More Americans are craving the vibrant tastes of Pan-African cuisine
By Jim Beckerman, and Shaylah Brown, NorthJersey.com
In Kenya, it’s “Karibu chakula.”
In Zimbabwe, “Udle kuhle.”
In South Carolina? “Dig in!”
Food is food — across languages, cultures, continents. And the foods of Africa, and the greater African diaspora — including the Caribbean and the southern U.S. — are becoming increasingly familiar in this country, through cookbooks, cooking classes and restaurants.
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“We’ve been saying since 2011 that this is going to be the next hot new cuisine,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a Boston-based food and nutrition nonprofit that offers courses in the cuisines of Africa. “It’s incredibly delicious.”
We’ve been saying since 2011 that this is going to be the next hot new cuisine. It’s incredibly delicious.
It’s a cuisine rooted in tradition, ingenuity and resilience.
Behind it is pain: Its migration is inextricably tied to the slave trade. But out of that atrocity, came a gift to the world.
The warm taste of the first bite of banana bread fresh from the oven. The sweet notes of roasted peanuts. The relaxing yet energizing savor of Ethiopian coffee. The rich taste of cacao from the Congo. Is your mouth watering yet?
Whether you live closer to the Lagos Spot Nigerian Restaurant in Newark, or the Trappixx Jamaican Restaurant in Cherry Hill, or any one of a hundred other places, Africa is calling.
It’s an amazing culinary trail: one with many forking roads, spanning multiple centuries and multiple countries. Through the foods of Africa, you can take a trip around the world — without straying more than a few dozen miles from home.
You might start with a delicious ewedu soup, made of steamed jute leaves, ground beans and spices, at a West African eatery. From there, you could move on to the kofta — North African spiced meatballs — at a Moroccan bistro.
You might try roast goat — hilib arian — if you’re lucky enough to be within driving distance of one of the East African restaurants of Harlem’s Le Petit Sénégal. You might enjoy Caribbean ackee and codfish at a Jamaican joint — or treat yourself to down-home fried whiting and black-eyed peas at a soul food cafe.
Just be sure you let the ingredients intermingle. That’s the magic, says Ameer Natson, an acclaimed chef from Newark who has cooked for Queen Latifah and Beyoncé.
“There’s that moment when the juice from the collard green, and the juice from the candied yam, and that last drop of dressing from the gravy, and then a little bit of the mayo and mustard from the potato curd from the potato salad, all meets in the middle of the plate,” he said. “It makes this pool of magic that you just sop your cornbread in.
Of course, these days you may not be able to do that at your favorite restaurant. Some places are offering limited indoor seating; others have sidewalk service. And there is always takeout.
“Food is a fascinating way of looking at the world,” said history professor James C. McCann of the African Studies Center at Boston University, author of “Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine.”
By taking a culinary tour of the area’s African, Caribbean and Soul Food restaurants, you can take a journey into history — educating yourself as you educate your palate.
You also can get to know your neighbors. Some 15% percent of New Jersey’s approximately 8.9 million residents are Black or African American, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. African Americans make up 13.4% of the American population according to 2020 census projections.
That includes descendants from some of America’s oldest families. Black people have been here since 1619 unwillingly, but more recent arrivals have occurred by choice.
If you are of African descent, the story becomes even more compelling. Food can be a key that helps unlock history, family, identity.
“I think it’s about connections,” said Dr. Jessica Harris, a well-known educator, historian, cookbook author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” — and the menu consultant to the cafe at the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.
“People are interested in connecting the dots,” Harris said. “Particularly for most African Americans, it’s about a real desire to know about one’s background: where one might be from, what one’s ancestors might have eaten.”
Dr. Jessica Harris, educator, historian, cookbook author
People are interested in connecting the dots. Particularly for most African Americans, it’s about a real desire to know about one’s background: where one might be from, what one’s ancestors might have eaten.
The African continent is, of course, vast. It is larger than the U.S., Brazil and China combined — and culturally as diverse. That’s a lot of dots to connect.
Even so, there are links. Certain foods that large parts of Africa, and large parts of the diaspora, have in common. Foods that came here with the people sold as slaves throughout America, Europe and the Caribbean. Foods that became American staples.
Coke and peanuts
The very name is synonymous with U.S. mass culture. “Coca-colonization” was the snarky term, coined in the 1940s, for the globalization of American products.
Well, the kola nut, from which Coke, Pepsi and so many other soft drinks derive, is not American. It’s African.
The kola nut comes from the kola tree, indigenous to Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. In some places, it was a form of currency, swallowed whole to convey honesty. In Ghana, It was used in religious ceremonies.
“Slave captains quickly borrowed the African practice: by placing kola nuts in shipboard water casks, stagnant water could be refreshed and made palatable again during the long transatlantic voyage,” wrote UCLA professor Judith Carney in her book “African Ethnobotany in the Americas.”
Kola also had medicinal properties. In Africa, it was thought to be good for digestion. It was used with honey as a medicine for coughs. And it contained caffeine.
That was enough for John Stith Pemberton, a biochemist who developed Coca-Cola in 1885 as a “nerve tonic” for drugstores. Later, businessman Asa Candler popularized it all over the world as a soft drink. Both, not by coincidence, were from Georgia — a slave state. The kola nuts were there because the slaves were there.
Then there’s the peanut. That classic American snack food: the added crunch in your Crackerjack box, the protein in your child’s peanut butter sandwich.
Peanuts, in the early 16th century, were brought by the Portuguese to West Africa. Locals found them a convenient substitute for the Bambara groundnut that was used in traditional dishes. They then came over to America along with the captives during the slave trade.
Today, peanuts can be found wherever Africans and their descendants are. You can find them in Mutakura, the bean dish that is a boarding school staple in Zimbabwe. They turn up in hearty South African beef stew made with biltong (jerky). They’re an ingredient in Binyebwa — the succulent sauce that Ugandans serve on their plantains in East-Central Africa. And they’re a staple of American soul food dishes: Peanut Stew with Chicken and Sweet Potato, boiled peanuts, Peanut Butter biscuits.
“Peanuts are a major part of West African cuisine, and in East African groundnut stew,” McCann said. “The circulation of peanuts is amazing.”
Side of rice
Most ubiquitous of all is rice.
“Rice is a huge one,” said David Rose, an Atlanta-based chef originally from Bergen County — born in Englewood, raised in Teaneck — who is a Food Network TV personality and specialist in African and African American cuisines.
Rice, one of the great world staples, almost certainly found its way to America through the African captives (it has a separate, older, history in Asia). In Africa, it was apparently cultivated as early as 1,500 BC. There are stories of enslaved people concealing grains of rice by braiding them into their hair. They wanted to have some familiar food to grow in whatever unimaginable place they were being taken.
To white slave owners, rice cultivation was a mystery. Enslaved peoples grew it for themselves in swampy areas. Ironically, Africans — bought and sold on the basis of supposedly inferior intelligence — were sought out if they possessed rice-growing savvy their masters lacked.
Thomas Jefferson, the great Colonial agronomist — and slaveholder — was especially keen on cultivating rice. In later years, he even embraced a West African diet.
His celebrated chef, James Hemings, and his protege brother Peter, may have had something to do with this.
Rice is key to much African-derived cooking — whether it’s the pan-African Jollof rice, Jamaican rice and peas, or good old New Orleans jambalaya.
“Jollof rice is an African style short-grained white rice made with spices, herbs and a tomato sauce base — which is exactly what jambalaya is,” Natson said.
Cooks, preparing rice, made use of whatever was regional. Seafood, if they were near the gulf, where you see the presence of Gullah-Geechee cuisine (okra, grains, and seafood). Pigeon peas, if that was what was local.
David Rose, Bergen County chef
They will have fish or shrimp, crawfish, crab legs or clams, depending. But the roots, the crux, of those flavors can always be traced back to those African roots.
“They will have fish or shrimp, crawfish, crab legs or clams, depending,” Rose said. “But the roots, the crux, of those flavors can always be traced back to those African roots.”
In Ghana, rice is usually paired with a spicy tomato sauce in a stew.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the popular one-pot rice dish is called Pelau. It includes pigeon peas, meat cooked with fresh herbs, carrots and other vegetables, coconut milk, sugar, peppers and onions. In Haiti, the ingredient that complements the rice is clover.
Rice also plays a part in the slow-cooked tagine stew of Morocco, made in a tagine pot: vegetables, fish and rice, seasoned with spices like coriander, cinnamon and sage. And you’ll find rice in Haiti’s diri kole ak pwa: red kidney beans, white rice, ground cloves, onions, coconut milk and peppers.
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