Roots Cuisine….

Wondering why there are no new posts?  It’s because Roots Cuisine has moved to it’s new home.  Please update links and visit here:

Roots Cuisine is growing  and has moved to a new address to reflect its nonprofit status.

Looking forward to seeing you there and thanks for visiting…


Jamaica. It’s been in my consciousness only a week.
Kingston. Crushing poverty and immense wealth side by side. A curious mix of classism and racism enthusiastic acceptance of the former, vehement denial of the latter. Houses, shacks, even, fortified by huge gates-iron or wooden, take your pick. Lush greenery…beautiful flowers in February. Beautiful people.  Downtown, Parade, the scent of ganja. Rough characters, perhaps rogues (or not), all around, all doing their thing….whatever it is.

Ackees. Coconuts. Ortaniques. Otaheite Apples. Star apples (yum!). Naseberries (yum! yum!) Scotch Bonnets (yum! yum! yum!). Saltfish with yam. Boiled breadfruit. Curried Kidneys (Trinidad-style. “Remember you must burn that curry.”). Saltfish fritters. Jerk. June Plum juice. Coconut water. Ginger Beer. Red Stripe. White rum.

And that’s only three days…

Eating & Cooking (& Loving) Nigerian

Nwaka with yams

“…next time we make some okro soup or cow foot and tripe wit’ somethin’ like gari.  You like gari, Angel?  Maybe some fufu.  What do you think?”

What do I think?  Well, I don’t know and I didn’t when he asked me.  Having begun to explore the food of Africa in order to better understand the food of Diaspora has taken me places I’ve been pretty unhappy to go, but I’ve done it for the sake of my passion…my passion for food, that is.  At the time of this question it was passion for a man that compelled me to further explore the tastes, smells, and ingredients of West Africa.  A place  that is as ingrained in my DNA as the smooth reddish tone of my grandfather’s skin and the lush, thickness of my grandmother’s hair.  The funny thing is I never known any of them, but I feel them with me everyday .

So when He would ask me, as He often did, “What do you think?” I often didn’t know what to say, but usually I thought to my American self “cow foot…tripe…stockfish, dude, I will soooo pass.”  I realized though that I had to get past the haunting memories of the great goat and mackerel incident and expand my cooking and eating repertoire to include fiery stew, egusi soup, and maybe even a little cow foot. Love is the greatest of motivators, isn’t it?

The Diasporal Kitchen – Part I

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…

Diaspora in the blogosphere…


The hungry bunny

The hungry bunny

This picture has nothing to do with anything, I just wanted any excuse to post it…Now on to what’s happening in the blogosphere…

The round up:

Cynthia Bertelsen at  Gherkins & Tomatoes,  discusses the paradox of Palm Oil and shares some stunning pictures of its production process.

Over at My Caribbean Food, an inaugural post waxes nostalgic about the beauty of the Jamaican countryside and the “orgasmic” taste of fresh ackee.

Black-eyed peas in Afro-Mexican cuisine with Rachel Laudan.’s Fran Osseo-Assare tackles the question of cultural, ethnic, and (mostly) racial authenticity in the study of African food.

And in translation…
Guy Everard Mbarga’s Noirs d’Amerique Latine, you’ll even see two of my articles translated into French!

Happy reading!!

Big Mama’s House?


So, I was doing a search for websites on African American food, using that search term specifically, and essentially came up with nothing.  Most of  the entries ended up being redirected to sites about soul food, which while encompassed under the umbrella of African American food is really, it seems, more of a concept than anything else that conjures images of black folks dancing, singing, and eating chicken, at least for me.  I think the reason I have a problem with that term is that  it tends to force the food that African Americans eat into a box that has no room for the sheer diversity of  ingredients, techniques, or regions that exist, ultimately leading people (most notably African Americans themselves) to accept/believe that all African Americans eat is fried chicken or catfish (and we only eat catfish and occasionally fried shrimp), greens, biscuits, chitlins, candied yams, and, of course, peach cobbler for dessert.  In the summer, we can throw in some barbecue, but otherwise, forget it.  Of course all of this ish is delicious but that’s beside the point.*

I’ve already discussed in an earlier post, how this myth is debunked by the late, great Edna Lewis in her seminal The Taste of Country Cooking. The creation of soul food as a concept in and of itself came to be in Amiri Baraka’s 1962 essay “Soul Food.”  I am simplifying (mostly because I’m feeling lazy right now), but like most things culturally African American the concept made it to the mainstream and the script was flipped until we ourselves began believing that the dishes mentioned above were all with which we could fill our tables and our bellies.  Sigh.

But I have digressed far further than I meant to…

So let me get back on track.  Alright.  I took a peek at a few of these websites and found that every one of them had one or more recipes linked to Mama, Big Mama, etc.  There is “Mama’s Fried Catfish” and the enticing “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf” both at and a recipe for “Mama’s Pecan Pie” at, just to name a few, but this is just on the web.  I have an entire book called Soul Food by Sheila Ferguson that has recipes with titles like: Roast Pheasant with Wild Rice Stuffin’ (emphasis on the stuffin’) and lines like:  “It’s that shur-‘nuf everlovin’ downhome, stick-to-your-ribs kinda food that keeps you glued to your seat long after the meal is over…Yes suh!” [sic]  The book even has a whole section on how black people speak.  It was written with a British audience in mind primarily but this annoys me even more.  And I’m sure that somewhere there is an entire book of “Big Mama’s” recipes floating around somewhere.  I have to say that I do not have a Big Mama.  I have a feeling that if I had ever called my Grandmother that, she would have looked at me like I was crazy and let me know the bid’ness, like the time I asked her why she never baked any cookies.  Needless to say, I never questioned her domesticity again.  

Doris Witt wrote a great book exploring all of this called: Black Hunger: Soul Food In America.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

Maybe I am all fired up over nothing, because yes, this is a pattern of speech among some black folks, and yes, as with any culture mothers and grandmothers are usually held in the highest esteem when it comes to cooking but…Why? Why “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf?” Why?  I will never understand this.  And why do they always have to be big?  We’re not all big…damn.


*I can speak with authority on everything except chitlins.  I haven’t ever tasted them.  When my great Grandmother was still alive she once tried to bribe me, offering me $20 to take just one bite and I still wouldn’t do it.

African Diaspora in Chicago

Today my most recent article, which also happens to be my second feature, appeared on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times food section.  It’s a piece on –surprise, surprise– the food of the Diaspora in Chicago. Of course they published it as the big Black History Month food feature but hey, I’ll take what I (and the people) can get!  I highlight a couple of restaurants, grocery stores –although there are lots more throughout the city and suburbs that I just couldn’t include because of space and word count concerns.  The article is also accompanied by the first recipe I’ve ever written on my own, for oxtails the way I remember eating them as a kid.  Check the link below:

Cuisine of the African Diaspora Woven Into Chicago’s Neighborhoods 

Enjoy and please share feedback or your favorite “diasporal” spots in Chicago or your wherever you are!

Intracontinental Connections…

As interested as I am in the food of the African Diaspora, I’d say I’m equally interested in Middle Eastern Food.  Of course this is a generalization as the Middle East is a diverse region, but I would also have to say that it’s probably my favorite cuisine.  It was all ignited by my “discovery” of Algerian pastries when I was living in Paris a few years ago.  I became obsessed with the pastries (still am) and was inspired to begin my new career as a food writer.  From that point forward I harbored a fantasy of owning an Algerian bakery (still do), but I also started to learn more about North African and then Middle Eastern food.  To be clear, I am by no means a member of the North-Africa-as-part-of-Middle-East crowd.  Personal experience and research have convinced me that North Africans are African.  The language and food might bear the mark of the Arab world, but the region and the people and aspects of the culture seem to me to be decisively African.  I won’t get into those pesky European colonial constructs, because that is another post on another blog by the Rachel of about 13 years ago who thought a Ph.D. in history was the bid’ness. I came to my senses on that one, thank goodness!

Anyway, I am beginning to think more about this topic because I may be presenting my first every academic paper on the connections between North and West African cuisine.  I was made aware of the opportunity by Fran Osseo-Asare who runs who is organizing a panel on West African food for the 2009 AFHVS/ASFS conference, which is the joint meeting of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society.  I still don’t know if the proposal has been accepted but I’ll be finding out soon. Whether it is accepted or not, this gives me the motivation/opportunity to delve into the topic, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now.

It also gives me the opportunity to post a picture of my beloved Algerian pastries.  So, stay tuned and…



Greens and such…


I just had a revelation.  And, like most revelations it was borne of ideas, facts, concepts that have been swimming around in my head that have obvious connections.  I woke up at 5:00 and began thinking about greens, specifically the efo I had recently at a Nigerian restaurant here in Chicago called B & Q Afro Root Cuisine while doing research for an upcoming Chicago Sun-Times feature on the food of the African Diaspora in Chicago.  The owners are a wonderful couple named Briggs and Queen Imarhiagbe who have agreed to let me come and learn to cook in their kitchen (!) and the restaurant is welcoming and comfortable.  The food was great and restored my shaken faith in African food, which is probably an unfair statement since I haven’t eaten lots of it and what I did eat was, heartbreakingly bad, for me at least.  I do know enough to recognize that that I may have just been exposed to the work of some really bad cooks, but I can dissect that later, once I’ve gone through the healing process.

Anyway, efo, is finely shredded spinach cooked in a tomato/bell pepper/chili puree that, according to my research, can be flavored with meat, smoked fish, and dried, ground shrimp or crayfish (these last three ingredients are common seasonings in the West African kitchen).  It can be  served with chunks of the meat and smoked fish for what seems to be a real down home version.

What did all of this remind me of?  The greens I grew up with, of course that were stewed with smoked or salted pork–neck bones, ham hocks, and sometimes chunks of salt pork–onions, and red pepper.  Delicious.  Spinach for African Americans does not fall into the category of greens.  Spinach is spinach and generally reserved for steaming, sauteeing, or creaming.  In my family, as is the case with most African Americans, greens meant a mix of kale, mustard and turnip.

In my house, the combination was prized for the balance of flavor and texture as turnip greens alone got a little bit too soft for us, and mustard greens were considered a bit too bitter.  My father was just convinced that a mix of all offered the best flavor.  The other standard option was a big pot of collards, always the perfect texture and flavor on their own, in my opinion.  They are a bit more toothsome than the other varieties and I love that.  Usually served with plates of deviled eggs, tomato slices and sprigs of green onion, there is nothing better!

It is an obvious connection and one that I actually made while sampling the efo.  Now, in the context of all this I am considering my new favorite way to enjoy greens.  Raw.  I picked up the method during a short stint I spent learning to cook  Brazilian food in a restaurant.  This method, consists of cut collards into a very fine chiffonade and tossing them with thinly sliced red onions (I add a few other things–my secret).  Et voilà, there you have it.  The mixture is often sauteed or braised and then called couve mineira or couve à mineira but I love the raw version best.  In either form, Brazilians often eat it as an accompaniment to  feijoada completa.

I am now looking forward to the summer to try some of the things that my parents spoke of gathering and eating as children:  poke salat (poke salad), dandelion greens, beet greens, etc.  I’ve tried the beet and dandelion greens but I am on a quest to find poke salat.  I’m betting I can find it  at a farmer’s market somewhere or maybe it is growing right under my nose.

Feijoada Completa

(Embedding has been disabled for this video.  Want to see it?  Click here.)

I love this video.  It’s a day spent preparing and eating feijoada completa in the company of family and friends set to Chico Buarque’s song of the same title.

Feijoada completa is the Brazilian national dish and refers to an entire meal of beans (always black) stewed with various cuts of smoked and fresh pork (always including a fair amount of offal in the form of pig tails, feet, and ears), sausage (linguiça or polish), and very often a dried, shredded beef (carne seca) for hours.  It is usually eaten as a midday meal on a Saturday, a sort of Saturday brunch!  On it’s own, this part of the dish would just be referred to as feijoada or beans. What makes it completa is all of the accompaniments, including farofa, a coarsely ground, toasted mandioca flour that adds crunch, (mandioca is another name for cassava, yuca, or manioc); raw collard greens cut into fine ribbons (couve à mineira); rice; and orange slices to aid digestion.  Of course there must be plenty of hot sauce, or molho, usually made with peppers and lime, onion, and garlic.  Yum.  You see all parts of the meal in the video and it’s not feijoada completa without them all.  There is almost a ceremonial quality to the eating of feijoada with beans and meat being separated from the pot just so.

I wish eating beans and ham hocks with collard greens was this much fun at my house!  I think I’ll make it a goal for the new year!!