Following The Flavors From Africa To America

Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens. i i

Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens. Adele Hampton/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adele Hampton/NPR
Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens.

Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens.

Adele Hampton/NPR
The greens are accompanied by a simple hot sauce of lemon and lime juice with chopped cilantro, garlic and chilies. i i

The greens are accompanied by a simple hot sauce of lemon and lime juice with chopped cilantro, garlic and chilies. Adele Hampton/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Adele Hampton/NPR
The greens are accompanied by a simple hot sauce of lemon and lime juice with chopped cilantro, garlic and chilies.

The greens are accompanied by a simple hot sauce of lemon and lime juice with chopped cilantro, garlic and chilies.

Adele Hampton/NPR

When food writer Jessica Harris first visited Senegal, she scoured the markets and cafes for traditional foods like the savory stew called chicken yassa. She found that the flavors were not all that different from what she knew at home.

"You taste all of these things, this sort of onion-lemon thing, and then you taste a tomato-chili thing, and they were all things that were not quite what I knew, but very familiar," she says.

In fact, Harris found, many of the classic foods and flavors of African-American cooking come from the African continent. She traces that journey in her new book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.

Harris tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that foods like okra, black-eyed peas and watermelon originally come from Africa. "A lot of the foods that we connect with African-Americans, whether totemically, whether positively or negatively, are indeed and in fact foods from the continent."

Our word for okra, in fact, probably comes from the Igbo people of Nigeria. And if you use okra to make gumbo, the word "gumbo" comes to us most likely from the Bantu language.

But here's a startling bit of trivia: Collard greens are not actually African. "They're a northern European green," says Harris, and the word "collard" is a corruption of the German "kohlwort," meaning any non-heading cabbage. So how did collards become such a feature of African-American cooking? "I think it's one of those substitution things," Harris says. "If you can't be with the green you love, love the green you're with."

Brazilian-Style Collard Greens

Serves 4 to 6

For The Greens

2 pounds fresh young collard greens

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 cloves garlic, minced or to taste

Wash the collards thoroughly and bunch them together. Take each bunch, roll it tightly and cut it crosswise into thin strips. [This is a method that the French call en chiffonade.] Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook the garlic, stirring it until it's only slightly browned. Add the collard strips and cook, stirring constantly for five minutes so that the greens are soft, but retain their bright-green color. Add a tablespoon of water, cover, lower the heat and continue to cook for two minutes; then serve hot with the hot sauce of your choice.

For The Hot Sauce

1 lemon

1 lime

1/2 habanero pepper

3 tablespoons cilantro

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons minced onion

The lemons and limes should be juicy. Get 1/4 cup of mixed juices or thereabouts and put in a small bowl. Chop cilantro, onion and garlic and combine with the juice. Chop the habanero (seeds removed) and add to taste. Stir together and drizzle over the greens.

Books Featured In This Story

High on the Hog

A Culinary Journey from Africa to America

by Jessica B. Harris

Hardcover, 291 pages | purchase

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