If your idea of African-inspired American food ends with fried chicken and braised okra, and maybe a spoonful of gumbo on the side, you need to read “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights and Every Day” (Flatiron Books).
The new book by James Beard-nominated chef JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls, the co-owner of the Cecil where Johnson ran the kitchen from 2013 to 2017, offers an array of recipes that originated in West Africa — and traveled around the world.
“We’re sharing the culture of the African diaspora and understanding how this food made its way across the oceans,” says Johnson, 33, who remains friends with Smalls despite leaving the Cecil.
Over the centuries, African migrants brought their culinary traditions to India, China, Brazil, the Caribbean and points between. sub-Saharan and Asian flavors mingled in unexpected ways.
In Johnson’s Afro-Asian-American gumbo — a “story of migration and change,” he writes — the roux is made with umami-rich dried shrimp, which is common in Senegal but not in the American South.
Johnson has a more contemporary, health-aware focus than many chefs who stick with the often fatty, “soul” food playbook. His family was originally from the south but moved to Harlem in the late 1940s. They brought with them “the southern way of cooking — braised, fried, the techniques that we all loved.
“But today, I’m tweaking some of those [southern] things — for example, using collard greens, not braised, but as a salad,” he says.
The family made its way to the Poconos, where, in the 1980s, Johnson grew up on his mom’s “suburban cuisine,” like lasagna, but was also exposed to the Caribbean food favored by his Puerto Rican-born grandmother who lived around the corner.
He came to love world travel. “I’ve been to Israel, Singapore, Ghana and I’m able to take some of that influence and direct it into my food,” he says. The styles of those lands helped him devise dishes featured in the book, such as citrus jerk bass, which includes the rare grain fonio.
“It’s a West African super protein,” Johnson says. “It’s in the millet family with a nutty flavor, very absorbent of other flavors which cling to it.”
Fonio has a texture in-between chewy quinoa and fluffier couscous and is something of a “superfood.” It’s protein-rich, gluten-free, loaded with vitamin B and amino acids.
Johnson recently served for three months as chef-in-residence at Chefs Club, the Manhattan eatery with a rotating lineup of chefs. Now he’s raising money to open his own place.
Wisely, not a fancy one — “maybe just a counter and all about rice,” he says. “Rice is what we all grew up on.” A chapter in the book is devoted to “The Kingdom of Rice” from Ghana to Charleston, SC, to Vietnam.
Johnson’s next place might or might not be in Harlem, his home neighborhood. He notes that old-timers and those newly arrived have different tastes — a split between habitués of the Cecil and Marcus Samuelsson’s buzzy Red Rooster, and longtime locals who prefer old favorites such as Melba’s and “little Dominican places on West 124th Street.”
But, he says, “I want to connect the old and the new Harlem.” And what better way than through food that connects every point on the globe?
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