggled in the country that had colonized her homeland and perpetrated genocide against her people. The racism, she said, was suffocating. “[The Belgians] don’t see us as equal. They don’t see us as human,” she said. “They just ignore what happened.” When she attempted to leave her career as a stylist and pursue culinary arts, she said, the registrar’s office told her that she was too old to return to school and should go on welfare instead.
When Zoya was 16, the family moved to Montreal, where the acceptance she found initially shocked de Frias, especially because she could easily enroll in culinary school at Collège Lasalle. “When I came here, I was thinking humans are very evil. But here, it is humans before everything. Of course, racism exists here in Montreal. It exists everywhere. But here it is the humans first,” de Frias said.
As a Pan-African restaurant run by a multiracial family, diners see the global influences shaping African cuisine, particularly East Indian flavors in many of Le Virunga’s dishes, such as the morels with a poached egg and chapati. Le Virunga addresses the history of people of Indian descent in Africa, fitting because de Frias Lakhany’s father — he and de Frias are divorced — is a third-generation Congolese of Gujarati descent.
De Frias Lakhany takes her father and mother’s cues regarding her identity. She embraces being East Indian, but her soul belongs to Africa. Her father is the same. While he speaks fluently in Gujarati and Hindi, de Frias Lakhany said, he believes Swahili and other African languages capture an essence of belonging for him.
“When he goes to India, he always says he feels more African than Indian,” de Frias Lakhany said. “Africa is where he feels whole, even though he knows his ancestors are from India. But the [African] continent is where he’s the happiest, so he still lives in Africa today. And I think even though I’m embracing all those different identities, I’m also the happiest when I’m on the continent. That’s where our heart is.
“I grew up really embracing this part of me as something that makes me richer and something that I’m very proud of,” she said. “That’s at the core of what I do today, talking about our community and our continent and telling our stories. And part of my story is the story of the Indians who grew so much deep into the African continent that now they’re part of it.”
This love for the African continent is why Le Virunga does not see itself as a Congolese restaurant but a Pan-African restaurant that can be a home for many in the community. For those whose stories begin in Africa, those who have pieces of their heart or their whole heart in the continent, Le Virunga serves as a vital mirror, reflecting childhood memories and dreams of the future.