The diverse food of Africa, and the African diaspora, gets a platform in NJ this week

Unlike many other states, we have a robust African restaurant scene in New Jersey. It gets a spotlight this week with African Restaurant Week and the African Restaurant Week Festival Aug. 6 and 7 in Newark.

Food connects cultures. Immediately. Bite into a homemade piece of frybread or slurp tonkatsu ramen or fork into a plate of jollof rice, and you’re connecting with a time-honored tradition from a community outside your own (unless, of course, it is your own). It’s a much more fun (and delicious way) of connecting than burdening someone with a conversation on their past or attending some dry forum on culture. 

In short, food says what words can’t.

And the U.S., of course, provides an opportunity to experience a wide array of cultures without having to get on a plane. Often localized based on the immigrant population in a given city—Hmong and Somali in Minneapolis, Korean in LA, Tibetan in Colorado, etc.—the amount of cuisines available to us here is unparalleled in the world.

In New Jersey, we’re spoiled. We have our choice of Filipino, Portuguese, Indian, Colombian… the list goes on and on. And, unlike many other states, we have a robust African restaurant scene, largely concentrated in Newark. It gets a spotlight this week with African Restaurant Week (ARW) and the African Restaurant Week Festival Aug. 6 and 7 in Newark.

“ARW is just a way to celebrate culture,” says Akin Akinsanya, executive director of ARW. “The cuisine for sure, but we thought it was important to have this as a way to create culture and to bring people together at the end of the day.”

Photo courtesy ARW

ARW highlights more than two dozen NJ restaurants that cook food from all regions of the continent (notably the Mediterranean-akin food of North Africa; to the spicy, flavorful foods of West Africa; to Ethiopian and East Africa;, and to the myriad evolutions of African cuisine as tasted in the foods of the American South, the Caribbean and beyond).

African and African diaspora food, then, represents a wide array of flavors, ingredients and techniques. In Nigeria, for instance, you’ll get jollof rice (a spiced rice dish) and peanut butter stew, a wildly delicious dish often served with meat (often goat). The Nigerians’ take on those staples differ from their neighbors in Ghana, who Akinsanya says use slightly different techniques and may add more to their jollof rice, for example.

Ethiopian food, one of the more popular African cuisines in the U.S., is almost an anomaly in East Africa, Akinsanya says—a lot of red meat, and unique staple dishes like injera, a fermented flatbread. That differs from neighboring Kenya, which has access to the sea (so there are more fish dishes), and different communities within its country and so there are few defining dishes as in Ethiopia. You’ll note influences from India in both, but they’re distinct from one another.

Of course all of this is obvious. Africa’s a big continent with many countries and traditions—North America is big too, with fewer countries, and yet we have robust culinary differences in indigenous, American, Mexican, El Salvadoran, etc. cooking.

But that background is meant to indicate just how far we have to come, in the U.S.,  to understand the unique differences and culinary traditions throughout the African continent and diaspora. While other cuisines brought over with immigrant communities have taken off—Mexican, Italian, Indian, Chinese, etc.—African food has a ways to go. Akinsanya says that’s because of the opportunities available to African immigrants today—though many African communities prosper in New Jersey, notably in the northeast part of the state, and have done so for generations, there’s still progress to be made.

“Everything is business, right?” Akinsaya says. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s important for people to eat [this] week, to go out to the restaurants. Everything has to do with access to capital. The food is great, but it still doesn’t scratch the surface as far as the foodie world in America. Not everybody has the capital to go mainstream. 

“Somebody says, ‘I started in my garage. This multi-million-dollar business was started in my garage.’” Akinsaya continues. “At least you had a garage. That means you had equity, you had a house that you could pull out money from and start a business.”

Akinsanya adds that certainly there’s more lawmakers could do to give African immigrant communities access to capital, but that it can’t just be a perfunctory passing of money. The investment has to come with intention; those in charge must say, “We want to elevate this part of our society because we think they can be productive,” Akinsaya says.

There’s much to gain by elevating African food (much more than simply giving us another delicious cuisine to eat). When a culture’s cuisine is elevated, not only does that provide a living for the folks making that food, but it builds a community—of people who come from the area the food is pulled from, and the people who want to learn more about it. 

It also connects people with their past and personal histories. Netflix’s show High on the Hog connects foodways in the African American community. Akinsanya watched the show and recognizes the connection people who traveled from the U.S. to Africa had with the food—”Some of them it was clear there were similarities in the food, but they were called a different name. It’s, ‘My grandma used to make this down south in Alabama, but we just called it a different name and called it different things.’”

As African food grows in the U.S.—through events like ARW—the ability of the cuisine to adapt grows, too. For instance, while many foods from immigrant communities start off in mom-and-pop shops, eventually chefs are able to expand into fine dining or fusion cooking. Afro Taco, a food truck participant in ARW, makes an African-Mexican cuisine. Swahili Village, with several locations, offers a more “elevated” form of Kenyan cuisine.

With growth, though, comes the possibility that the food will stray from its original scope, as it appeals to broader audiences. That’s a pretty natural evolution, and, if other cuisines can serve as examples, there will eventually be a robust array of more common and higher-end African and African diaspora food (it’s already been happening in the U.S. with soul food).

“There are a lot of very talented chefs that don’t have the opportunity to have a huge space (for fine dining),” Akinsanya says. “Yes, I’d love to go to those, but I wouldn’t say I’d prefer it because it depends on what I’m trying to do. If I’m trying to have a meeting, I’d choose the fine dining. The places where it might be hole in the wall but you keep going back there because the food is that good… sometimes, I think cuisines that try to break into a larger market that try to be a little more mainstream sometimes would give up some of the tradition along the way, whereas those that are hole in the wall, it’s just: this is the food, this is how we make it.”

The festival this weekend will feature music, a kids’ zone, a marketplace, food vendors and food competitions for suya (a nutty kebab) and jollof rice. If you go to the restaurants participating (editor’s note: call ahead to see if they’re open), and tag a photo on Instagram, you’ll be able to win a ticket to the festival.

The more people that go to African restaurants, and attend the festival this weekend, the sooner we’ll be seeing more Nigerian, Moroccan, Kenyan, Burkinabé and other restaurants in our communities. We can’t wait.

For more on ARW, including a list of participating restaurants, and the festival, go here. The festival runs Aug. 6 and 7 at Bisrate Gebriel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Newark.