Slave trade: How African foods influenced modern American cuisine

On the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Chef Pierre Thiam prepared a menu composed of a wide variety of dishes to illustrate how much America culinary art borrows from Africa. Thiam, who is also an author and cultural ambassador, spoke to Africa Renewal’s Jocelyne Sambira.

What was your contribution to this year’s commemoration of the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

I presented a menu that showed just how much the eating habits of African slaves influenced the food culture in the US and the Americas in general. The ingredients and recipes came from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. I served five dishes that were inspired from that tragic moment in our history – slavery. One of the dishes is called “rice pudding” by the Haitians but in my native country Senegal we call it sombi. It’s a desert but for this occasion I prepared it with a twist and added roasted mango with honey to it. If you go to New Orleans, you will find many other dishes that originated from Africa such as roasted cassava, gombo, acarajé to name but a few.

Why specifically the rice pudding?

The rice pudding is symbolic. I chose it because many do not acknowledge Africa’s contribution to the American cuisine. Can you imagine America without rice? Most of North Carolina’s economy is based on rice production. This grain used to be called the “Carolina Gold” but the real story of how it arrived in the Americas is very interesting. During slavery, people were plucked from rice-producing regions. Casamance, a region in the South of Senegal where my parents are from originally, is one of them. There were several raids there to find slaves who knew how to cultivate rice and they were shipped to the Carolinas or Mexico. The grain never existed in these regions before the arrival of slaves. There are two “families” of rice in the world. One of them is from Asia and the other from Africa. The African rice, whose scientific name is oryza glaberrima arrived in the Americas on the slave ships. That is why the “middle passage” or journey of slaves from the African coast to Europe is important because it helped transform the culinary landscape of the Americas. It’s a part of history that is not talked about often.

That is fascinating. What motivated you to carry out the research?

Initially, I was doing research on the eating habits in my country of origin, Senegal. I started out as a professional cook towards the end of 1980s and worked in several restaurants. I worked at an Italian restaurant, at various French bistros but never for an African one. I was in New York where food cultures from all over the world are represented when I asked myself, why not do a research on food in my country of origin? It is through that research and visits to my parents in Senegal that I learned a lot from the women in my family and others in general because they are the true custodians of the secrets of the African cuisine. I started to think about writing my first book. I took their recipes and adapted them to make a modern cuisine. It’s around that time I realized that there were many dishes in America that were similar to African dishes. Of course, there are others who had done similar research before me, for example, I have read books by my now good friend Jessica Harris, who studied the topic as a historian.  I looked at it from a chef’s perspective and we both arrived at the conclusion that there is a definite link between the two food cultures.

What about the Akarajé dish that is found in both Brazil and West Africa?

In both Brazil and West Africa, it’s considered street food. Brazilians call it Akarajé and in West Africa it is called Akara but it’s the same meal and it is made of black-eyed peas.  These peas came originally from Africa and were brought to America just like rice and gombo. We serve it the same way too - with a crispy little “beignet” accompanied with some very hot sauce.

Is Akarajé the only dish exported to the Americas through the slave trade?

Not at all. Jambalaya (mixed rice, meat and vegetables), feijoada (black beans and meat), gombo(okra), and hopping johns (peas) are all dishes that have been re-adapted from Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea and Benin. You will find variations of these dishes in America and the Caribbean region. The sauces feuilles or “sauce from vegetable leaves” from Guinée is also found in Haïti and Jamaïca but cooked and presented differently.

Are your books a way to honour the victims of the slave trade?

Yes, absolutely.  It is my own way of honouring them and kneeling down to their memory. They are the ones who brought this heritage here and who have allowed us to survive.