Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
“The black eye pea was introduced into the West Indies from Central Africa in the early 1700s and journeyed from there into the Carolinas. The pea with the small black dot is considered especially lucky by many cultures in Western Africa. While the pea was certainly not lucky for those who were caught and sold into slavery, the memory of the luck it was supposed to bring in West Africa lingered on among the enslaved in the southern United States and the Hoppin’ John that is still consumed on New Year’s Day by black and white Southerners alike is reputed to bring good fortune to all who eat it.” By Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, pg. 18
Cooking is among the surest ways to access ancestral memory. The food we eat tells a story of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation. They change over time as each generation adds their own interpretation, while remaining true to the original themes like so many stories passed down orally. Despite the fact that most blacks of the Diaspora have never had African food, the legacy of the African past is evident in all of the “soul foods” of the New World. From the inclusion of African ingredients like okra and black eye peas, to the methods of frying in oil, and stewing in rich heavily spiced sauces, Africa lives on in the soul cuisines of the American south, Latin America, Brazil, and the Caribbean. It is perhaps no coincidence that our food is called “soul food.” For the foundations of Diaposoran soul food lay in the harsh crucibles of slavery, segregation, and material deprivation that have characterized black life in the New World. It was precisely the ability to “make something out of nothing” combined with deep spirituality and faith in God that allowed African descended people to survive in their new homelands.
Imani (faith) is the last principle of Kwanzaa and it happens to fall on New Year’s Day, a day already imbued with spiritual significance for African Americans. African American churches hold “Watch Night” services on New Year’s Eve and black households can be found serving black eyed peas and greens (usually collards) on New Year’s Day. The black eyed pea is eaten for good luck and greens are eaten for financial prosperity in the year to come. These traditions pre-date Kwanzaa as cultural markers for African Americans and I have taken to combining them with a traditional African dish as our family’s New Year’s Day meal. I enjoy combining foods from around the Diaspora to showcase the continuity of African food ways and to celebrate the ingenuity of African peoples to incorporate European and Native American elements into creolized soul cuisines.
This year, I plan to make my favorite Senegalese dish Chicken Mafe, a peanut stew prevalent throughout much of West Africa. When I lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in the late 1990’s, Mafe was my favorite dish at a Senegalese restaurant on Fulton Street owned by Chef Pierre Thiam. Chef Thiam now owns Le Grand Dakar Restaurant in Brooklyn.
Chicken Mafe (Peanut Stew)*
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil
¾ cup creamy peanut butter
½ cup tomato paste
Approximately 3 lbs. of any cuts of chicken you like (this recipe is delicious with lamb as well)
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, cut in strips
½ pound potato, cut in chunks (approx 1 ½ inch)
½ pound carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks (approx. 1½ inch)
1 small cabbage, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 scotch bonnet/habenero pepper, seeds removed and chopped
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Approximately 2½ cups chicken stock (or water)
3 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1. In a large pot, heat oil under medium-high heat and brown chicken pieces on all sides. Remove chicken and set aside.
2. In the same pot, add the onion and sauté until translucent.
3. Add bell pepper, carrots, cabbage and potato and stir approximately 5 – 10 minutes.
4. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute.
5. Stir in peanut butter and tomato paste. Add chicken stock or water as needed to mix and reach desired consistency.
6. Reduce heat to medium. Add remaining ingredients except fish sauce and chicken and stir approximately 5 minutes.
7. Add chicken, cover and stew 30 minutes to 1 hour until chicken is done and vegetables are cooked through.
8. Add fish sauce and stir approximately 1 minute.
9. Serve with rice or couscous.
*Note: Based on a recipe of Chef Pierre Thiam, owner of Le Grand Dakar Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. When I lived in Fort Greene in the late 1990’s, Chef Thiam owned a restaurant in the neighborhood called Keur N’Daye. This was my favorite dish!
Steven Allwood is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and a passionate foodie. He lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife and two daughters. Steven blogs at SteveAllwood.blogspot.com.