Serving Up Black culinary history

As we observe Black History Month, using a culinary lens to examine the…

Serving Up Black culinary history 1
Serving Up Black culinary history 2

By Robin Watson
 |  Special to The Detroit News

Food brings people together.

As we observe Black History Month, using a culinary lens to examine the contributions African Americans have made to our complex mosaic of foodways fosters understanding while providing home cooks — and all who love food served up with a side of history — with recipes for delicious meals year-round.

“Black History Month is a time when you remember where you came from,” says Detroit-based chef and business consultant Kiki Louya. “That history teaches us how we can honor the traditions of our ancestors, and it inspires our future.”

For cooks, key to that remembrance is revisiting foodways and learning their origin stories.

“Black people were often separated from their families, but what they had was their food, and that’s why it’s super integral to their culture,” says Jerome Grant, executive chef at Washington, D.C.-based restaurant Jackie and the Dacha Beer Garden. “All they had were stories and a style of food with certain ingredients.”

Preparing those foods is enlightening for those not acquainted with them.

“The food of Black people is outside the experience of a lot of people,” says Denver-based culinary historian and author, Adrian Miller. “Once home cooks decide to make this stuff at home, that’s the breakthrough. That’s what happened with other ‘outsider’ cuisines such as Chinese and Mexican.”

Getting started

“Throughout the country you can see the influence of African American cooking in so many different ways,” Louya says. “Pick a place to start, such as the history of barbecue.”

“Take it one recipe at a time,” advises Joanne Hyppolite, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “Pick a food you like and look for an African-American version.”

“Start with ingredients,” Grant suggests. If you’re not already cooking with African American staples such as yams, collard greens, benne seeds and black eyed peas, find ways to do so.”

One example: Maryland-based chef and food scholar Michael Twitty’s Black Eyed Pea Hummus. Prepare it, then learn about black eyed peas’ role in Black foodways and celebrations. Eventually, work your way up to cooking with emerging African ingredients such as fonio (a Senegalese ancient grain), fufu (a West African boiled dough) and suya (a Nigerian spice blend).

Exploring soul food? Ignore outdated stereotypes.

“Certain soul food has been looked down upon as not fancy enough or important enough or because it calls for an animal part that hasn’t been normalized,” Louya explains. “But with any cuisine, innovation comes out of what you don’t have a lot of.”

Today, many of those ingredients are culinary darlings. Nutrient-dense greens are now mainstream and are especially prized by the growing Afro veganism movement. And jowl bacon (aka guanciale), trotters, hocks and belly are the OGs of the nose to tail movement.

The bottom line?

“It’s an interesting time to be observing Black History Month,” Louya says, noting ongoing racial injustice. “But it’s good to have any opportunity to talk more about African Americans’ impact on food in this country. My preference, of course, is that we continue this observance throughout the year.”

Learn More

1.   “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of An American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” Adrian Miller (2017)

2.   “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook,” Marcus Samuelsson, Osayi Endolyn (2020)

3.   “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of American Cooking,” Toni Tipton-Martin (2019)

4.   “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks,” Toni Tipton-Martin (2015)

5.   “Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking,” NMAAHC, Lonnie G. Bunch III, et. al (2018)

6.   “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Cooking History in the Old South,” Michael Twitty (2018)

7.   “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” Adrian Miller (coming April 27, 2021)

 African Peanut Stew

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup  fresh ginger, finely chopped

1   large yellow onion, diced

2 teaspoons  coriander

2 teaspoons  turmeric

2 tablespoons  cumin

1 teaspoon   cinnamon

1 teaspoon  fenugreek

4  garlic cloves, diced

2 to 3   habanero peppers, seeds removed and minced

1 tablespoon   apple cider vinegar

1 cup  tomatoes (diced or stewed)

1 tablespoon  tomato paste

1 ¼ cups  smooth, unsweetened peanut butter

1 to 3 quarts  vegetable stock

1   large sweet potato, medium dice

1   medium eggplant, medium dice

1 bunch   kale, stems removed, broken into pieces

 Rice or fufu for serving

To taste   roasted, chopped peanuts for garnish

Cook the ginger, onion and spices together in oil until fragrant Add the habanero peppers and saute briefly; do not brown. Add the vinegar. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir in the peanut butter. Add 1 to 3 quarts vegetable stock and stir thoroughly to incorporate. You want the peanut butter/tomato/spice mixture to be a thick liquid — not too watery, but not a paste, either. Simmer to reduce to desired thickness. Add the sweet potato and eggplant and cook until tender. Add the kale and cook until wilted. Serve over rice and garnish with chopped peanuts.

Recipe courtesy of Kiki Louya.

Johnetta Miller’s Mixed Greens  

Yield: 8 servings

1 pound  smoked ham hocks, smoked turkey leg or wings

1 ½ pounds   turnip greens

1 ½ pounds  mustard greens

1 tablespoon  granulated garlic (or 2 minced garlic cloves)

1  medium onion, chopped

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

Pinch baking soda

Pinch sugar

Pinch salt

Rinse the hocks, leg or wings. Place in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the pot and set aside. When cool enough to handle, dice the meat and discard any bones.

While the broth is simmering, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the meat broth, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged. Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar and salt.

Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning. Using a slotted spoon, remove the greens from the liquid and place in a bowl. Serve hot. If desired, spoon some of the diced meat and pot liquor over the greens.

If you don’t want to serve the meat with the greens, compost, discard or reserve and refrigerate it for future use.

Reserve and refrigerate any leftover pot liquor for future use.

Recipe courtesy of Adrian Miller.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Miso Soup with Collard Green Furikake

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

For the furikake

8   collard leaves, de-stemmed, cut into 1-inch squares

¼ cup + ½ tablespoon avocado oil

½ teaspoon  salt

1  large shallot, finely diced

2 teaspoons   fresh ginger, finely minced

½ cup  benne seeds

½ tablespoon   crushed red chili flakes

For the soup

4   medium whole sweet potatoes

¼ cup  unsalted butter

1  medium yellow onion, finely diced

¼ cup   fresh garlic, minced

¼ cup   fresh ginger, minced

2  medium carrots, peeled and chopped

To taste,   salt

2 tablespoons   coconut vinegar

2 tablespoons             yellow miso paste

13 ½ ounce can           full-fat coconut milk

4 cups                       vegetable stock

½ cup                        avocado oil

to taste                      ground white pepper

For the furikake

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Wash the collard leaves, dry thoroughly, then lightly toss with ½ tablespoon avocado oil and ½ teaspoon of salt. Lay the collard greens in a single layer on a parchment lined sheet pan. Bake until slightly brown and crispy, about 15 to 18 minutes. Remove the pan from oven and let the collard greens cool at room temperature.

Heat ¼ cup avocado oil in a small saute pan over medium high heat. Add the diced shallot and ginger and fry until they begin to brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and place on a paper towel to dry.

Toast the benne seeds in a medium size saute pan over low heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Mix the toasted benne seeds, crushed red chili flakes, fried shallots and ginger in a small bowl. Gently crumble the crispy collard leaves into the mixture. Store the collard green furikake in an airtight container until ready to use.

For the soup

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Wash and scrub the sweet potatoes. Using a fork, gently poke holes into them. Bake the sweet potatoes on a parchment lined sheet pan until the juices in the pan begin to bubble and the sweet potatoes are soft, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large stockpot over medium low heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and carrots and cook until the onions become translucent, about 6 to 10 minutes. Season with salt. Add the coconut vinegar and yellow miso. Continue to cook for 3 minutes.

Remove the skin from the sweet potatoes, mash lightly in a large bowl, then add them to the stockpot. Add the coconut milk and vegetables and stir. Continue to cook on medium high heat for 10 minutes. Gently blend the sweet potato mixture with a high speed blender or handheld immersion blender until smooth. Add salt and ground white pepper, to taste.

To serve, garnish the soup with the collard green furikake.


·         Substitute pumpkin, carrots or any other root vegetable for the sweet potatoes.

·         Finish the soup with chili oil.

·         Substitute kale, chard or any other leafy seasonal greens for collards.

·         Add umami via mushroom powder, bonito flakes or black sesame seeds.

·         Substitute cider vinegar for coconut vinegar.

Recipe courtesy of Jerome Grant.

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