Africa, rediscovered

It took a Swedish man to tackle the diversity of African regional cooking, to spend five years on an exhaustive book project that would send him from Soweto to Marrakech, from the remote villages of Senegal to the savannas of Tanzania.

It took a Swedish man to tackle the diversity of African regional cooking, to spend five years on an exhaustive book project that would send him from Soweto to Marrakech, from the remote villages of Senegal to the savannas of Tanzania.

But then Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, is not your typical Swede. "I did it because I was one of a few people who could do it," says Samuelsson, 35, an accomplished chef with three restaurants in New York. "From the viewpoint of food, Africa is an undiscovered continent."

Here's how he explains the motivation behind a book as ambitious as "The Soul of a New Cuisine'' (John Wiley & Sons, 2006, $40): "The whole idea was to get people to the table and show them that Africa is not just all about war and AIDS and poverty. I had to describe the Africa I've seen."

What Samuelsson also saw was a great untapped book segment. "You go into Barnes & Noble, and there are a thousand Tuscany books and a thousand Chinese cookbooks, but nothing for a billion people," he says.

That was reason enough. He would persuade Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the man he calls "my Mr. Africa," to write a foreword, or there wouldn't be a foreword at all.


Marcus Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie in a small village northeast of Addis Ababa in 1970. Three years later his mother died in a tuberculosis epidemic, and he and his sister, Linda, were placed in an orphanage. Both were adopted by Lennart and Ann Marie Samuelsson and started a new life in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The night after Ann Marie brought the two home, he writes, "she woke up to find us pounding on the door of the refrigerator because after the deprivation of our life in Ethiopia, we'd seen all the food coming out of it and wanted more."

In Ethiopia, men rarely, if ever, cook or even enter a kitchen, but in Sweden his grandmother, Helga, taught him how to make traditional Swedish meals. First came his favorite part: foraging in the countryside for wild mushrooms, strawberries and herbs, and working in the family garden and orchard. After a series of food-related jobs, from scaling fish to baking bread, he enrolled in culinary school at age 16.

Cooking was his ticket out of Sweden, where he was suffocating. "I grew up in a place where every time you saw a black person you said 'Hi.' You felt a bond," he says. "As an adopted child, I was an island within a culture. And I wanted to live in a multicultural society."

Samuelsson apprenticed in restaurants in Switzerland, France and Austria before moving to New York in 1995 for a job at the stylish Restaurant Aquavit, which serves upscale Scandinavian-fusion food. (Aquivit's outpost in Minneapolis closed in 2003.)

Quickly rising to executive chef and co-owner, he has won two James Beard Foundation awards. In 2004 he opened Riingo, a New American/Japanese restaurant and, more recently, in August, a casual French bistro. Samuelsson is an official spokesman for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF (which will receive some proceeds from sales of the book) and is focused on providing support for tuberculosis programs in developing counties.

With "The Soul of a New Cuisine," his second cookbook after 2003's "Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine," Samuelsson started with an Ethiopian focus. "It's the African food with the best legs," he says. "It's so college-friendly, affordable, and you eat with your hands, and you remember that."

Then "one thing led to another, and I saw how the whole continent was related." How chili peppers can bring to life the simplest grilled meat, fish and stewed vegetables. How families and friends eat together over communal platters. The importance of starches, such as cassava and yams, in the diet. "The goal is to take time and talk and eat together."


For Samuelsson the biggest challenge was sifting through the tastes and techniques that came to Africa by way of occupiers and immigrants, mixing European, Indian and Asian.

He's particularly proud of the book's Spice Blends and Rubs section, which attempts to simplify the difference between, say, an Arab-influenced boharat that calls for rose petals and lemon powder and a Ethiopian berbere that derives much of its flavor from dried serrano chili peppers and the heady trio of cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.

"Curious cooks" are the target audience, he says, then adds that anyone can make a meal with "Soul."

"Families have a lot of these ingredients already," Samuelsson says. "I'm not saying go out and buy 5,000 things. But if you lose your curiosity, you've lost a lot."

Many of the recipes don't come together in a flash, but "this is about preserving culture," he says.

And that, like a simmering Moroccan tagine, takes a little time.

The recipes

This recipe for traditional tibs wett takes minutes to put together, if the Spiced Butter and Berbere are already on hand. Adapted from "The Soul of a New Cuisine," by Marcus Samuelsson (Wiley, 2006).


Stir-Fried Beef Stew

1/4 cup Spiced Butter (recipe follows) or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup thinly sliced red onions

1-1/2 pounds hanger steak or beef tenderloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1-1/2 tablespoons Berbere (recipe follows) or chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom (preferably freshly ground)

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger


1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 medium cloves garlic, cut into quarters

3 tomatoes, chopped, or 1-1/2 cups roughly chopped canned tomatoes

2 jalapeno chili peppers, seeds and ribs removed, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dry red wine

Salt (optional)


Melt the Spiced Butter in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the onions and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until they begin to color around the edges. Add the meat, sprinkle with the salt and stir-fry until browned on all sides, about 3 minutes on each side. (This process can be done in 2 batches; divide accordingly.) Add the Berbere, cardamom, ginger, cumin, cloves, black pepper and garlic. Tilt the pan slightly away from you to avoid the steam that will rise, and carefully add the tomatoes, jalapeno chili peppers and wine. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 1 minute, then season with salt, if desired. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Samuelsson considers this one of the three building blocks of Ethiopian cooking, along with Berbere and injera bread. He says virtually no meal in his home country is made without this butter, which is added to meat and vegetable stews.

Spiced Butter

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 medium red onion, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

One 3-inch piece ginger root, finely minced


1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

8 basil leaves

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently. As foam rises to the top, skim and discard it. Cook, without letting the butter brown, until no more foam appears. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool until the spices have settled to the bottom of the pan. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve before using. Store in the refrigerator in a tightly covered container for up to 3 weeks.

Yield: 1-1/2 cups.

Samuelsson has simplified the recipe for this spice blend, which he also recommends using as a rub for beef and lamb.


1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1/2 cup ground dried serrano chili peppers or other ground dried chili peppers

1/2 cup sweet paprika

2 tablespoons salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons onion powder

1 teaspoon ground cardamom (preferably freshly ground)

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Finely grind the fenugreek seeds with a mortar and pestle or in an electric spice or coffee grinder. Combine the remaining ingredients and add the ground fenugreek seeds, mixing well. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

Yield: Makes about 1 cup.

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