My foray into the food of the African Diaspora has proven to be more of a lifestyle change than anything else. Plates of fried kingfish and cassava bread, acarajé, or bowlfuls of rich, silken textured butterbeans flavored with ham hocks and eaten with golden hunks of cornbread have all been important stops along the journey of food identity. Through my explorations of food, more than ever I feel less a motherless child and more a member of a strong, diverse, global cultural group rooted in rich, ancient tradition.
While I cannot claim to whip up callaloo or curried goat on a regular basis (or at all just yet), I can say that my cooking has begun to reflect my diasporal interests and my palate now relishes the Diaspora’s flavors as though they were my birthright – and in a way, I guess they are.
These days I crave the spice of chilies and the pungency of cilantro in my food. I regularly swap out mandioca (cassava), malanga, and plantains for potatoes. Now my pantry is always stocked with what I need to bring the Diaspora home. A few key ingredients can transform eating and cooking into meaningful experiences that connect us all to our shared histories and each other. Of course, a lot of it is not new but here are a few ingredients to keep on hand to big a bit of the Diaspora into your own kitchen:
Plantains: Cousins to the banana—think of it as the vegetable banana—they are delicious fried, boiled, with or without plenty of garlic or onions. They are eaten throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and they are nutrient-packed alternative to potatoes. I have managed to convince myself that deep fried plantains (tostones) are actually a healthy alternative to french fries. Just work with me here… Fried then mashed with loads of garlic and bacon they are the main ingredients in Puerto Rican mofongo.
Okra: Appreciating okra can be a challenge, particularly for those with food texture issues, like myself. I am sad that I can’t eat it without advanced preparation*, because I really like the flavor. Throughout Africa and the Americas people actually like the slime. It is said to be the perfect, natural, traditional thickening agent for soups and stews. To avoid the sliminess altogether try deep-frying the pods. If you don’t mind a little sliminess, sauté cut okra with onions, sweet corn, and tomatoes for a side dish. Don’t stir too much, the more you poke and prod, the more slime. (*Whenever I make okra with corn, tomatoes, and onions, I leave it for a day. When I heat it the next day there is virtually no slime and it tastes so good as the flavors seem to meld overnight.)
Limes: Use them to wash and marinate seafood and poultry, squeeze over tostones (fried, green plantains), or add to homemade tropical juice drinks.
Chilies (fresh or dried): Scotch bonnets, habaneros, bird, etc.—fiery hot or mild and fruity. Chilies are actually fruits that contain high levels of vitamin C, potassium, and iron. Among their many health benefits, they are thought to lower blood sugar. I am partial to scotch bonnets lately, I like the flavor. I also like ajices. I think that aji peppers are cayenne.
Cilantro: I really think that the flavor of cilantro defies description but dramatically changes the flavor of any dish to which it is added. I read somewhere that for most people there is no in between for most people–they either love it or hate it. I happen to love it and think that it is a must for the diasporal larder. It is used in African cooking and along with onions, green pepper, and garlic; it is one of the key ingredients in the sofrito that flavors the cuisines of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. It can also be chopped and added to lettuce to boost the flavor and nutritional value of green salads.
Malanga: This is a tuber actually I read that it is an underground stem. Is that not the same as a tuber? It is magical. You can’t believe the taste, which is nutty and buttery without the nuts or buttery. It is, I believe, taro root. In Central America and Colombia it is known as otoe. I believe it is called cocoyam throughout West Africa, and here in the United States it is known as taro . Originating in Central and South America, it spread to Africa where it is used as a replacement for yam or cassava in the making of fufu. It is apparently one of the world’s most hypoallergenic foods and can be eaten boiled, fried, mashed, etc. like potatoes. It is has brown, hairy skin like true yams and creamy, white flesh with light purple streaks. Try it immediately if you haven’t already. Malanga can be found at Latin, Caribbean, and African markets.
Mandioca: It is also known as cassava or yuca, but I love the name mandioca, it’s the name by which I first came to know it and it really just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it? It is a tuber with a unique, somewhat creamy flavor. I remember eating fried mandioca, boiled mandioca, mashed mandioca, even alfajores made from mandioca flour when I was an exchange student in Paraguay, which is where I acquired a taste for the stuff initially. Fried, boiled, mashed, it’s good stuff. It’s also a staple throughout West and Central Africa and the Caribbean.
Beans: The diasporal pantry should be stocked with different varieties from the various food traditions of the Diaspora like black, white, pinto, kidney, pigeon peas (gandules), garbanzo beans (chick peas), and black-eyed peas. Cooked with smoked or salt cured meats or fish, beans are a staple.
Oils: Peanut, coconut, palm. Most of us are familiar with peanut oil and wouldn’t fry up a chicken without it but the others are just as useful. Palm oil has a distinctive flavor and is prized throughout West Africa for the reddish orange color it imparts to the dishes to which its added. Don’t be afraid of the saturated fat (in fact, I’ve read these oils are not unhealthy at all. In fact palm oil is an excellent source of carotene).
Everything in moderation.
Whole Grains (Rice, Corn meal, Couscous, Millet, Cracked Wheat): whole grains are an important part of the African diet. Millet, sorghum, corn, wheat, and rice are all indispensable. Fonio is a grain indigenous to West Africa that once took the place of rice at the West African table. In the Diaspora, particularly in the Americas, environmental conditions have made rice, corn, and to a lesser extent, wheat the primary grains associated with the food and cooking of people of African descent. I haven’t branched out quite as far in this area as I’d like but I can say I always keep two varieties of rice on hand: long-grain white and basmati; I’m hoping one day to sample indigenous African varieties and indulge in a little South Carolina rice cookery.
These are but a few suggestions; there are many more ingredients that have helped to bring the sweet and savory of the African Diaspora into my own kitchen. More to come in Part II…