Those of us who celebrate Kwanzaa face a lot of ribbing, good natured and otherwise, often questioning the authenticity and meaning of the holiday. As they say in Nigeria, “Let dem say!” We know that Kwanzaa is an amazing opportunity to get our community engaged and informed about our connections as people of African descent around the world. For African Americans, the resurgence in an interest in genealogy has put a spotlight on what that heritage means. This Kwanzaa I encourage you to use the table to encourage that dialogue.
As a culinary historian who focuses on the roots of African American cooking, I would love to recommend a feast based on the regions from which our ancestors came. The majority of enslaved Africans brought to this country came from seven regions in the vast continent of Africa. Those regions included Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau), the Rice Coast (Sierra Leone and Liberia and part of Cote D’Ivoire, the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana and part of Cote D’Ivoire), the Slave Coast (Togo, Benin and western Nigeria), the Bight of Biafra (southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon), West-Central Africa (Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola) and Southeastern Africa (including parts of East Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar). Virtually all Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the days of early slavery can count Senegambia, the Bight of Biafra and West-Central Africa in their bloodlines. These areas, in different proportions, supplied the majority of enslaved Africans in the early Chesapeake, Carolina Low Country and Lower Mississippi Valley.
The region of Senegambia is the source of our recipe. Senegambians (the Wolof, Mande, Fula, Serer, Diola, Bassari and others) were foundational to the development of early America. Forcibly brought from places like Goree Island and St. Louis in Senegal and Fort James in Gambia, Senegambians were responsible for many of Southern cuisines staple dishes. Many key Southern ingredients—hot peppers, tomatoes, okra, black eyed peas, peanuts, watermelons, sorghum, eggplant, sesame, seafood, onions and chicken are traditional parts of Senegambian cuisines. The diet is predominately based on starches like rice, millet and sorghum and fresh vegetables made into soups and stews with fish or meat as condiment rather than entrée. Popular dishes include riz au Joloff or rice cooked with tomatoes, peppers and onions; poulet au yassa which is grilled and then stewed in a lemony sauce, ceeb u niebe or black eyed peas and rice, domoda, or groundnut stew, ceeb u djen and supakanja or okra soup. Whenever you enjoy boiled peanuts, peanut soup, barbecued chicken, hoppin’ john, okra soup or gumbo, black eyed peas and red rice, you are tasting the culinary legacy of Senegambians in North America.
It was the Senegambians who were brought in to grow cotton, tobacco, rice and other grains and corn. They were also expert fishermen, blacksmiths, woodworkers and hunters. Having a legendary reputation for cooking, it was Senegambian women who were often picked to be the Big House cooks. The legacy of these women was not only the foods that came down to us, but their almost religious commitment to manners and proper behavior. The word “nyam,” meaning, “to eat,” was passed down through them to Gullah, Jamaican Patois and even American English. Nyam was the root of the word, “yam,” and the word “yummy!” In that spirit, nyam this yummy soup and celebrate the cultural and culinary achievements of our Senegambian ancestors!
Senegalese-Inspired Chicken Soup
1 medium red onion diced
4 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. of fresh minced ginger
1 tsp. of chili powder
1 tsp. of ground red pepper (cayenne)
1 tsp. of black pepper
1 tsp. of curry powder
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. of thyme
5 cups of chicken stock (you can also use vegetable broth)
2 cups of crushed plum tomatoes
Salt to taste
1/4 cup of peanut butter
1 lb. chicken diced (great use for frozen leftover roast chicken or leftover rotisserie breasts) and sauté it with the first ten ingredients.
1 cup thinly sliced scallions
Chopped peanuts and more green onion and flat leaf parsley for garnish
Cook onions in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add garlic and cook two minutes. Add ginger, curry powder, black pepper, red pepper and coriander and fry for an additional two minutes. If dry, add a small quantity of olive oil until moist. If using raw boneless chicken, cook with the onions, garlic and seasonings.
Add broth and scrape bottom very well with wooden spoon. Add thyme, crushed tomatoes, and salt. Simmer for 30 minutes. Stir often and scrape bottom every few minutes. Do not boil.
Combine peanut butter and 1/2 of the liquid soup stock in blender or food processor and puree, adding small quantities of broth as necessary if too thick. When smooth, add puree to remaining soup and stir well. If soup seems too thick, add broth to taste.
Add scallions to soup, cook 5 minutes more and serve.
Sprinkle with chopped peanuts, scallions and parsley for garnish.
Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian, living history interpreter and food writer from the Washington D.C. area. He is the head blogger at Afroculinaria.com and TheCookingGene.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KosherSoul and @antebellumchef. His Facebook fan page is Michael W. Twitty.