The following piece is excerpted and lightly edited from the cookbook From Harlem to Heaven by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls, released on February 6, 2018 (Flatiron Books). We are running JJ Johnson's essay, which discusses the Afro-Asian cuisine he and Smalls pioneered at Harlem's The Cecil and Minton's, as part of our storytelling series for Black History Month. Scroll down for his recipe.
The food we created for Harlem restaurants The Cecil and Minton’s, and the recipes in this book, are inspired by an Afro-Asian-American flavor profile: a foodway that reflects the depth and breadth of the African diaspora. It’s a new concept, and if you’re not into culinary history, it can be a bit of a head-scratcher. I think the simplest way to put it is that the recipes in this book are a modern take on heritage food.
If you grew up in or spent significant time in the West Indies or in China or in Korea, if you’re from Ghana or ever lived in Senegal or South Africa or on the coast of Costa Rica, then this food will remind you of food you ate in those places. I love it when we have guests at the restaurant say, “What did you put in this feijoada? It tastes just like my grandmother’s. Soooo good, but just a little different.” The truth is that people aren’t used to getting that super-impact flavor from food in a fine dining setting. They’re used to getting strong flavors at home or in that little hole-in-the-wall gem. I love the way the dishes in this cookbook bridge that gap between restaurants and heritage food.
At the Culinary Institute of America, I learned the foundations: Italian cooking, French cooking, and, partly because of the popularity of Spanish chefs like Ferran Adrià, a little bit about cooking from Spain. I think we did one week of Chinese cooking. I didn’t learn about the rich Lowcountry cooking tradition that Alexander Smalls brought to life at Cafe Beulah. I didn’t learn about the food of New Orleans or all that a great chef like Leah Chase has contributed to the American culinary tradition. Leah’s restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, was a gathering place for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and is still regarded today as the standard-bearer for Creole cuisine in that city.
I remember being in the second or third grade and telling my mother, “I want to be a chef.” She would say, “No, you should be a politician. You should be a doctor. You should be a lawyer.” You know moms. They want the best for you. But maybe if she’d known about someone like Leah Chase, she might have thought a little bit differently about the place I could occupy in the food world.
Culinary school did not do much to help me feel like I could use my history to create great food. I used to call culinary school the food factory. We all dressed the same; we talked the same; we did everything the same. We cooked celery and onions the same. We roasted chicken in the exact same way. There was no thinking outside the box. We were learning the foundations. And I get it, that’s important: You have to have a foundation. But I didn’t see myself in the food. I didn’t know if I ever would.
We talk a lot in the restaurant world about the Indian spice traders and their legacy. But everybody misses that the spice traders came through West Africa and then crisscrossed back through the West Indies—that’s why it’s called the West Indies! When I started to read about all of this, I thought, “Hold on, I’m connected to this personally.” My grandfather is from Barbados. I used to go to the island as a kid. Plantain, roti, curry: These are the foods that I used to eat and now I’m reading about them, as research, for my job, in the encyclopedia. Not only could I draw a line from Barbados to West Africa to India through the spice trade, I could place myself and my family, my own personal history, on that continuum. That was exciting—and inspiring.
When Alexander approached me about cooking with him in Harlem, I was excited about the opportunity to draw on American history to change the landscape of American cuisine. That’s why I’m so excited about this cookbook. If you’re at all like me or my friends, you don’t need another cookbook full of recipes for things like risotto and peas. You want to try familiar ingredients cooked in a different way. You want to try new flavors, new spices, new grains, and new cuts of meat. The recipes in this book embrace all the senses. This comes from our African roots. In West Africa, in particular, people like to smell their food before it comes to the table. If I could have made every page in this book scratch and sniff, I would have!
In cooking school, we were taught the five French “mother sauces” as defined by the twentieth-century master of French cooking, Auguste Escoffier: béchamel, velouté, sauce espagnole (a simple brown sauce), sauce tomate, and hollandaise. The foundational sauce to the Afro-Asian flavor profile is what we call the Mother Africa sauce: West African peanut sauce. I’d like to urge you to stop reading this article and whip up a batch of it right now.
You can pour it over a bowl of rice. You can dice up a sweet potato and mix it in as a stew. It tastes delicious with the meat of the chicken thigh crumbled into the mix. This sauce will keep for five days in the fridge and you can eat it every day, in a different way. It’s an easy back-pocket sauce that you can’t mess up. It’s both comfort food and comforting to cook. Give it a try.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1/2 white onion, diced
- 1/2 cup large-diced carrots (1 medium carrot)
- 1 plum tomato, chopped
- 1/4 cup finely diced celery (1 rib)
- 1 clove garlic, minced (1 teaspoon)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (1⁄4 bunch)
- 1 bird’s-eye chile, seeded and minced (1 teaspoon)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup unsweetened, creamy peanut butter
- 4 cups vegetable stock