When it comes to food, those who aren’t lucky enough to call New Jersey home think the Garden State is only good for a few things. Pizza, bagels, and that beloved salty breakfast meat are our calling cards (and we would add top-notch Italian and fresher-than-fresh seafood, too). But beyond the Parmigiana and pork roll is a world of cuisines some might not expect. Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Moroccan, Caribbean, Southern and soul food: These are the cuisines of the African diaspora.
From the exotic – curried goat and spiced jollof rice – to the familiar – black-eyed peas and cornbread, the flavors and techniques were born an ocean away, committed to memory and kept safe until souls needed soothing in a harsh new place.
Four centuries after the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived in America, their native dishes have melted into this country’s culinary identity. And here in New Jersey, these are the people and restaurants making it happen.
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A&H African & Jamaican Restaurant, Lindenwold
West Africa (Ghana); Jamaica
As its name tell us, this 11-year-old restaurant does both African dishes and Jamaican food.
The menu mentions meat pies, fried plantains, dumplings, curry shrimp, beef short ribs and much more. When asked about her African dishes – of which there are nearly 50 –owner Heritta Okora mentioned fufu, banku, acheke, wakye, and okra soup, which can be eaten with grilled fish, pepper and onion.
Fufu, which is made from plantains, yams or cassava and is comparable to pancakes or bread, is considered a side dish and normally served with soup, okra, vegetables, and goat, chicken, beef, shrimp or fish.
Acheke is made from shredded cassava and normally served with gravy, grilled fish or fish stew. Banku is fermented corn and cassava dough worked into a smooth paste and served with okra stew, soup or a pepper sauce. Wakye is rice and beans.
Jollof rice, an African dish that varies by country, is cooked in tomatoes, tomato paste with onions, spices, salt and chili peppers. Beans, carrots, fish, meats or cassava can be added.
- GO: 577 Blackwood Clementon Road, Lindenwold; 856-343-5667, www.ahafricanandjamaican.com.
Ada’s Gojjo, Asbury Park
East Africa (Ethiopia)
Adanech Asghedom’s restaurantis tethered to her native Ethiopia in every way, from the recipes she cooks to the spices in her kitchen, which come directly from Africa. “There are 16 kinds of Ethiopian spices, but the main (ones) are called berbere and Shiro,” she said.
Shiro is made from dried and ground peas, lentils and chickpeas; berbere is a blend of chiles, garlic, fenugreek, allspice and cinnamon.
But the dish that most connects to the heart of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a spongy flatbread that serves as both a bread and a utensil for scooping ye siga tibs, or sauteed beef; doro wot, or chicken legs and thighs stewed in red pepper sauce; and kik alitcha, which are turmeric-spiced split yellow peas.
Injera is “the main thing, then each (item) on the plate has its own flavors,” Asghedom said. At her restaurant, “everything is from scratch, Everything is fresh – fresh meat and the most natural, organic herbs from back home. They just grow in the backyard, nothing touches them.”
- Go: 1301 Memorial Drive, Asbury Park; 732-222-5005, adagojjo.com.
Aunt Berta’s Kitchen, Oaklyn
Alberta Ferebee, or “Aunt Berta,” started off cooking for her church, then doing catering on the side. But she wanted her own restaurant where she could serve her delicious meals.
She was in a store and a man heard her say she wanted to open her own restaurant. He had extra space on the other side of his seafood restaurant in Oaklyn, and asked if she was interested. Aunt Berta’s Kitchen was born.
“We’ve been there 22½ years,” said her daughter Estella Gale, a co-owner. “Two years after we shared space, we were able to buy him out, and Aunt Berta purchased the property and has been a staple of the community for over 22 years.”
They’ve done an award-winning mac and cheese, including one with a bacon and Cheez-It topping, award-winning bread pudding, and peach cobbler as well. Their No. 1 seller is their Jenna Cajun turkey wings, an original sauced baked wing named after Aunt Berta’s oldest grandchild. View|5 Photos
Aunt Berta’s in Oaklyn
Six years ago, they opened a second location in the Berlin Farmer’s Market. Earlier this year, they moved from there to a full-service restaurant in Lindenwold, the former location of another soul food spot, Sugarpuddins’.
Next, Aunt Berta’s has plans to open a soul food drive-through restaurant in Delaware, Gale said.
- Go: 639 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn; 856-858-7009; 311 White Horse Pike, Lindenwold, 856-809-2880; auntbertaskitchen.com.
Casablanca, East Brunswick
North Africa (Morocco)
The state doesn’t have many Moroccan restaurants, but after a meal at Casablanca, you won’t need to visit any others to get a taste of true Moroccan cuisine and culture. Owners Moussa Aitmoussa, a Moroccan native, and his wife, Catherine Aitmoussa, sought to create an authentic menu that reflects what visitors would find in the North African country.
Surrounded by bold red, black and gold tones on stools, counters, arches and lights imported from Morocco, customers choose from a menu developed from family recipes and by Moroccan chefs. This includes tajine, a meat and vegetable stew that is cooked over hot coals in Moroccan clay vessels and includes flavors of lemon, olives and raisins among ginger, saffron, turmeric and cinnamon.
The dish most reflective of Moroccan cuisine, Moussa Aitmoussa describes tajine as a full-flavored dish made with chicken, beef or lamb. However, don’t mistake full flavor for spice that will have you headed for the water fountain. “There is this myth that Moroccan food is spicy, but it’s actually more of a sweeter taste,” Aitmoussa said.
- Go: 320 Rues Lane, East Brunswick; 732-390-1111, casablancanj.com.
Chez Elody, Hillsborough
Caribbean natives Diane Henry and Jacques Ramone wanted to open a Haitian restaurant because they knew they weren’t the only ones tired of traveling more than 30 minutes for island cuisine. In mid-July, they opened Chez Elody, named after the youngest of their three children.
Raised within the restaurant industry in her native Jamaica, Henry said their restaurant’s signature dish is griot. She serves the secretly spiced fried pork with fried plantains. Another popular item is red snapper, which is also served with plantains, as well as friti, a fried yam dumpling spiced with scallions, onions and pepper. Ramone’s mother, who is Haitian, taught Henry how to transition to the other island spices.
“This always has been one of my dreams to open a restaurant,” she said. “My mom had one when I was younger. I watched how she used to work, and I used to help here. At one point, I thought of turning back, but seeing all the customers come – and the feedback they give – has been worthwhile. They tell me how good the food is all the time.”
- Go: 378 South Branch Road, Hillsborough; 908-308-8928, chezelodyhaitiancuisine.com.
Corinne’s Place, Camden
Corinne Bradley-Powers has been in Camden all her life, and she likes itthat way.
She’s had her famous eatery at the same Haddon Avenue location for 31 years, and it’s not just the locals who know about it.
“Most of the people that come here are from out of town,” she said. “I had three girls come in from New York and I asked, ‘What did y’all come here for?’ They said ‘We came here to eat, that’s what we came here for.’ We’ve been truly blessed.
“I was born right down the street in Cooper Hospital, went college in Camden, have a restaurant in Camden. People say why Camden. I say why not?”
Cooking was always a hobby for her; she got it from her mother, who she said was an excellent cook. Bradley-Powers went to school for social work but said had she known then that cooking would be her true calling, she would have studied culinary arts instead.
“But I think it’s a gift God has given me,” she said. View|9 Photos Corinne’s Place in Camden
Her Cajun turkey wings, fried chicken, vegetable medley, and greens are some of her most popular dishes, she said.
Bradley-Powers’ daughter, niece and grandchildren all work at the restaurant, and she has more than a dozen employees who turned into family.
“People come in, they like the warmness of the place,” she said. “I remember your name, basically remember what you eat.”
- GO: 1254 Haddon Avenue, Camden; 856-541-4894, corinnesplace.com.
Jameson’s Southern Cooking, Neptune
For nearly 30 years, Robert Jameson has been serving “a little bit of the South, up north” at his restaurants. First came Country Kitchen in Long Branch, then Jameson’s Southern Cooking in Neptune.
He cooks collard greens, a dish that pays homage to enslaved Africans’ practice of slow-cooking greens – often the leftovers from slaveholders’ kitchens – and sipping the gravy. He makes hush puppies, deep-fried cornbread made popular in the South by Romeo Govan, who was born into slavery in the mid-1800s but became a respected cook known for his fish frys. And he cooks black-eyed peas, which are native to Africa and are said to have been fed to the enslaved during their journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
But when asked for the dish that most represents his style of cooking, Jameson names “barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken with cornbread.” This, he said, is “food that comes from the heart.”
- Go: 652 Route 35, Neptune; 732-775-4699, jamesonssoutherncooking.weebly.com.
Kelsey’s, Atlantic City
This popular supper club, which opened in 2012, is the third restaurant owned by Kelsey and Kim Jackson in South Jersey.
They’re known forquality live entertainment, but the food is another big draws.
Their catfish nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread – which tastes like dessert – are among diners’ favorite items, and the black-eyed peas, fried turkey chops, pork chops, chicken and waffles, fried chicken, whiting, catfish, shrimp and grits, and pan- seared jumbo lump crab cakes keep customers coming back.
The pair’s other restaurants are Kelsey & Kim’s Soul Food in Pleasantville and Kelsey & Kim’s Southern Café in Atlantic City
Pleasantville native Kelsey Jackson is the chef, and he started his career as a dishwasher and busboy at various restaurants before becoming an apprentice cook. He attended Atlantic Cape Community College’s culinary program.
There’s a down-home feeling to the restaurant, even though it’s in the heart of Atlantic City with towering casinos within view, and live musical guests range from celebrity artists to local talent who focus on jazz, blues and R&B.
- GO: 1545 Pacific Ave., Atlantic City; 609-344-2200, kelseysac.com.
Michelle’s Kitchen and Catering Service, Vineland
Michelle McDonald came to the United States from Jamaica in 1990. She opened her Vineland restaurant about six years ago and has done well.
“Most of my dishes are popular,” she said. “The oxtail, goat, jerk chicken; we have the curry goat, the curry shrimp, Cajun shrimp, fish. I mean, everything is popular because I basically sold out every day. We’re open until 5 now because of this pandemic. Before 5, we’re mostly out of everything.”
She doesn’t serve too much spicy food because she knows not everyone can handle it.
“I don’t do too much of a spice unless they ask me for it,” she said. “I have the spice if its not spicy enough. I have spice that I make in the back.”
She learned to cook from her grandmother and mom growing up in Kingston and later attended school for nursing, butshe ultimately turned to cooking, which she calls her passion.
“I started from the age of probably 8 when I was in Jamaica,” she said. “My grandmom put me on a stool and told me, ‘you’ve got to start learning to cook.’ From there, I started learning how to cook.”
- GO: 632 E Landis Ave., Vineland; 856-794-3280, michellekitchen.com.
Ms. SweeTea’s Comfort Food Café and Southern Bakery, Pine Hill
Chef and owner Telisha Rhem seemingly does it all in the kitchen.
Her chicken and red velvet waffles, slamming seafood rolls, and bourbon-glazed salmon have people coming back for more. The sweet potato cheesecake and bread pudding are favorites on her dessert menu, and there’s also molten lava chocolate cake, called Stairway to Heaven.
“I am a native of New York,” said Rhem, who has been in business about five years. “My father was from Shallotte, North Carolina, and my mother is from Harlem, New York. My dishes are a fusion of both their influences.”
She plans on adding an outdoor dining area at SweeTea’s, and since the start of the pandemic, she turned a food trailer into a juice truck called Josiah’s Joyful Juice, named after her 9-year-old son. From there, she sells juice, fresh fruit smoothies, salads and housemade sugar-free desserts.
- GO: 706 Blackwood Clementon Road, Pine Hill; 856-258-5020, facebook.com/MsSweeTeas.
Olaide’s Kitchen, Parlin
Abigail Tella, general manager of Olaide’s Kitchen, was born and raised in Nigeria until she moved to the United States with her family — including Olaide Tella,her mother and owner and executive chef of Olaide’s Kitchen — more than 20 years ago.
But she still remembers that when you see a big pot of jollof rice, you know there’s going to be a party. At two-and-a-half-year-old Olaide’s Kitchen, you can get jollof rice either Nigerian-style, in which long-grain rice is cooked in a zesty tomato sauce with spices and herbs, or Ghanaian-style, which uses jasmine rice.
“It has that smoky taste that everyone just loves. You question the authenticity if it doesn’t have that,” laughed Tella. “It has a mild flavor, depending on the spice. Everyone makes it differently, but for me it always triggers that nostalgia of growing up in Nigeria.”
- Go: 499 Ernston Road, Parlin; 732-952-8880, olaideskitchen.com.
Rochester’s Barbecue & Grill, Lawnside
Siblings Vincent, Vernon and Valarie Rochester are Lawnside natives and run the restaurant. Their father, Vincent A. Rochester Sr., is the owner. He and their mother, Ernestine, who died four years ago, opened the restaurant in 2013.
Vincent II is the executive chef and says their food speaks for itself.
“Our pork and beef ribs are out of this world,” he says. “We sell more whiting as a general platter than pork ribs and beef ribs. We sell a ton of fish, catfish. Our crab cakes will stand up to anyone’s. We’re that spot that when you eat our food, you think you’re at somebody’s grandmom’s house. We make the potato salad that everybody will eat at the barbecue.”
He said they feature Aunt Ismay’s coleslaw, named after an aunt who was also a great cook.
And in a break from tradition, vegetables and greens aren’t cooked with meat.
“There’s no meat, there’s no smoked turkey, no pork,” he said. “Our collard greens, cabbage and string beans are vegan. We wanted even vegetarians to know that we were trying to cater to their palate. …Food is love.”
- GO: 130 N White Horse Pike, Lawnside; 856-547-7427, www.rochestersbbqandgrill.com.
Simply Jerk, South Brunswick
With mom Eleith White cooking up Jamaican eats, dad Newell White grilling and preparing vegetarian dishes, and son Rahsheid White managing marketing and business development, Simply Jerk in South Brunswick is a true family operation. And an authentic Jamaican one at that — Newelland Eleith moved from Jamaica about 40 years ago.
Their dish most reflective of Jamaican cuisine, Rahsheid said, is “undeniably” their jerk chicken, seasoned and marinated in garlic, pimentos and thyme before being grilled slowly over a low flame until golden brown.
“It’s rich, smooth and flavorful with a hint of Scotch bonnet pepper,” Rahsheid said. “We’ve continued to provide the most authentic Jamaican cuisine for the past three decades by maintaining the tradition with the method and spices we’ve been using for generations.”
- Go: 866 Cranbury South River Road, South Brunswick; 732-641-2420, simplyjerkjamaicangrill.com.
Simply Southern, Belmar
Five years ago, a former NFL player and his mom opened a restaurant, serving the food they grew up on: slow-cooked oxtails, smothered chicken in onion gravy, golden sweet potato hush puppies.
The dishes at Rasheed and Rita Simmons’ Belmar restaurant, Simply Southern, are anchored in the food of the South – specifically Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida – and Rita cooks the way her grandmother taught her when she was a girl.
“As much as it’s tough, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” Simmons said shortly after opening Simply Southern in 2015. “I’ve played sports. I’ve worked for corporate America. I’ve traveled around the world. And there’s no other place I’d rather be (than) right here in New Jersey, with my mother, doing this restaurant.”
Rita favors the oxtails, which are cooked for six hours in a rich gravy, and makes sweet tea with cane syrup (try her peach mango flavor). For dessert, there’s banana pudding and apple cobbler.
- Go: 816 Belmar Plaza, Belmar; 732-243-9259, simplysoutherncomfortfoods.com.
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