Here’s a “Ravenous” column of mine from a few years back:
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A funky wooden spoon made of aromatic wood sticks out of the utensil crock on my counter, too intense-smelling for stirring any old wimpy soup. I don’t know what kind of wood it is, but I got it years ago at an African store on Ninth Ave. in Manhattan and it still smells so pungent, so heady, so good, that I only use if for African or Brazilian stews, something with lots of garlic, dried smoked shrimp, chunks of exotic tubers and bright orange palm oil. But mostly I just take it out and smell it for the fun of it and wish I could go to Africa.
With a landmass four times the size of the United States, Africa is beyond our wildest imaginings in size alone, and thus impossible to sum up. Its name evokes scary thoughts mostly: safaris, savages, starving children, vicious wars, apartheid, all manner of strife and suffering. But when it comes to its resources (historically raped and plundered), its culture and music (roots of our own) and its food (also roots of our own, more than we realize), Africa is endlessly rich and alluring, irresistible to try to discover in whatever measure we can.
African spoon. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi
It’s not the only continent I haven’t yet set foot on, but probably the one I want to see the worst. Not that I could “see” it, in a visit, or a hundred. It’s so gigantic that I could study it for ten lifetimes and not begin to know it. So until that first and maybe only, too-short trip, I’ll just keep listening to its music, reading what I can, and of course eating Africa, which means not just cooking recipes for African, Caribbean and “soul food” dishes, and seeking out restaurants serving those foods, but realizing that when I eat a plate of fried chicken or beans and rice or a slice of sweet potato pie, that I’m eating something that began in Africa.
The food of Africa and the diaspora where Africans went and took their foodways with them is so vast and so varied it can’t be categorized, so I won’t try, but I’ll tell you about some of the more interesting and the most delicious dishes, the things that I’ve cooked or tasted and the things I hope to cook or taste someday.
Like the baobab tree that’s common throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa (all parts of it used for nourishment), you’ll find throughout much of the continent certain elements wherever you find African eaters and cooks: peanuts/groundnuts used for oil/snack/foundation of soup or stew with meat, smoked dried fish and small animals (check out that store on Ninth Ave.), grains like cornmeal, hominy, millet and teff, fruits like bananas, melons, coconuts and mangoes, squashes, greens, cabbages, eggplants, okra, an emphasis on vegetables more than meats with a staggering variety that includes all kinds of beans and huge starchy tubers with exotic textures unknown to us, some gelatinous and some stiff, sometimes boiled, sometimes dried and reconstituted.
Perhaps least exotic to us of Africa’s many cuisines are the Mediterranean dishes of Northern Africa, from countries like Morocco and Egypt, whose preserved lemons, olives and almonds seem not so strange. We love the hearty tagines and stews over fluffy, tiny specks of couscous, the zesty kebabs, the appetizers and dips that are similar to the familiar Greek food. There’s that sweet b’stilla that’s high on my to-make-some-day list, a chicken potpie with almonds and cinnamon wrapped in phyllo dough and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
Graphic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Moving southwest across the Sahara we get to the region from whence the ancestors of most African-Americans and African-Caribbean peoples came from, where fish is a big part of the diet, where hot peppers are relished and the palm tree is plundered for plenty of palm wine and palm oil. Here is Senegal, home of the tasty lemony, oniony Chicken Yassa and the national dish Thiebou Dienne, a festive many-ingredient rice and fish stew. My favorite (and basically only) TV show is No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, and for last Monday’s show he was in Ghana, at a “chop bar” dipping balls of rice goo into a rich orange spicy tongue stew and later eating barracuda on the beach, washing it all down with lots of beer and palm wine.
South Africa has an interesting culinary history, too, with lots of occupation by lots of different peoples. You find dishes with an obvious Dutch influence and sambals and pickles and chutneys from the Malay influence. For a cooking demo this fall at the NYS Sheep and Wool Festival I made a bobotie, a killer South African pie of curried lamb (originally game) topped with a custardy crust.
I’ve cooked a lot of Ethiopian food, a cuisine I’m particularly fond of. I’ve learned you can sauté three pounds of chopped red onions in a pan with no fat, that spiced butter is sublime and that giant pancakes only need to be cooked on one side. I could write a book on it (and someday might) but suffice it to say that many Ethiopian dishes consist of lip-tingling stews called wat that you pick up with pieces of huge spongy pancakes and that if it weren’t for some frisky Ethiopian goats we might not be drinking coffee right now.
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Visitors to the Caribbean who eat only on cruise ships or in all-inclusive resorts really cheat themselves by not eating local food, which is similar in many ways to the food of Africa and really wonderful, based on fresh seafood and local fruits and vegetables. In parts of South America as well, namely Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana and much of Brazil, the cuisine is descended from African food, too.
Cuban black beans and rice, Puerto Rican pigeon peas, Jamaican kidney beans, soups thickened with okra or callaloo greens, hot peppers spicing up vinegar, rum or peanut butter, cornmeal coo coo (a starch of Barbados), numerous fish stews, crispy fritters made with salt cod or bananas and Brazilian black bean belly-bustin’ feijoada are all Caribbean and South American flavors with that African influence.
And it doesn’t end at the border. Plantation slaves made their masters healthier by cooking them the vegetables they were used to eating themselves. Louisiana Creole dishes owe their heritage not only to Europeans but to involuntary African immigrants. I grew up eating Southern food, a tradition based on (to oversimplify a bit) a large variety of vegetables with bits of tasty pork scraps, a tradition founded in large part on the African influence, and I like to cook that way often. The tasty Hoppin’ John I cooked for New Year’s Day this year (for luck and prosperity) of rice and cowpeas (like tiny brown black eyed peas but nutty rather than mushy) has its origins in a mix of beans and rice that sustained slaves en route from Africa. Tonight I’m boiling kale and collards with smoked turkey wings, serving the succulent “pot likker” with cornbread for dipping, a nourishing southern dish with African roots, too.
My own precious piece of the continent. Photo by Jennifer Harington Brizzi
Three years ago last Friday [now nine years ago--Ed.] at Newark Airport a beautiful Ethiopian toddler with big brown eyes and a white cotton costume embroidered with rich colors got off a plane holding hands with young woman who had brought him here. I picked him up and kissed his cheek and he became my son. Months earlier, when the wait for him had started, Africa and its endlessly fascinating culture and food had begun its journey into my heart, but now it’s assured that it won’t ever leave.
Other inspiration for this week’s column:
I have many books about Africa and its food but these are a few of my very favorites, highly recommended:
Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking by Jessica B. Harris (Atheneum, 1989)
The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent by Jessica B. Harris (Simon & Schuster, 1998)
African Cooking by Laurens van der Post, (plus its spiral bound recipe book, which is very hard to find) (Time Life, Foods of the World, 1970)
Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Knopf, 1999)
Also worthy of note is The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa (Wiley, 2006) by superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York City, who was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden. In this book he makes African food hip.
And to listen to while you cook: Putumayo CDs: Congo to Cuba, African Odyssey and African Playground.