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Explore the African Roots of Latin Cuisine

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Clara Lesueur (left) and Jessica Harris prepare Callaloo.

The influence of Western Africa on Latin cuisine is unmistakable, “whether or not you admit it or are comfortable with it,” food historian Jessica Harris told the Latin Flavors, American Kitchens symposium at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus Thursday.

Think of the staples, from okra to plantain, that are so integral to our diet. Even sesame seeds are now thought by many to have been brought to the New World as part of the diaspora.

Also think of the dishes, including gumbos and starchy fritters, that made their way from slave kitchens to plantation tables and are still popular today.

“Africans love mushy, starchy dishes,” said Cuban-born Maricel Presilla, who recalls pots filled with polenta-like cornmeal from her childhood.

Stir blanched okra at the last minute into Quimbombo.

“More than one-third of the Africans brought to this hemisphere were brought to Brazil,” said Harris. Brazil was also the last country in the West to free its slaves. Their influence on the country’s cuisine, especially in the Bahia region, is so great that the term Afro-Brazilian has been coined to describe the dishes that use the orange-red dendé oil, or palm, oil, or dried shrimp, chiles and coconut milk.

There is another influence that cannot be overlooked, Harris said. “The food of Africa in the New World is being cooking by women,” she said. Not male chefs, as they are referred to, but women cooks. As a result, these women in their aprons cooking for hours have all too often received the culinary short shrift for their contributions.

Madame Mérita Félix, president of the Guadeloupe Women Cooks Association, does not use the precise measures of a printed recipe as she prepares her Malanga Fritters, which are made by shredding the tuber on the side of a box grater. As her daughter and translator Natalie said, she cooks from her lifelong sense of what the food should taste like. That may mean a little more garlic one day and a touch less flour the next.

Félix tried to show how to fry the fritters, but the oil on the demonstration stove wasn’t hot enough. No problem, right? Just show the batch that was fried earlier, right? Except that all the fritters from the test run had been consumed behind the scenes, an endorsement to the appeal of the dish.

From the Caribbean comes Callaloo, a stew that mixes crab, okra and a leafy green that can vary from island to island, Harris said. What they call callaloo in Trinidad and Tobago is pepper pot in Jamaica, she said.

Harris demonstrated the dish with Clara Lesueur of Chez Clara in Guadeloupe. Though most of the Caribbean serves Callaloo as a soup, in Guadeloupe, it is served over rice and topped with flakes of salt cod.

Another okra-based dish is the Cuban Quimbombó, which features a heady mixture of chicken cooked in bitter orange juice and a sofrito with Spanish chorizo and habanero. “You close your eyes when you eat this,” Presilla said.

Africa has given Latin cuisine more than its ingredients. The spirit of religion has also infused it. In Brazil, it is Candomblé. In other countries, it might be known as Santeria.

The Brazilian chef Mara Sallas plated her dish of Hauçá Rice with Nagô Okra Sauce with an almost ritualistic grace as she made sure she had just the right amount of coconut milk-flavored rice in the bottom of the bowl. Spooning the jerked beef on top was done with the same precision as someone lighting candles for a service or laying out vestments for an altar.

“This is literally a dish for the gods,” Harris said.

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