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Food for Thought

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Last winter turned out to be a milestone of sorts. I had spent the past four years researching, reflecting and writing about the food of black people and of the Middle East. The watershed occurred in the backdrop of a winter in Chicago cooking and eating foods of Africa and the black Diaspora almost daily, tasting and savoring connections in a very tangible way. I wondered:

What links the food of Brazil and Mississippi to Africa?

Is there a link between the versions of mondongothat play such an important role in the food of Afro-Puerto Ricans, Colombians and others and the chitlins my grandmother tried to make me eat as a kid?

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And finally: Did Jamaica's rice and peas, Brazil's feijoada, the gandules con coco of the Dominican Republic, or the bean stews, ham hocks and sausage of regions throughout the southern United States have common ancestry?

Because the Diaspora is joined by common experiences of conquest, enslavement and immigration, it makes sense that there would be similarities among the food of the groups within it, but it is something that most of us rarely reflect upon.

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So this past winter, I unwittingly began a culinary tour of the African Diaspora. My first stop: the kitchen of a Brazilian caterer where I worked on weekends helping to prepare dishes like feijoada completa, moquecaand pirão, a thick porridge of manioc flour and juices from the moqueca. The food of the Salvador da Bahia, in Northern Brazil is what I prepared using recipes adapted by the owner, a woman who hailed from São Paulo in the Southern part of the country.

As I cooked and tasted, I was struck by how familiar all of it seemed to me, how similar this food was to what I'd grown up eating. The beans: I found myself separating ham hocks, sausages and chunks of pork shoulder from a big pot of feijoada. The heady mingling of garlic, pork and beans got me thinking about the origins of this dish, which was so similar to the big pots of beans—most often kidney or navy—stewed with onions and neck bones and/or ham hocks that had kept me warm and satisfied during the cold winters of my own childhood.

At other times, I spent my mornings shredding fine ribbons of collard greens and onions or alternatively sautéing them with plenty of garlic. Each weekend as I chopped garlic and sautéed onions or washed greens and juiced limes, preparing food became a time of reflection, even fantasy, whisking me away from Chicago's frigid landscape. Like food in the United States and throughout the Americas, Brazilian cuisine is a mix of three cultural components: African, Native American and European. The ingredients are often different and influences vary, but the outcome reinforces the idea that these cuisines are Diaspora kissing cousins.

Around the same time, I began working on an assignment for Time Out Chicago, a weekly entertainment and restaurant for the city. I was to create a food map of Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. This required me to indulge in all of the Puerto Rican dishes I had grown to love: mofongo, arroz con gandules, etc. I explored restaurants and neighborhood supermarkets; I reflected upon my new discoveries and my memories at a good friend's table. Maria filled the bellies of family and friends alike with her stellar guineos en escabeche (green bananas with onions and chicken livers), her lechon (roasted pork), and her tender savory carne guisada (Puerto Rican beef stew) and even taught me the finer points of choosing the best plantains for tostones or platanos maduros. It was however, on a particularly snowy day last winter, while sitting before plates of rabo encendido (spicy oxtail stew) and rich, buttery mangú (mashed plantains with butter and onions) at a Dominican spot in Chicago, that it all clicked.

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This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

Plantains

Here I was eating offal—in African cooking, nothing is wasted, and every part of an animal is used from nose to tail. And hadn't the feijoada been filled with it in the form of those ham hocks? What about the guineos? Chicken livers? Hadn't I suffered through plates of fried ones as a child doused with hot sauce? Hadn't my own great-grandmother tried to bribe me with $20 to try chitlins when I was 8 years old? (Something, I still haven't done, by the way.)

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And what about those peppers? On trips through Latin grocery stores, I found bottles of whole ají (or Tabasco) peppers pickled in vinegar, the ones that are pureed, bottled and beloved by fried chicken connoisseurs everywhere. At the restaurant, I built up a tolerance for fiery malagueta peppers, used in sauces and as a condiment in the Brazilian food of Bahia and also throughout West Africa. Let's not forget the fruity yet mouth-scorching spice of scotch bonnets that claim homes in the seafood stews of the Caribbean and in the soups and stews of West Africa.

This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.
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At the restaurant, I built up a tolerance for fiery malagueta peppers, used in sauces and as a condiment in the Brazilian food of Bahia and also throughout West Africa. Let's not forget the fruity yet mouth-scorching spice of scotch bonnets that claim homes in the seafood stews of the Caribbean and in the soups and stews of West Africa.

Lovers of Jamaican food will note the same elements. Dishes like brown stew (an African-influenced take on a traditional English dish), run down, or ackee and saltfish all reflect the tradition of spicy stews of meats, vegetables or fish that characterize West-African cooking in particular. In the Caribbean, African culture influences all aspects of life, with food being particularly reflective of the region's African roots. Plantains, okra, cassava, bananas and coconut are all very common ingredients.Stewing and grilling are common cooking methods and almost every meal is accompanied with rice and stewed beans.

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This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

In the United States, many of these same elements are present in our fried foods, our savory stews of chicken and dumplings or beans and neck bones or ham hocks.

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While I had always been aware of the cultural connections among the people of the African Diaspora, it became more real for me as I began to pay closer attention to the food. The strong flavors of garlic, chilies and onions, the importance of offal, and even the similar cooking methods like stewing and frying, were all elements present in the food that I was discovering with new eyes and taste buds. These flavors and ingredients and flavors were imbued now with renewed meaning for me and have reshaped the way I consider my culinary landscape. What luck that I'd been able to embark upon a journey of culinary discovery that has since blossomed into a passion and broadened my palate and worldview, without ever leaving home.

Rachel Finn is a Chicago-based food writer.

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