The cover of the recently published cookbook Food from Across Africa entices you with a handful of okra, its green oblong pods beckoning to the reader lucky enough to pick up the volume and ﬂip through its pages. The authors, Duval Timothy, Jacob Fodio Todd, and Folayemi Brown, are three Londoners of African descent whose friendship encompasses a love for cooking their ancestral food. Together, they launched the bimonthly Groundnut Supper Club in 2012 to celebrate their combined Eastern and Western African heritages with friends and families. The dinners, held in South London’s historic St. John Hall, are served banquet-style to encourage participants to eat in a traditionally communal fashion.
These events soon attracted the notice of the wider public, and the supper club prospered. As a result, the trio of young chefs is now on a mission to expose the public to the unfamiliar foods and ﬂavors of their parents’ homelands, saying “African food is some of the best on the planet … yet it remains for some reason oﬀ the culinary radar of most people [in the United States and Britain]. We want to change that.” Four years later, the acclaimed supper club has given birth to the aforementioned volume, Food from Across Africa: Recipes to Share.
Inside the Cookbook
The recipe collection is comprehensive and eclectic: it includes everything from ginger beer and cucumber mint ice cubes, to classics like jollof rice and groundnut soup, and sweet endings such as puna yam cake and mandazi (Kenyan spiced doughnuts). Rather than organize the cookbook around courses, the authors chose to structure Food from Across Africa based on eight menu chapters; Timothy, Fodio Todd, and Brown really wanted to encourage readers to view the meal in its entirety, and to think about “the way that dishes ﬁt together” whether “by season, dominant ﬂavors, or by another unifying point of inspiration.” Their menus pay tribute to Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leona, Kenya, and South Sudan while adding their unique, modern interpretations and twists.
Because all the the recipes are so alluring, and the cookbook photography is stunning, it is diﬃcult to ﬁgure out where to begin cooking. When all else is equal, my unfailing motto is: ”Follow the sweet potatoes.” Fresh turmeric lentils from Menu 6 of the cookbook seemed like an inspired place to start because it makes use of my favorite tuber. Lentils and tubers are also two of our star foods in the A Taste of African Heritage curriculum. The supper club menu from this chapter is structured around Ethiopian ﬂavors, techniques, and textures, and it also includes injera pikelets (a hybrid of the signature Ethiopian ﬂatbread with the Welsh freeform crumpet ), and wot (a classic spiced stew or sauce). The chefs stress the “tactility” of the dining experience that is the core of Ethiopian cuisine by encouraging Groundnut’s guests to eat with their hands rather than with cutlery. Find two bonus recipes from Foods from Across Africa at the bottom of this blog post: Turmeric Red Lentils and Groundnut & Almond Ice Cream.
Trying the Recipes at Home
Before I could try the lentil recipe at home, I ﬁrst had to locate one very special ingredient: fresh turmeric. The recipe cautions that using the powdered form is a poor substitute in this instance, as you’ll miss out on its characteristic “citrus aroma.” I have utilized ground turmeric countless times, but have not ever actually purchased any fresh. The ﬁrst and only time I’ve ever come face-to-face with fresh turmeric was when I traveled to St. Lucia and visited the Botanical Gardens in Soufriere. Fresh turmeric greatly resembles ginger—it’s a rhizome with a knobby, gnarled appearance that is part of the same family. The interior of turmeric, however, is the joyful color of sunset—a very warm orange that gives way to the vibrant ochre that colors many dishes and condiments the world over (from Indian and North African cuisine to our beloved mustard). Luckily my neighborhood Whole Foods was well-stocked with the rhizome. I deployed my gloves (turmeric powerfully stains, which is again why it has a ceremonial use in diﬀerent cultures to color skin, clothing, and foods), to prepare the dish. With a quick prep time, the longest part of the process was waiting for the half-moons of roasted sweet potatoes to achieve fork tenderness. The creamy lentils mildly spiced with chili powder and smoked paprika were just the right, comforting nourishment for a cold, rainy day. The fresh turmeric added an earthy, almost saﬀron-like quality and a delicate warmth to the dish.
As a pastry cook, I can also never pass up an opportunity to satisfy my sweet tooth. Our Diet Pyramid for A Taste of African Heritage reserves dessert for special occasions, as it can be diﬃcult to ﬁnd one that doesn’t rely on reﬁned sugar and dairy. For this reason, I leapt at the opportunity to partake in the Groundnut & Almond Ice Cream included in the volume. This is a dairy-free treat that takes only a few minutes if you forego the blender scenario (a potential nightmare that might end with smoking rubber!) and use a food processer as I did. The frozen treat has a soft-serve consistency full of deep, smoky ﬂavor, and because I substituted honey for the brown sugar originally called for, the resultant ice cream calls to mind honey-roasted peanuts. I’m personally a fan of using herbs in desserts – in this case, thyme – because it lends greater dimension to what could otherwise be a one-note sweetness.
Based on my initial impressions, I’m eager to continue my education and exploration of continental African cuisine with this thoughtful volume; I encourage you to pick up a copy and cook up a Groundnut menu of your own!
BONUS RECIPE: Fresh Turmeric Red Lentils
It’s important to use fresh turmeric root in this recipe. Fresh turmeric has a wonderful aroma with hints of citrus, which is lost in the powdered form. You may want to have some disposable gloves and an apron on-hand, because it stains very easily. The taste of this dish improves with standing time and into the next day.
Time: 45 minutes
1 pound medium sweet potatoes
Scant 2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 teaspoon ﬁne sea salt
1 teaspoon hot paprika
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ ounce fresh turmeric
Generous 2 cups vegetable stock
5 ounces fresh plum tomatoes
3 ½ ounces red lentils (preferable whole, unsplit, skin-on)
Preheat the oven to 395°F. Peel the sweet potatoes, halve them lengthwise, and cut crosswise at 1-inch intervals. You should now have rough half-moon discs. Put them into a large bowl. Melt the coconut oil if it’s solid, then smother it over the sweet potatoes.
Add the salt and dried spices and rub well with your hands so they are evenly distributed. Put them on a baking sheet, place in the oven in the top third, and set a timer for 15 minutes, turning the sweet potatoes after about 7 minutes.
In the meantime prepare the lentils. Peel the fresh turmeric with a teaspoon. We ﬁnd that much like ginger it’s easier to get into the crevices and minimize wastage this way. Pound with a pestle and mortar until it becomes a ﬁne, juicy paste.
Add the stock, tomatoes, and fresh turmeric to a deep pot. Place over medium heat. Rinse the lentils in a ﬁne-mesh sieve and add to the pan. Gently bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat, covered, for 8 minutes. Do not leave for longer than this without checking, because lentils can overcook quickly.
Check the sweet potatoes. You want them so that you can put a fork through each piece with ease. They should taste spicy, salty, and sweet from the caramelization.
Check your lentils. They are ready when they are translucent, without sunburnt orange spots of the original color at the core. The stock will reduce signiﬁcantly as the lentils absorb water. Remove from the heat.
When the sweet potatoes are done, add them to the lentils and fold them into the mix. Serve warm, and reheat over very low temperature so the lentils don’t overcook.
BONUS RECIPE: Groundnut & Almond Ice Cream
Makes 3 cups
Time: 55 minutes
9 ounces unsalted peanuts, with skins
9 ounces almonds, with skins
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 2⁄3 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoons brown sugar (Oldways suggests substituting an equal amount of honey)
Leaves from 15 sprigs of fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 395°F. Put the peanuts, almonds, and salt on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven for 12 minutes, until they are golden brown and crunchy. Shake the pan occasionally to ensure that the nuts roast evenly. (Oldways Note: If you have a food processor, it will make grinding the peanuts much quicker.)
Put three-quarters of the roasted nuts into a blender and blend until they form a smooth butter. This process will take around 30 minutes. Give the blender a break every 5 minutes to ensure it doesn’t overheat.
Once you have a smooth mixture with a runny consistency, add the coconut milk, sugar, fresh thyme leaves, and the remaining nuts and pulse for 30 seconds. Pour the mixture into a freezerproof container and place in the freezer for at least 5 hours. Use an ice cream scoop to scoop out balls of the ice cream, and serve.
Johnisha Levi, African Heritage & Health program assistant