The authors made “The Cecil” iconic. A publisher’s blurb mentions “soul food,” but I recently heard one of the authors rail against the term. It is a false way of categorizing a cuisine. Afro Asian American can be a more descriptive, wider in scope, historically correct...
The authors made “The Cecil” iconic. A publisher’s blurb mentions “soul food,” but I recently heard one of the authors rail against the term. It is a false way of categorizing a cuisine. Afro Asian American can be a more descriptive, wider in scope, historically correct term.
The book opens with a prelude by author and restaurateur Alexander Smalls on his birth to a rice-rich, Lowcountry (Sea Island) household residing in the Upcountry of Spartanburg, SC. Like the explorer Matthew Henson, Smalls writes that he has has spent decades researching… not the Arctic, but the foods and foodways of the Asian-African diaspora and the Afro-Asian-American flavor profile. Chef JJ Johnson follows with an essay on his Caribbean-flavored childhood. He advises readers to be open hearted and “scat” read the book, picking up from here and there, replacing rice pilaf with their pineapple black fried rice, or using purple yam puree instead of standard mash.
The chapters are: Salads; Meat & Poultry; Fish; Vegetarian Entrees; Rice & Sides; Sauces, Dressings & Spicy Sides; and Cocktails. There are also essays on a variety of topics, including Bengali Harlem, Bourbon Tea, and Minton’s Playhouse.
“Salads” opens with Grilled Watermelon Garden Salad with Lime Mango Dressing and Cornbread Croutons which recounts how in 1935, George Jones opened a Harlem movie theater with an adjacent ‘watermelon garden’ of picnic tables and umbrellas. The Lime Mango dressing in tangier than lemon. In a recipe for Collard Green Salad with Coconut Dressing, the authors make light of those friends who think it is a kale salad. The Roasted Beet Salad has North African roots; they are sweeter than skittles, he writes, and roasting them gives a deeper flavor (wear gloves, don’t stain your counters). The Harlem Market Salad uses spinach, shiitake mushrooms and black lentils. The Heirloom Tomato Salad with Curry Lime Yogurt Dressing is a flashback to the markets in Ghana.
“Meat & Poultry” starts with a Cinnamon-Scented Fried Guinea Hen. They serve it with Charred Okra, Adzuki Red Beans and Roasted Sweet Potatoes; and brine the bird in chiles, cinnamon, palm sugar and thyme. Their Afro-Asian American Gumbo uses a slow cooked roux which reminds them of Senegal. Bebop Chicken Chili uses 18 ingredients in addition to beans and chicken, and is better and more complex if you wait til a day later to serve it. Nigerian inspired Suya Kebabs are a mild version that uses lime juice and peanuts as a foundation. The chef’s tip on making BBQ Smoked Brisket Egg Rolls with Gumbo Spice BBQ Sauce is to seal them tight before frying.
“Chapter 3: Fish” opens with a roasted whole red snapper in a lemon/black pepper marinade. It reminds the authors of Ghana and Accra’s Labadi Pleasure Beach. The Salt Crusted Salmon with Collard Green Salsa Verde inserts aromatics into the fish which call upon their Afro-Asian-American flavor profile. Moqueca Brazilian Fish Stew uses a bold broth of green curry, tomato sauce, coconut milk and chicken stock. Curry Crusted Cod is paired with Hominy Stew.
“Vegetables” opens with a recipe for “King Mushroom with Harissa Vinaigrette, Roasted Carrots, Carrot Curry Puree and Cipollini Onions.” The goal is to post it to social media and then to eat it. Tofu Gnocchi is paired with a Black Garlic Crema and Scallions. Plantain Kelewele takes plantains, rice flour, and a chile as main ingredients and fries the batter in hot oil. Spiked Rosemary Macaroni and Cheese Pie with Carmelized Shallots is a Harlem staple for Chef Smalls. He uses penne rigate. Roti followed the British slave trade, and is found in their historic ports of call. The authors share a recipe for Roti with Black-Eyed Pea Hummus, Eggplant Puree and Carrot Curry Puree. “Chapter 5: Rice and Sides” opens with an essay on rice. (Chef Johnson is so taken with rice that I read that he is planning a rice-focused restaurant in the future). Recipes include those for Pineapple Black Fried Rice, Coconut Sticky Rice, and Brown Rice Grits. The tangy lime in Curry Lime Cauliflower cuts the hotness. West African Yam Flapjacks adds in Madagascar vanilla. Chapter 6 contains a recipe for Piri Piri Sauce, the sauce that introduced Chef Johnson to West Africa.
Some recipes (all recipes list the estimated prep and cooking times) may appear complex, but note that there is a mixture of easy and complex. Some are for Big Nights, others for Every Day