Motindi: Congolese Tastes and Culture in the Suburbs of Tokyo

Culture Food and Drink

A vibrantly decorated restaurant near Chiba Prefecture’s Kashiwa Station, run by an energetic husband-and-wife team, re-creates the sights and sounds of Kinshasa and the exceptional flavors of Congolese cuisine.

The Congo-Japan Connection

As a writer, I traveled the globe for work. Then came the pandemic. Finding myself stuck at home in 2020, my itchy feet propelled me on a quest to find ethnic restaurants and festivals in Japan in an attempt to re-create the excitement of going abroad. In the process, I have made a diverse set of foreign friends and acquaintances, a good number of whom hail from the Congo.

When I say the Congo, I mean the central African Democratic Republic of the Congo, not the Republic of the Congo, its smaller neighbor to the northwest on the opposite side of the Congo River.

My connection started with a single Congolese friend. Through the relationship I was inspired to study Lingala, one of the main languages spoken in the DRC. From there, my network grew, including my language teachers, whose endearing habit of chuckling at my attempts to introduce myself in Lingala spurred me in my studies.

The DRC has long been plagued by conflict and political instability, and many of my friends are among the hordes of Congolese who fled their homeland. Most settled in Western countries, but a handful sought refuge in Japan. Carving out a life here has not been easy, as only a few have managed to be legally recognized as refugees by the government, which has a strict stance on asylum seekers. Those whose petitions are pending are prevented by law from working and must rely on the goodwill of other to eke out a living.

Amid such concerns, I was excited to hear through my network of friends of a newly opened oasis of Congolese food and culture just across the border from Tokyo in Chiba Prefecture. Eager to check it out, I headed to Kashiwa to see what the buzz was about. The restaurant in question, Motindi, is run by a husband-and-wife team, Sean and Mai, who opened the shop along the Mito Kaidō, five minutes by foot from Kashiwa Station, in 2020.

The vibrant interior of Motindi is the work of Mai, who made use of bolts of cloth for traditional Congolese costumes worn by women. (© Kumazaki Takashi)
The vibrant interior of Motindi is the work of Mai, who made use of bolts of cloth for traditional Congolese costumes worn by women. (© Kumazaki Takashi)

Sean was born to Congolese parents in France, where he grew up, and frequently visited relatives in the DRC. He developed an interest in Japanese culture at a young age, saying that “as a boy I loved samurai and ninjas. I was like an encyclopedia of Japanese knowledge.” He remembers from his frequent trips to visit relatives in the DRC the National (now Panasonic) brand refrigerator at his grandparents’ house. “It was biggest of any household, with double doors that opened from the center. Looking back, it was my earliest Japanese connection.”

He made his first visit to Japan some 20 years ago for work. Not long after the trip, he made up his mind to move to the country permanently, setting in Kashiwa. He met his future Japanese wife Mai in his fifth year in Japan. Mai recounts the details: “I was working in a cellphone shop where Sean was a regular customer. Most people only dropped in when they need something, but he showed up nearly every day. To be honest, his exuberance and habit of always bringing gifts struck me as a bit odd.” However, Sean’s sunny personality succeeded in winning over the shop’s staff, including Mai. “One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we were dating.”

Sean at the time ran his own entertainment agency that managed dancers and other performers. Visiting the company’s studio one day, Mai joined in on a rehearsal. “I had such a good time that I began to seriously think about dancing professionally,” she says. Not one to waver, she immediately quit the cellphone shop and threw herself headlong into dance.

A giraffe is among the different African motifs that add to Motindi’s colorful atmosphere. (© Kumazaki Takashi)
A giraffe is among the different African motifs that add to Motindi’s colorful atmosphere. (© Kumazaki Takashi)

For Congo and Africa

Things were going well at Sean’s company, but with the onset of pandemic, business quickly dried up as venues closed their doors. Eventually, Sean was forced to shutter his agency. Looking for new opportunities, the couple put their heads together and came up with the idea of starting a restaurant. In 2020 they opened Motindi in their stomping grounds of Kashiwa.

Launching a restaurant with little to no experience in the middle of a global health crisis might seem foolhardy, but Sean insists that he had been nursing the idea for some time, adding that entrepreneurship runs in his family. “My uncle dedicated his life to commerce out of the desire to contribute to his homeland’s development,” he says. “Like him, I want to do something that benefits the Congo and Africa as a whole. I named the restaurant in my uncle’s honor for that reason.”

At Motindi, Sean waits on customers while Mai looks after the kitchen. Having Mai serve as cook may seem an odd arrangement considering the ethnic fare, but she insists she is no newcomer to Congolese cooking. “I didn’t know the first thing about it before I met Sean,” she says, “but I fell in love with the local food on my first visit to Kinshasa.”

Sean jokingly affirms Mai’s account, declaring that “she did nothing but eat the whole time we were there. She was so into Congolese food that she didn’t even touch the instant ramen we’d brought from Japan for emergencies.”

Keen to learn how to make Congolese dishes on her own, Mai turned to Sean’s relatives for guidance. “I couldn’t speak Lingala, and it was before smartphone videos,” she recounts, “so I had to watch carefully and write down everything they showed me.”

Back in Japan, Mai tried out what she had learned, drawing mixed reviews from Sean at first. Not one to give up easily, Mai reviewed her notes, and through trial and error, she succeeded in mastering a repertoire of dishes. “Looking back, I’m not sure why I kept at it the way I did, as we weren’t planning on opening a restaurant then,” she reflects. “I guess I wanted to get as close as possible to the Congolese flavors I’d come to love.”

Unforgettable Flavors

Motindi’s menu features a range of distinct offerings. Mai recommends a plate showcasing the traditional foods madesu, ndunda, and makayabu. Ordering a serving, I find the mellow but rich flavor of madesu, made from navy beans stewed in tomato sauce and chicken broth, matches the texture of ndunda, something akin to sauteed spinach, and the saltiness of makayabu, a type of salted cod.

A plate of madesu, ndunda, makayabu comes with a serving of rice; a filling meal for  ¥1,500. (© Kumazaki Takashi)
A plate of madesu, ndunda, and makayabu comes with a serving of rice; a filling meal for ¥2,500. (© Kumazaki Takashi)

The dish is surprisingly agreeable to my Japanese palate, and before I know it, I’ve cleaned my plate. Conveying my impression to Mai, she concurs with a smile, exclaiming, “It’s good, right? These flavors were my introduction to Congolese food.”

Sean and Mai have succeeded in infusing Motindi with the vibrancy of the DRC, a country that boasts rich cultural aspects ranging from influential forms of Lingala music to dapper sapeurs who strut the streets in their finest attire. The DRC’s contribution to the world permeate the decor of the restaurant and its scrumptious fare.

Wrapped in the musical ambiance of the Congo and savoring the tastes of Africa, customers at Motindi step into a different time and place. Losing myself in the experience, I snap photos on my phone and send them to a Congolese friend. “Are you in Kinshasa?” comes his excited reply in Lingala. I intend to bring him to Motindi and let him decide for himself.

The exterior of the restaurant. (© Kumazaki Takashi)
The exterior of the restaurant. (© Kumazaki Takashi)

African Restaurant Bar Motindi

  • 1-3-7 Asahi-chō, Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture
  • Tel.: 050-1481-2552
  • Open 5:00 pm to 12:00 am
  • Closed Tuesdays and on public holidays
  • 5 minutes’ walk from the West Exit of JR Kashiwa Station

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Motindi proprietors Sean, at left, and Mai. © Kumazaki Takashi.)

food cuisine Chiba Africa restaurant Congo