Two autumns ago, when Danny was still working full-time as a chef, and we were still living in Seattle, I sat in a Starbucks in Madison Park, excited.
Marcus Samuelsson would be there soon.
His glorious cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine, had come out the year before, and we had been dog-earing pages and ogling photographs all that time. The paperback had been brought out by Starbucks, who sponsored his tour across the States. That’s why I was sitting in a coffee shop, waiting to hear one of the best chefs in America speak about Africa.
First of all, I have to tell you that Marcus Samuelsson is beautiful. I don’t mean in a Hollywood kind of way. He has absorbing eyes and a grace that’s rare to see. There’s something special about this man, something mesmerizing.
When the time came for questions, I raised my hand. I knew that Samuelsson had written this book with the hopes of encouraging chefs and home cooks to turn toward the cuisines of the African continent more often, to create new dishes with the flavors of Morocco and Ethiopia, Senegal and South Africa. So I asked him, “Is there any one dish from Africa that you wish people in the States ate too?”
Immediately, he said, “It’s not a dish. It’s ubuntu. I wish people here ate with ubuntu.”
In his book, Samuelsson wrote, “Whenever I pick up the newspaper and read a story about Africa, it’s almost always negative: war, famine, AIDS, corruption. And it’s true that a lot of bad things happen in Africa. But this is not the only Africa I know. I know an Africa that is a land of great beauty, and of beautiful people. It’s a land of ubuntu “I am what I am because of who we all are” the idea is that there is a universal bond of sharing that connects all people, and calls for humanity toward others. This word…defines a traditional African spirit that I saw connecting and unifying people throughout the continent….In Africa you are surrounded by people everywhere you go, and the spirit of community is embracing, even in the most impoverished areas. “
At that Starbucks, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Samuelsson talked about ubuntu in food. How it is an honor and responsibility across Africa to feed your friends and neighbors, to welcome everyone to the table. Even if you have very little money, you spend what you have to make sure that everyone eats.
I have never forgotten that comment.
And it is with that ubuntu spirit that Samuelsson wrote The Soul of a New Cuisine. Here, there is such a generosity of spirit, a sharing of culture, and a willingness to cross beyond the borders of nations to create the best food possible. What other cookbook has a foreward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Samuelsson didn’t seem to write this to become famous. He wanted to help us all to cook with more flavors and start to savor a continent that is all too easy to ignore.
This is, perhaps, why it is one of the best cookbooks that we own.
We’ve been cooking out of it all week.
Unlike last week, when we cooked out of a book entirely new to us, we chose to go back to one we had loved before. Danny once did an entire month’s menu based on the cuisine of Africa after reading this book. So I already knew that the black-eyes peas dish is unexpectedly creamy, the chili-spiced lamb sandwiches are addictive, and the chocolate pancakes with bananas flambe are fabulous. (They’re also easy to convert to gluten-free, since they only call for 5 tablespoons of flour.)
But no matter how many recipes we had tried before, we certainly had not cooked all of them. How many dishes do you make out of a cookbook, generally? Even the ones you love? From what I understand from publishers and culinary conferences, the average cookbook is only opened 5 times. And the owners of that book generally make only 1 recipe.
That statistic is a little depressing to think about when you are writing a cookbook, as we are, and taking meticulous care with each recipe.
So this week, we doubled back and started making more recipes from The Soul of a New Cuisine. And in doing so, we brought more flavors into our kitchen, once again.
In the photograph above, in the top left-hand corner, is duqqa (also spelled dukka), a spice mix originally from the Middle East, and now popular all over North Africa, especially in Egypt. The recipe for it in Samuelsson’s book calls for hulled pumpkin seeds, peanuts, peppercorns, and thyme, among other ingredients. On the top right is berbere, the densely layered spice mix used in nearly every Ethiopian dish, with fennugreek and chiles, paprika and ginger. On the lower right is a spiced butter, also from Ethiopian cuisine, which is a clarified butter infused with spices, including turmeric, which is why it’s so yellow. And on the left are cardamom pods, which have such a heavenly scent I would make everything with them some days, if I could.
The spice mixes are especially important in cooking from this book, because cooks in Africa don’t rely on salt and pepper, the way we do here, or olive oil or lard. Instead, it is the spice mixes that build layers of flavor.
Let me tell you that spice butter alone is worth making from this book. I clarified butter late at night, tired from writing, at that nearly-midnight state of mind. But the smells woke me up. And the chicken thighs coated in berbere and roasted with spiced butter were better than almost any chicken I have eaten in months. Because the berbere and spiced butter were in our kitchen, I had dinner in 15 minutes.
I love that Samuelsson offers traditional recipes in this cookbook, but he also makes up new ones, fusing the flavors and techniques with west and southern Africa, or a little bit of Asian. Reflecting the way of eating in Africa, he also encourages readers to have good ingredients and then measure by instinct, in pinches and handfuls, rather than teaspoons and cups. That made me enjoy these meals even more than I would have if I had cooked with a furrowed brow and highlighter pen.
It’s clear that Samuelsson just wants his readers to cook good food.
And cook good food this week we did. We made the lentil stew with brussels sprouts instead of fava beans, and we ate it happily for days. The creamed swiss chard with turmeric, cabbage, and cream is my new favorite way to eat that vegetable. I want to make the pumpkin mash for Thanksgiving.
My only problem was with the injera recipe, which relies on wheat flour instead of only teff. I know that Samuelsson was trying to make injera accessible for typical Americans, but I want to learn the traditional method!
Still, I stopped complaining when I ate the salmon skewers with tamarind sauce. Here is the salmon, sitting in oil before being coated in a thick sauce of tamarind paste, curry powder, red wine vinegar, and wine. The recipe calls for these to be grilled, but we just used the last of our propane tank last week. So Danny seared them, then finished them in the oven. The tangy taste of the tamarind, the slight sweetness, the heft of a complex sauce reduced well? They made the salmon memorable, something different. We’ve been eating salmon for months, and we both wanted more of this.
So did Little Bean.
That’s one of the main reasons we’d like to recommend The Soul of a New Cuisine to you. There are many, many incredible cookbooks in the world. They all deserve food-stained pages. But this is the only cookbook we know that honors the diverse cuisines of the continent we seem to forget. We want our daughter to grow up with many flavors in her memory. Instead of nagging her to clean her plate because people are starving in Africa, we want to offer her plantain-crusted yellowtail, doro wett, and bobotie sometimes.
We hope that she grows up with ubuntu in her heart.
We think you would enjoy this cookbook too, which is why we are giving away a copy of it this week. Leave a comment telling us about your favorite foods from African cuisine, or why you want to learn it, or how you express ubuntu through food in your community. We would like to hear.
Apple-Squash Fritters, adapted from Soul of a New Cuisine
Yesterday, we spent the afternoon with our good friends, Matt and Danika. We would hang out with them any day, for any reason, but this time we had work. There was baking and making of food to be done. We made the bread recipe for our book one more time (score! they loved it) and some doughnuts to try for a friend (they didn’t work gluten-free, yet, but they will, soon) and these fritters to fry up in peanut oil.
When I saw the recipe for these fritters, inspired by South Africa’s Cape Malay cuisine, I knew this had to be one of the recipes for this week. Apples and squash are both in season now. And with the original recipe calling for only 1/3 of a cup of flour, we figured it would be pretty easy to adapt gluten-free.
We laughed as the kids played at the toy kitchen or climbed on the couch, chattering away, then dancing. (Little Bean LOVES their little guy. We call him her boyfriend.) The roasted apples and squash smelled good enough to eat in that state, but we waited. Danny mashed them with a fork, and I thought of harvest feasts. He shaped them into soft balls and heated up the peanut oil. We all hovered at the stove in anticipation. Finally, they were ready.
Matt and I are both dorky enough that we stood over the wooden table in the corner, taking photographs, instead of eating them right away. Little Bean, as you can see, was smarter. She started to grab one, so we moved back into the kitchen to try one.
“Oh my god,” we all moaned. We went back to silent chewing. These have a slightly crisp crust and a soft squash and apple ooze inside. The garam masala gives them just enough savory taste that you could serve these alongside game or pork. All I know is that I agree with Matt: “I could eat so many of these that I’d be physically sick, and I’d still want more.”
These are going to be on our Thanksgiving table, to be sure.
2 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 2-inch cubes (we used Jonagolds)
2 pounds Kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup sorghum flour
1/4 cup sweet rice flour plus 2 tablespoons sweet rice flour
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
2 cups peanut oil
Preheating. Preheat the oven to 350°.
Roasting the apples, squash, and garlic. Put the apple and squash pieces, plus the garlic cloves, on a baking sheet. Brush them with the olive oil. Roast in the oven until the garlic has softened, about 15 minutes. Take out the garlic and put the baking sheet back in the oven. Roast the apple and squash until they are soft, about 20 more minutes.
Making cinnamon sugar. Mix the cinnamon and sugar together.
Mashing the squash mixture. Put the roasted apples, squash, and garlic in a large bowl. Mash them all together with a fork or potato masher. Add the garam masala, salt, cornstarch, the sorghum flour, 1/4 cup of the sweet rice flour, and xanthan gum. Stir until combined. Shape the dough, which will be soft, into 2-inch balls. Roll the balls in the remaining sweet rice flour.
Frying the fritters. Heat the peanut oil in a deep pot (make sure no little ones are nearby) until it reaches 350° on a candy thermometer. Lower the squash balls into the oil, gently, and let them fry, turning them once in a while, until they are golden brown, about 4 minutes. Take the fritters out of the oil with a slotted spoon, pausing to let the oil drip back into the pot, and put them on paper towels.
Sprinkle the fritters with the cinnamon sugar and eat as soon as they are cool enough to touch.
Feeds 4 hungry adults, plus a couple of little ones.