Following The Flavors From Africa To America Many of the foods and flavors we think of as classically African-American — like watermelon, black-eyed peas and okra — actually come from Africa. Cookbook author Jessica Harris traces that journey in her new book.
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Following The Flavors From Africa To America

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Following The Flavors From Africa To America

Following The Flavors From Africa To America

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

When the American food writer Jessica Harris first tasted chicken yassa in the markets of Senegal, she found that the flavors of Africa were not that different from the flavors of home.

Mr. JESSICA HARRIS (Author, "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America"): 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 sort of not quite what I knew but very familiar.

RAZ: Harris has spent years tracing those flavors from Africa all the way across the Atlantic, where they became the building blocks of American cooking, cooking traditions that were imported to the new world primarily by enslaved Africans.

Jessica Harris' new book is called "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." And I asked her to meet me in the kitchen, where we made Brazilian style collard greens, a new twist on a classic African-American dish. And the first thing she told me came as a surprise.

Ms. HARRIS: Collard greens are actually not African. They're not an African ingredient at all. They're a northern European green. Collard is a corruption of colewort. Colewort is any non-heading cabbage. The Africanism, if you will, in them is the Southern traditional way of cooking them, which we don't have time for, unfortunately: long, low and slow.

I got a letter from somebody who said he used to cook them until they wink back at you. The Africanism is the drinking the pot likker, spelled L-I-K-K-E-R, please, which is the liquid in the pot.

RAZ: So how did collard greens become such an important part of African-American cooking?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, it's one of those substitution things. You know, sort of, if you can't be with the green you love, love the green you're with, so that I think that that's what happened, in fact. You know...

RAZ: So originally, people in Africa would cook it in the same way but using different greens.

Ms. HARRIS: Absolutely. In different parts of the African continent, different types of greens. Some of them are forms of spinach. Some of them are vegetable tops. But the idea of a soupy stew made from a leafy green that's cooked, possibly with the addition of okra, possibly with the addition of hot chili, is something you find pretty much throughout the African diaspora.

RAZ: Now, we're making a vegetarian version of this, and I should mention that the recipe will be on our website, because this is sort of a hybrid conversation. We're going to be talking about making something, but we're also talking about your book, which is about sort of the food ways, as you describe, the different kinds of foods we eat and where so many of them came from, which, of course, can be traced back to West Africa.

Ms. HARRIS: Precisely. And in fact, this is what we might want to call a hybrid dish, or it might be representative of Chapter 10 in the book, which really talks about how, in the 21st century, people of African descent are changing.

You know, we are not all up from the South, up from slavery anymore. We are the world. We eat the world. And these collard greens would be one of the things that are representative of that world.

RAZ: So this pile is washed, collard greens.

Ms. HARRIS: We've got this enormous pile of washed collard greens. Okay, here's the fun part.

RAZ: All right.

Ms. HARRIS: You're going to take them, and you're not going to cut them...

RAZ: All right.

Ms. HARRIS: ...pull them into bite-size pieces. You're going to try to keep the green as whole as possible.

RAZ: All right.

Ms. HARRIS: And you are going to cut them what the French would call on chiffonade.

RAZ: A chiffonade.

Ms. HARRIS: So you're going to...

RAZ: Roll them up.

Ms. HARRIS: ...roll them and then crosscut.

RAZ: About half an inch.

Ms. HARRIS: Just sort of roll and cut. Keep on rolling and cutting until you've done all the greens.

RAZ: The foods that sort of became associated with African-American cooking have really - I mean, in the minds of people around the world, those foods are synonymous with American cooking: macaroni and cheese, fried chicken. I mean, that's - those are American foods.

Ms. HARRIS: Well, the macaroni and cheese, we're really not sure how that got there. You know, I mean, clearly - I mean, I think it's even in the Jefferson family cookbooks. It goes back that far. But one of the things that I find fascinating is that for many people, 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. So if you think about all of those images of watermelons.

RAZ: They come from Africa?

Ms. HARRIS: They do indeed.

RAZ: Black-eyed peas?

Ms. HARRIS: Black-eyed peas, indeed.

RAZ: Okra.

Ms. HARRIS: Indeed, okra, as well.

RAZ: These all came to the new world from the African continent.

Ms. HARRIS: Exactly.

RAZ: And one of the fascinating things that I saw in the book was that, gumbo, which is of course...

Ms. HARRIS: That would New Orleans in a pot.

RAZ: Right.

Ms. HARRIS: Or Southern Louisiana in a pot.

RAZ: The word actually - I mean, many people think it comes from the French word for okra, but it goes even further back, to the Bantu word.

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah. The French word for okra, which comes from one of the words in the Bantu languages, ochin(ph) gumbo and Kim(ph) gumbo.

RAZ: Which means okra...

Ms. HARRIS: Which mean okra.

RAZ: the Bantu language.

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah, exactly.

RAZ: So the first thing you're going to do?

Ms. HARRIS: Olive oil.

RAZ: A little olive oil in the pan. And we're using a wok here, which I guess...

Ms. HARRIS: I just like wok because it lets you get as many of the greens as you can into it.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HARRIS: I mean, you can do it in a skillet, but less oil, more greens in a wok.

Now, I would use twice this much garlic.

RAZ: Got you.

Ms. HARRIS: Okay.

RAZ: All right.

Ms. HARRIS: No matter what the recipe says, all my recipes are really, unless it's a baking recipe, or it's an archival one...

RAZ: You just got to...

Ms. HARRIS: what do you like? You like it? Put more right in. You don't like it? It'll be okay.

RAZ: I love garlic. So that's going to cook over the fire for a little bit.

Ms. HARRIS: Not a little bit, just about maybe two or three minutes.

RAZ: Two or three minutes, just want to soften it.

Ms. HARRIS: We're done. You just want it to sort of soften up a little bit more, and the water will steam that a little bit.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HARRIS: Now, we're going to go do the hot sauce.

RAZ: Oh, okay. So you have this chopped cilantro and chilies and garlic, which looks beautiful, has little flecks of red and white. All right. So this is all ready. These have been cooking in the garlic, and...

Ms. HARRIS: Give it more (unintelligible). And actually, we almost burned them, but that gives me something else that I like. I like a little bit of the sort of crunchy bits.

RAZ: Yeah. So we have the sauce on the side.

Ms. HARRIS: We got the sauce.

RAZ: And do you toss it in, or do you just...

Ms. HARRIS: No, no, no. No. To taste...

RAZ: Got you.

Ms. HARRIS: Some people are going to want it. Some people aren't going to want it at all. Some people are going to want regular hot sauce.

RAZ: All right, fine. This is great.

Ms. HARRIS: Not even any salt.

RAZ: It's great. No salt.

Ms. HARRIS: There you go.

RAZ: It's such a nice kind of fresh...

Ms. HARRIS: It's light. It's not - you know, you've got enough to know you've had a collard green...

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HARRIS: ...but it's not - and now I have to have a nap, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Yeah. It's a - it could be a great side dish.

Ms. HARRIS: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: That's Jessica Harris. Her new book is called "High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America." You can find her recipe for Brazilian collard greens at our website,

Jessica Harris, thank you so much.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you so much. It's been delightful.

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