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.
"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."
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.
A conversation on the history of Black cuisine in America
Miguel Fernandez, NorthJersey.com
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."
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.
"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.
As for Rose, his parents are from Jamaica. So peas and rice is his go-to side.
"The rice and peas itself is very flavorful — it's rice and beans — but then you also have the inclusion of coconut milk, thyme and ginger, pimento and you’ve got to have the scotch bonnet pepper," Rose said.
Though Rose's mother's family was a large one — there were 13 children — everyone would always go to sleep with a full stomach, Rose recalls hearing from his mother. That's because the grandparents would make a huge pot of rice that they would make stretch so everyone was fed.
"Caribbean food is love," Rose said.
Eat to live
European Americans loved rice. But for African Americans, it was essential, a means of survival.
In the early years of the slave trade, enslaved people were fed European food — rotting meat, coarse beans. The mortality rates became so high that the slaveholders changed their strategy, according to Soul Food scholar Adrian Miller.
Rice became a staple of the enslaved peoples' diet. Specific Africans were brought over for specialized knowledge in rice farming, cattle herding and other kinds of agricultural skills needed by slaveholders.
All of which explains how rice became one of the great cash crops of the South. It also explains how smiling "Uncle Ben" ended up as the logo for Converted Rice Inc. — until, this year, he wasn't. (In June, Mars, Inc., which now owns Uncle Ben's, announced it was “evolving the visual brand identity”; the box now says "Ben's Original.")
Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and all the other harmful stereotypes that are causing such corporate hand-wringing were all based on the notion, widely held by whites, that Black chefs were superior. They had to be. It took ingenuity to make tasty dishes out of the scraps they were given, and with only the ingredients at hand.
"They were given white rice, not given the rice and tomatoes found in Ghana," Natson said. "They were given the foot of the chicken, as opposed to back in Africa, where there was a lot of fishing and much of the diet was pescatarian."
There was not only art in much of this cooking. There was also science.
The spicy dishes that are popular in the South, the Caribbean and other places actually serve a purpose, Rose said.
"That heat, that spice, the spiciness from the pepper actually cools your body down." he said. "It trips me out because you go to Jamaica, on the hottest day of the summer, and they will be eating soup, but it is so spicy that the soup actually cools your body down."
Some other foods can be commonly found throughout the whole African diaspora — old world and new.
Leafy greens, like spinach and jute. Coconuts (including now-trendy coconut water). Kale — from Tanzania and Kenya — and collards, reborn in recent years as upscale superfoods, were used in Africa for centuries before the first Whole Foods rang up its first customer. Indeed, much of the diet on the African continent is plant-based.
Okra, probably from Ethiopia, is found in African-based cooking on both sides of the Atlantic. "Gumbo" is derived from the Bantu word for Okra. Eggplant and tapioca also can be traced to Africa. The cocoa bean has its roots in Ghana, and to The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Around the world
The differences between African-based cuisines are as striking as the similarities.
In Southern Africa, barbecue is the thing.
In East Africa, Wat — stew — served on injera (a large pancake-like flatbread) is a signature dish of countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea.
On the West African island of Cape Verde, it's Cachupa — a stew made with corn, meat, sausages, collard greens, red beans and lima beans seasoned with garlic and cayenne pepper.
"Just one bowl will have you full for hours," said Adelmar Martins, a student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston whose family is from Cape Verde. The stew, he said, is slow-cooked for 6 to 8 hours so cooking the meal starts early in the day. Martins recalls mornings waking up to the heavenly smell.
Starches are almost a regional signature.
West Africans favor rice as a starch. North Africans eat couscous. Elsewhere, in west and central Africa, it's plantains.
In the West African countries of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, fufu — cassava, plantains or yams boiled and pounded into round balls — is popular. The typical West African meal is based on a starch with a savory soup stew, or sauce served either on top of or alongside it, Miller said.
"Other countries have a grain tradition, sorghum and millet," he said. "Then when you get farther south you start to get to a root culture in places like Nigeria and Cameroon."
In Jamaica, along with the ubiquitous rice, there is starch in the form of the iconic flaky beef-patty crust — similar to a puff pastry, layered with butter and starch, and flavored with turmeric and curry. "What it is indicative of a good beef patty is the flake factor," Rose said. "If that beef patty doesn’t have my shirt flaked up with beef patty crumbs, I don’t want it."
Food for the soul
Then there's American "Soul food," a new-ish term for an old cuisine. The phrase itself arrived mid-'60s, around the same time as soul music, at a time when African Americans were taking a new pride in their culture. Malcolm X and Newark poet-playwright Amiri Baraka (father of Newark mayor Ras Baraka) have both been credited with introducing it.
Families all over America have been taking pride in it for generations. A 1997 movie and a TV series, "Soul Food," were both based on the premise of a Black family sitting around the table eating and growing together.
"I go right to that place if I’m making a southern fried chicken with collard greens and black-eyed peas," Natson said.
"I tap into that energy of my grandmother or my ancestors. I would want my grandmother to eat my black-eyed peas and say, 'Boy, who taught you how to make those black-eyed peas like that?' And we both know it was her," Natson said. (The black-eyed pea, by the way, is a bean, not a pea.)
"When you hear the word black-eyed peas most people immediately think southern food, and something you eat on New Year's Eve," Rose said. "But it came out of West Africa — a spicy stew consisting of braised tomatoes and braised black-eyed peas."
Grandmas, grandads, parents and the elders of the family were the teachers of these traditions. Recipes, brought down through the generations, were laid in the hands of children.
“Soul food is whatever you grew up on," Rose said. "Soul food has a wider breadth than just claiming it for the south. You can be from Thailand, and whatever you eat that evokes emotions and memories, that is your soul food.”
For Rose, soul food is Jamaican food. His eyes widen as he talks about oxtails and stew peas — his favorite. It's a dish he said is the perfect combination of fat and meat.
Oxtail — the tail of a cow — "has this sumptuous fatty taste." he said.
Rose is willing to risk his impressive physique for oxtail. He believes everything in moderation. "I like the fat, I want all the fat," he said. "That’s the one-day moderation goes out the window."
As a matter of fact, Rose — one of eight kids — would always sneak an extra oxtail from his sibling's plate when he was younger. “Still to this day they don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
For Natson, soul food is definitely southern: his grandmother on his mother's side is from Montgomery, Alabama, and the one on his father’s side is from Georgia. He used to tease his grandmother about knowing how to make her signature cornbread — which for a while was the family secret. Later, he found out the mysterious ingredients were cottage cheese and sour cream.
"Georgia has a very unique style of soul food," Natson said.
As the world has grown smaller, and cultural roots loom larger, African cuisine has become a source of fascination. Cookbooks, cooking classes, seminars have found a large audience, eager to connect the dots between the dish their grandmother made when they were kids, and the one her great-great-great-great grandmother made, centuries ago, on another continent.
Those who pass on these traditions have their work cut out for them. America is the land of convenience. Here, folks are inclined to take shortcuts.
"I think in this day and age everything is so fast and quick we really live in a work-sleep culture," Rose said. "No one wants to actually go through the process of buying their own callaloo (the leaf vegetable indigenous to West Africa) fresh. Cutting it, trimming it, washing it and scrubbing it. They will get the canned stuff."
But "the canned stuff" loses the soul and integrity of the dish. "Show the next generations the right way," Rose said. "The traditions and recipes (are) the way we keep a piece of Africa, the Caribbean, of Jamaica throughout lineage and alive in the kitchen."
It's important to get this right. African-derived food is not just basic to understanding Africa's history. It's key to understanding our own.
Much of the food considered "American" is derived from Africa. When you understand that, you begin to understand the wisdom of the enslaved people — their knowledge of the land, their abilities to find fresh fruits, root crops and grains that aligned with their own African culture. All the skills, in short, they brought to a strange, unfriendly place, far from home.
"It is just about taking the time to acknowledge those contributions made by Black chefs," Rose said. "Knowing the history of your food, the true nature, and giving credit where credit is due."
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