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 Betumi.com 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…

citronette-pistachette-djouziette-figue-tcharek

Yum!!

Greens and such…

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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!!

Food for Thought

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I have been reading Edna Lewis’ classic The Taste of Country Cooking and realizing how perceptions of African American food are painfully limited.  The scope of what this food can be is so limited, this bothers me, because it has also limited the scope of what African Americans seem to think of as African American food.  I am guilty of the same circumscribed thinking…  

The argument that the concept of Soul Food (and it really is a concept) is not new.  Chefs, writers, scholars who are passionate about African-American food and culture have debated it quite a bit in the  years,since the term first appeared in the 1960s to describe the food.  Then it was a rallying point, it provided a sense of pride, ownership, and belonging in the community.  It was ours and it was (is) delicious.  The term/concept, however, didn’t seem to take into account the diversity of the African American culinary experience or repertoire and it certainly didn’t explore origins, from what I can see.  Soul Food, as most people think of it includes dishes like fried chicken, barbecue, greens, of course, chitlins (something that pretty ubiquitous across cultures actually), cornbread, peach cobbler, etc.  Sadly, this list doesn’t really go on much further in popular consciousness.  

While I am not vehemently opposed to the term, I count myself as part of the camp that rejects the it, but to explain why would require a much longer post.  I’ll just say that it seems to render the food I grew up with and way that I cook, something of a novelty.  

But back to Edna Lewis and Country Cooking.  One of the things I love about this book is that it broadens the scope of what has always seemed possible with African American food.  In the book recipes call for fresh thyme, sage, chervil, and parsley.  Dark leafy greens (not just collards) abound.  Fresh fruit, fresh, wholesome dairy products, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, poultry, and game, shellfish.  Fried, braised, baked, grilled.  Soups, stews, salads.  Everything is fresh and prepared from scratch, of course the book is also an account of her years growing up in a small Virginia farming community, but the point is that it shows a diversity of ingredients and cooking techniques.  But really all of this is what African American food has always been.

For a long time, in my own kitchen, I saw the use of some of these ingredients or cooking techniques as something new and different from what I assumed the African American culinary canon to be.  But, along with my reading of other African American heritage cookbooks I have come to see that African American cooking is really the epitome of the slow food philosophy of cooking:  the use of  fresh, seasonal, local ingredients cooked in simple ways that maintain and enhance flavor and the most healthful aspects of what the land has to offer.  Getting back to this would undoubtedly mean a reduction in the incredibly high rates of high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes in the African American community.

It’s a shame that this philosophy of cooking has been all but lost in the African American kitchen but I am hoping that the spirit of change can touch our kitchens, grocery lists, and dining tables too.

Exploring ethnic markets — Homeland Foods

After a somewhat emotionally draining last few days–go BO!–I’m back and ready to pick up with things again.  And the best part is that Guantanamo Bay is being dismantled as I write.  Happiness!!!

Last winter/spring/summer, my obsession was Afro-Latin food from the Caribbean and Brazil.  I read, ate, cooked everything I could.  For a month I probably ate plantains, rice, beans, avocado, at least four times a week–I had the hip-spread to prove it too!  I found ways to ‘Latinize’ everything I put into my cooking pots.  This year, so far, I have been doing some serious exploration of African food and ingredients.  I have actually been focused on West Africa since learning firsthand a bit about authentic cooking and ingredients this past fall and doing a bit of cakin’ as a former student and now hairdresser of mine has called it.  I had a setback with the recent goat/mackerel/peanut butter incident but I won’t let it deter me, although I haven’t recovered quite enough to prepare my own groundnut stew at home either.  Today, I hit another local African grocery store called Homeland Food Market.  It is packed to the brim with ingredients, cooking utensils, prepared foods, and even toiletries from Africa and the Caribbean.  I had been scheduled to interview the owner for an article I’m writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, but she forgot so I ended up wandering the store taking photos and chatting in French with Persis, newly arrived from Togo and struggling with English.  Here are a few of my favorites from today:

Everything is totally authentic at Homeland Market from the smells to the packaging.

Palm Oil

Palm Oil packed in water bottles

Get your gari in bulk!

Get your gari in bulk!

Palm oil is rich and heavy and as you can imagine lends its rich red-orange color to foods prepared with it.  I’ve read that people fry food in it (not just yams or plantains).  I keep imagining frying chicken in palm oil.  The flavor is awfully strong, but I just might have to try it one day.  Gari is dried ground mandioca.* I’ve never prepared it but I’m thinking that in the Americas (I’m including the Caribbean in with this term) especially the southern United States, that’s where the penchant for grits comes from.  Essentially gari (like grits) is a starchy porridge that serves as a bed for savory soups or stews, much like grits in the South.  I am a little ashamed to admit that I do like my grits with butter and sugar too.  Sacrilege, I know.  Anyway, you see this throughout Afro-influenced cuisines in the Americas–a starchy something or other (mandioca, corn, plantains, etc.), it can be a porridge or mash or even a bread that accompanies a savory, bubbling pot of something or other (moqueca in Brazil, greens in the United States, stewed vegetables or meats like eggplant, beef, or chicken, and even bacalao).  

This place, like most ethnic markets is really an oasis of home away from home for most immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.  I can remember my own experiences visiting American markets in France and Denmark after having been there for an extended period of time and while I didn’t buy anything it felt wonderful to see jars of Skippy peanut butter and packages of Oreos and know that I could have them if I wanted to.  These markets are always great places to explore!

 

*Mandioca, cassava, manioc, and yuca are all the same names for the same thing, a starchy tuber that most people in the United States know as tapioca.

 

Homeland Food Market is located at 6046 North Broadway in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.

The Roots Cuisine Bookshelf

Research for a new project I am working on has yielded some interesting results in terms of books.  There are few books dedicated to the topic of the food of the African Diaspora that aren’t cookbooks and even those are few and far between.    

I’m planning to write short reviews for this site and I’ll also have at least one book review article/essay on The Root at some point in the coming weeks.  This first go ’round, instead of full reviews I’m just going to share a few interesting titles I’ve found while researching.  All seem fascinating and are helping me to develop a new (and of course more well-informed) perspective on diasporal cuisine:

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I was extremely excited to find a social history of the food of the African Diaspora in the Americas called: Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie.  So far it is a fascinating, well-researched account of the topic that covers the pre-slave trade period through the 1970s when the movement to create an African-American cuisine developed.  The result of course, was the birth of Soul Food, a term that is rather limiting in scope.  I go back and forth regarding the term, there’s an essay and/or a blog post in there somewhere.  

The next book is The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine by Diane M. Spivey.  This book is almost a bible of the spread of African influence on cuisines around the world.  Ms. Spivey covers not only The Americas and the Caribbean, but also Asia.  It really seems to be grounded in images

nutritional anthropology and social history.  This one is really interesting because it includes the authors own interpretation of diasporal cooking.  And, while some of the recipes call to mind a traumatizing bowl of hkatenkwan* containing goat and mackerel (!) that I recently ate at a Ghanaian restaurant, what she’s doing is interesting and inspirational for a girl like me.

African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture edited by Anne L. Bower.  This scholarly collection of essays contains no recipes but offers much food for thought about the history and representations of African American food in two sections titled as such.  Endnotes abound here.  I’m looking forward to two images-21 

essays entitled “Soul Food as Cultural Creation” by William Whit and “Chickens and Chains: Using Soul Food to Understand Black Identities” by Psyche Williams-Forson**

 

images-1 The next book is Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking by Jessica Harris.

I interview her for another essay that I wrote for The Root called “Soul Food: A New Place At the Table” of course, I was pretty angry when the editor changed the title and inserted the term Soul Food, but that’s in the past now.  Anyway, I have another of Dr. Harris’ books called The Africa Cookbook, that I’m on the fence about, but I absolutely love Iron Pots...I cannot wait to try the recipes.  As she seems to do with all of her books she starts out with a chapter or two of background information including brief history and geography lessons where necessary.  In this volume she includes a glossary of terms.  It’s a great reference because in many cases she provides names for ingredients and cooking techniques across regions and countries, which is really helpful since Africa and the Diaspora are large and diverse but tend to share these things cross-culturally.  

Last but certainly not least there is Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture by E.N. Anderson.  This book is a nutritional anthropology bible and Anderson’s prose makes an already fascinating subject even more images-3

engaging Discussing topics like why every single culture has figured out the importance of pairing grains and legumes largely without information about the nutritional value of this pairing, Anderson’s book is an important and just plain interesting addition to any bookshelf.

 

*Ghanaian groundnut soup that I had a local restaurant.  I think that the woman was being nice by giving me both meat and fish in the soup, but the combination of the gamey goat and the oily, strongly-flavored mackerel accompanied by my first bowl of fufu, which was incidently made from boxed plantain flour was not so nice.  

** Psyche Williams-Forson has written a book that I just can’t wait to get my hands on called Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs:  Black Women, Food, and Power.


Exploring Culture

One of the most interesting things about the food of the African Diaspora is how closely it connects its members to one another and how little the members of the Diaspora realize it.  They often deny it.  Most Dominicans, African-Americans, or Brazilians would deny their close cultural connections, but they do exist.  My aim with this blog is to explore those connections and help others (myself included) incorporate more of what brings those groups together into their own cooking repertoires.  Food and Identity really, that’s what I hope to explore.  The African Diaspora is begging for attention.  I plan to give it as much attention as possible.