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Africa gets cooking

First of two parts

Nigerian mixed beans

The many and varied cuisines of the Mother Continent make food as good a reason as any to visit Africa. If you don’t have your passport yet, start your journey at your local African restaurant.

Slowly but surely, the word is getting out about African cuisine.

New York City held its first African Restaurant Week this fall. Washington DC and San Diego have similar events of their own. With or without a special week, major US cities with sizable immigrant populations from East, West and South Africa are seeing African restaurants open up, with new dishes and new flavors waiting to be sampled.

The first time you taste a dish like thieboudienne from Senegal, your tastebuds will be haranguing you: “Ye gods, what have you been keeping from us all this time?!”

The other thing you’ll realize right away is that a lot of what we generally call “soul food” here in the United States has its roots in AfricaWest Africa, in particular.

There is no one representative African cuisine. Still, there are certain common patterns that your palate will pick up on. The wide use of starches, especially rice. The frequent use of peanuts, often called “groundnuts” in Africa. The reliance on chicken and fish.

Above all, the insistence on fresh ingredients.

My good friend, Senegalese journalist and African travel ambassador extraordinaire Ogo Sow, is fond of telling Americans that “there is no frozen food in Africa!” That may be a stretch, but not by much. The combination of freshness and the creative use of spices lead to dishes as brilliant in flavor as they are in color, flavors that are unforgettable.

Certainly, Patience Awazi has never forgotten them.

A West African expat from French-speaking Cameroon who now lives in San Jose, CA, she runs two organizations, High Society Events and Travel and the International Women’s Achievement Alliance. But African cuisine — and educating Americans about it — are among her greatest passions.

She’s written a cookbook on “Africa’s Atlantic Coast Cuisines” and has plans to produce a short video — just a taste, you might say — on the same subject.

A major element in African cooking, she says, is the uninhibited use of spices.

Patience Awazi

Patience Awazi

“We put so many different spices together, depending on the dish. Fresh ginger, at least a teaspoon or more. Fresh garlic, everything peeled and ground, all fresh. Leeks, all fresh. Nutmeg…you take the nut and grate it, so you get the full strength of the aroma. Cinnamon, same thing. So when you cook it, you don’t lose it in the sauce. You still can smell each ingredient.

“All fresh, nothing dried, except maybe peppers. Most of the time, the peppers are just like the tomatoes. Everything fresh.”

And those are just the ones familiar to Americans. “We have certain spices that the American public has to be educated on to even know what they are,” she says.

The reality is that African cooking is not as strange or unfamiliar as a lot of Americans think. If you look, you can find traces of the African kitchen in dishes from across the United States and far beyond.

“Sometimes, what you call ‘soul food’ or Creole or Cajun — putting together several different spices, the way they cook shrimp in Louisiana, for instance — is basically the way we do it,” she says. “Many countries have things close to the way we cook. Cuba, Peru, Jamaicans with their jerk spice. I’ve seen videos of people making bread in Ireland the same way we do.”

Not surprisingly, Patience finds strong similarities between dishes in Brazil and Africa.

“I’ll go a Brazilian restaurant in Los Angeles. If I didn’t know I was in LA, I’d swear that someone from Cameroon was cooking in that kitchen,” she says. “That’s how close it is.”

One of the challenges she faces in raising awareness among Americans about African cuisine is the often stunning level of ignorance about Africa in general, an ignorance that extends to cooking. She recalled giving a presentation to a Rotary Club in California, after which, a member of the audience approached her.

“Oh, you’re gonna teach us how to cook roaches?” he asked her.

And he was serious.

“I do exhibitions every Black History Month with the Peace Corps,” she says. I take good pics from magazines showing the different houses, the shopping malls, the Africa you haven’t seen. You should see the looks on people’s faces. They’re speechless, they’re shocked. They sit there with their mouths open, saying ‘What? What?’

“When I do receptions, I make sure all the food is African. I get people asking me, ‘Can I have these recipes?’ Just because they’ve tasted the food and now, they want to cook like me!”

Patience is on a mission to see African food become more familiar to Americans. One way to achieve that, she says, is for African restaurants in this country to step up in class.

Yeti Ezeanii

Yeti Ezeanii

“If you can go to France, you can find nice Chinese restaurants. If you go to Britain, you can find nice Chinese restaurants. But if we want to find something from Africa, we have to go to some hole-in-the-wall place,” she says. “We need to change that.”

Ms. Awazi has a culinary soul sister on the other side of the country in the form of Yeti Ezeanii. Hers is not your typical African expat story. Yetunde Ezeanii was actually born in Houston and emigrated to Nigeria with her family as a young girl. There, she grew up watching her mother, a dietician and professional caterer, cook.

She returned to the States to get a pharmacy degree and currently owns a pharmacy with her husband in an Atlanta suburb. But her passion for the flavors of Africa followed her back across the Atlantic.

She didn’t become a promoter and mentor of African cuisine, however, until the day she decided to share with her African culinary heritage with her American-born children. “One of your responsibilities as an African mother is to teach your children, especially your daughters how to cook,” she told me.

But when she went to area bookstores and then went online in search of African recipes, especially those from beyond her childhood Nigeria, she found virtually nothing. “So I started working on my own recipes,” she says.

From that evolved cooking demonstrations, a series of YouTube videos and eventually her own Web site and a televised cooking show, both under the name AfroFood. The show currently airs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on Afrotainment and Naija TV, both of which cater to transplanted West Africans.

So far, expanding her audience — and its taste for African cuisine — beyond that of African immigrants is proving to be a challenge.

“For the African immigrants and the people who really like the diversity of food, it’s been a welcome change for them. For African-Americans trying to learn how to cook, it’s a great fit for them,” she says. “For mainstream America, they’re so not ready for it. When they think Africa, they think hunger, disease, famine, wars.”

That might be best illustrated by a discussion she had in a class earlier this year in Florida from the US Personal Chefs Association. She brought up the subject of African wines.

“Their reaction was, ‘Africa has wine? Don’t all the wild animals trample all the grapes?’ ”

Now, like Patience Awazi, she’s out to trample Western misconceptions about Africans and their food.

“Africans are extremely particular about what they eat, how their food is prepared,” she says. “They have extreme foodie tendencies. You’re talking about a continent with over 1 billion people, with so much diversity of language and cultures and people. So there’s a wide, wide diversity when it comes to food.”

And just as cuisines around the world have been influenced by foods and spices from Africa, the opposite is also true, she says.

“African cuisine is really world food. There is no cuisine that is so influenced by world culture than African cuisine, and it changes according to where in Africa you go.”

But by far, the biggest surprise when it comes to dishes from the Mother Continent, says Chef Yeti, is that “African food is refined.”

“People have the idea that African food is peasant food, poor people’s food. These are dishes that can stand toe-to-toe with (those served in) 5-star restaurants.”

With all the African restaurants opening up these days, you can take your tastebuds on a trek around the Mother Continent without ever leaving home. But for those of you who would mike like to make cuisine a part of your African travel experience, I asked Chef Yeti her suggestions for an African foodie tour.

Look for that during Thanksgiving week, right here on IBIT.

A Taste of Africa for the Holidays

One of the most common misconceptions about African cuisine is that it demands strange, exotic ingredients or cooking methods. To test that theory for yourself — and put a little African “flava” on your Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table, check out this recipe for an African Roast Turkey from Chef Yeti Ezeanii, as featured on her AfroFood TV show.

“For 12 to 16 pound Bird

For Brine
1 Gallon Chicken Stock
1 Gallon Ice-Cold Water
1 Cup Kosher Salt
½ cup Packed Brown Sugar
2 Tsp. Fresh Garlic
2 Tsp. Ginger Powder
7 Bay Leaves
2 Tsp. African Birdseye Chillies

For Bird Stuffing
1 Red Onion (Quartered)
1 Small Apple (Quartered)
1 Lemon (Quartered)
1 Orange (Quartered)
1 Cinnamon Stick
2 Bay Leaves
2 Cups of water

For Compound Butter
1 Stick Room Temperature Unsalted Butter
2 Tbsp. of Afrofood Poultry Seasoning
1 Tsp. Garlic Powder
Peanut oil for basting

2 Days Before serving
Defrost turkey by placing in kitchen sink overnight (Max of 7 Hours). Place defrosted turkey in refrigerator until next step.

1 Day Before serving
In a large stock pot, heat up 1 gallon of chicken stock. Add salt,sugar, garlic and spices. Mix well and bring to boil. Remove from heat and cool mix to room temperature. In a large 5 gallon bucket or pot, place 2 plastic bags. Place thawed turkey into bag breast first. Pour in cooled brine mix. Add 1 gallon of ice cold water. Be sure that the turkey is fully submerged. Remove as much air as possible from the bag and tie the bag. Place bag in refrigerator or cooler (in a cool area of about 38 to 42 degrees). Leave for 8 to 14 hours.

8 Hours Before Serving
Remove bird from brine and rinse both inside cavity and outside thoroughly. Place bird on a rack and allow to air dry and sit at room temperature for at least 3 hours. In a glass bowl, combine all stuffing items along with water and cook in microwave about 4 minutes (To release the essential oils and flavors). In a glass bowl, combine butter, Poultry Seasoning and Garlic Powder. Place aside. Using a paper towel, blot dry any moisture on skin of turkey and inside the cavity. Stuff cavity and neck with stuffing.Using index finger gently loosen skin from muscle around th breast area. Place compound butter under loose skin and work butter into other areas finger cannot get into. Rub butter all around the bird. Place bird in roasting pan (Make sure pan has a rack in it) and into a preheated oven at 425 Degrees. Roast at this temperature for 1 hour (This step will help the skin brown). After 1 hour, cover breast with foil to prevent over browning and reduce temperature to 385 degrees until bird is done when internal temperature registers at 165 degrees ( About 2¾ to 3 hours combined cooking time ).

1.Be sure to baste with peanut oil every 30 minutes

2. Turn roasting pan 180 degrees every hour to ensure even cooking ( some zones of your oven are hotter than others).

3. Make sure to use a good food thermometer to check doneness .

4. Allow the bird to rest at least 5 to 10 minutes before you serve.”

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