Tag Archives: soul food

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…


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 http://www.soulfoodcookbook.com and a recipe for “Mama’s Pecan Pie” at http://www.washingtonpost.com, 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!

Food for Thought



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.

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:


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.