Out Of Africa

Heat and spice marry in the continent's cuisine, which is finding fresh appreciation in America

September 20, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN REPORTER

African cuisine - the warmth of its spices, the powerful heat of its peppers and the comfort of its stews - has a history that reaches back in time to the explorers and spice traders and around the world from India to the Caribbean.

The sheer size of the continent and the diversity of its regions and its people mean that Africa is the true melting pot. And it is the spices of Africa, familiar but in unfamiliar combinations, that give this melting pot a flavor that is tantalizing America's cooks.

It might be something as simple as cinnamon, a spice Americans associate with dessert, on roast chicken. Or as complex as ras al-hanout, which translates to "top of the shop," a blend of perhaps 30 spices that is used as a rub for chicken or fish.

"It is an amazing time," says Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor of Food & Wine magazine. "African flavors are just at the beginning of their trajectory. Americans love anything that gives us flavor and heat. Africa has that."

Moroccan and Ethiopian restaurants long have been favored by adventurous eaters, and every metropolis worth its injera bread has one whose authenticity has the blessing of local immigrants.

But the launch of a line of African spices and the publication of a new cookbook by chef Marcus Samuelsson mean that lesser-known tastes of Africa are within easier reach.

"We don't know enough about Africa when it comes to food," said Samuelsson, an Ethiopian orphan raised in Sweden who made his mark in Scandinavian cuisine at Aquavit, his celebrated restaurant in New York.

He made a culinary tour of Africa in the spring of 2005 - a kind of home-cooking homecoming - that produced The Soul of A New Cuisine, a coffee-table cookbook that will be released in October.

"It is easier to cook African than it is to cook Swedish," said Samuelsson. "Once you are intrigued, you realize, `OK. I can do this.' "

He provides recipes for the spice combinations, rubs and sauces that are as familiar - and distinctly regional - in Africa as barbecue sauce is in this country.

But Baltimore's Vanns Spices has provided a shortcut with its new line of African spices.

"My recipes are there for the advanced cook," said Samuelsson. Jarred spices, he said, will encourage cooks to try his recipes.

"I just wanted people to know what is behind these blends. Spices they recognize used in different ways."

Vanns was unprepared for the sensation its new line caused at this summer's Fancy Food Show in New York.

"We were looking to find things a little new and a little different," said Ellen Trusty, vice president of Vanns. "Our research told us there was culinary excitement in Africa. We just didn't know if anyone else knew."

Trusty says cooks are using the African spices and the blends not only in African cuisine, "but they are adding it to their own cuisine, lifting it a little."

And African cuisine is showing up on the Food Network, the great culinary equalizer. One of its chefs, Tyler Florence, included a recipe for an African spice blend in his cookbook Eat This Book.

"I think we are just scratching the surface of it," said Trusty. "Africa connects countries, peoples, histories and cultures. African spices are the substance of that."

There is African oregano (tosign) and African blue basil (beso bela), familiar spices that get their surprising intensity from the heat of the African sun in Ethiopia.

But Africa is known for a very different kind of heat as well - pepper blends like peri peri (also spelled piri piri) and berbere that can hit the American palate like a blowtorch. Indeed, Samuelsson writes in his recipe for piri piri sauce that he toned it down for American taste buds.

But the key to these blends and sauces - if such a thing can be said about such a range of tastes - is the background of warm, sweet and savory spices like nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon behind the powerful heat of African peppers like bird's-eye chiles.

"It isn't just about heat that will knock your socks off," said Laurie Harrsen, spokeswoman for McCormick & Co. in Sparks, which has taken note of the rise in African spices the past two years in its Flavor Forecast.

"It is the caraway behind the heat in harissa. You don't think of caraway with heat. There is this well-rounded flavor that goes to your whole mouth."

Africa isn't only about heat. There are warmer peppers, such as piper cubeba and grains of paradise (melegueta) and penja pepper.

And often what is most interesting about African food are the sauces or condiments served as accompaniments.

There is zahtar (or za'atar), a North African blend of sumac, sesame, thyme and oregano that often is mixed with olive oil to make a spread. And harissa, a condiment made of chile pepper, coriander, cumin, caraway and garlic in an olive-oil base.

Nuts are common as well, including pistachios and peanuts, featured in blends such as dukkah (or duqqa), which can be used for dips or as a crunchy coating for chicken or fish.

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