The Taste of Tomorrow

Prince Charles meets modern African food.

It’s highly satisfying to be proved right, especially in the face of nattering nabobs of negativism who ridicule you for being nuts and suggest that you are irresponsible, or possibly stoned.  I’m not saying that I am, for sure, right, but there’s some encouraging evidence in support of my African Inevitability Thesis.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this piece for the Wall Street Journal, a radically summarized version of my argument in the book that Americans will be eating more foods and flavors from sub-Saharan Africa in the future.  I wrote:

Get ready for a Nigerian P.F. Chang’s and Lean Cuisine Lamb Yassa. Prepare to find the foods of sub-Saharan Africa in your strip malls and Safeways. It’s inevitable.

A common reaction to my African Food Inevitability Thesis has been a furrowed brow, a scoff, or a “no effing way.”  To date, my retort to the doubters has been “WAIT,” and then I remind them of the time-stamp on my prognostication —2035 —and then I start trying to explain the dynamics behind my prediction.

Over the past weeks, however, I have found some encouraging evidence that suggests I might be right sooner.

Visitors to my home over the past month have tasted such evidence — grilled chicken marinated in a lemon piri piri sauce, scrambled eggs turbo-charged with a curried egusi sauce, pasta topped with African chili coconut relish.  I’ve discovered the joys of french fries dipped in African ketchup. For our July 4th barbecue,  we’ll start with a mesclun salad mix, spiced with sea salt, olive oil, and a pepper mix that’s flavored with alligator pepper, cubeb, and Ethiopian pepper. And for our main course, we’ll have baby back ribs bathed in a smoky baobab barbecue sauce.

Yes, that’s baobab barbecue sauce— baobab, the signature tree of sub-Saharan Africa.

I have not gone on some rare binge of culinary productivity; all of these sauces are ready-made, available in a jar, from a store.

Unfortunately, that store was not Dominick’s or a Whole Foods here in the Chicago area.  And none of the more adventurous foodie stores — like Williams-Sonoma, or even Zingerman’s or Corti Brothers — offer it.  In fact, you can’t get the sublime African chickpea melon seed anywhere in the United States. To get my fix, I had to wait a week for a package to arrive from London.

It’s not at all surprising that a baobab-enhanced jam or  curry with egusi is coming from a London-based food maker.  The home of Big Ben and Wimbledon is home to the largest African expat community in the world —there’s a “Little Lagos,” a huge Ghanaian community, tens of thousands of Londoners call Jo’burg and Cape Town home.  There’s regional Nigerian food in London, rankings of South African restaurants.    And it makes perfect sense that London — one of the foodie cities of the moment, home of Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, and tons of culinary adventurers — would be one of the birthplaces of “African fusion” cuisine.

But James “Bim” Adedeji is an unlikely candidate for the role of Rick Bayless or Wolfgang Puck of sub-Saharan African food.

He’s not a restauranteur, culinary school grad, he never worked in a kitchen or food service of any kind. The idea for his Bim’s Kitchen —quite possibly the first African fusion specialist in the world— came while he was working at the United Kingdom’s Department of Health.

Not only did I have the pleasure of trying some of Bim’s most popular sauces – which are now available at more than 40 stores and markets throughout the UK— I also had a chance to learn about how a civil servant, who spent his teenage years in Nigeria, became committed to introducing Brits to the flavors of sub-Saharan Africa.  James (“Bim” is his Nigerian name) has an approach that mark him as unusual in the UK’s African burgeoning food scene — Bim’s Kitchen is not about authenticity.  As James points out, it’s not about “replicating Grandma’s long lost recipes.” James and his wife, Nicola, create versions of familiar favorites — barbecue sauces, curry sauces, ketchup —drawing from a palette of African flavors.

Next week, in the T of T’s Second Podcast Ever, we will talk with one of the pioneers of  modern African-inspired cuisine — we’ll hear Bim’s story, talk about the African food scene in London, learn about the candidates for African Gateway Dish (the dish that could be the Pad Thai of  African cuisine), get a sense of what’s happening in restaurants in sub-Saharan Africa. And…. we’ll hear about why James “Bim” Adedeji agrees enthusiastically with The African Food Inevitability Thesis.

Meantime, to get ready for the talk, here are five of Bim’s core spices for sub-Saharan Cuisine, as featured in a British food magazine.

Alligator Pepper.   Sometimes known as mbongo spice, and a close relative of grains of paradise, it’s a key ingredient of West African food. The Igbo Spices site describes alligator pepper “as having a pungent, spicy taste with hazelnut, butter and citrus.”

Cubeb. A close relative of black pepper, sometimes called “tailed pepper,” it’s commonly grown in marshy areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Taste: slightly hot, fruity, with hints of cinnamon.  (Part of the reason, we’re not eating more cubeb — the Portuguese. In 1600s, the Portuguese prohibited its sale because they were promoting black pepper.)

Birds Eye Chili. You can also find this spicy chili pepper in Southeast Asian and South Indian cuisine It’s the defining ingredient in piri piri aka pilli pilli aka peri peri (which we’ll learn about in our talk with Bim)

Hibiscus Flower. Hibiscus, often used in the UK and US in team, is an important ingredient in African cuisines.   In Senegal and other West African cuisines, flowers from a type of hibiscus plant are used to make a pleasant tart-sweet beverage (sometimes called bissap, roselle, or red sorrel). But West Africans don’t only use it for drinking — sometimes the leaves are not uses, it’s just extracted for color.

More coming.

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