Great Food: The Soul of a New Cuisine

By Lise Funderburg

O, the Oprah Magazine
September 2006

African-born, Scandinavian-raised, the dazzling chef Marcus Samuelsson has rediscovered the tang, spice, simmer, variety, and imagination-igniting pleasures of a continent’s cooking.

When Marcus Samuelsson was ready to write a fourth cookbook, his agent suggested something personal. Like, maybe, Marcus Cooks at Home. A wide audience was practically guaranteed: After all, Samuelsson is the photogenic (read: handsome), personable (read: infectiously charming), award-winning chef and co-owner of Aquavit restaurant in New York, where he turns out three-star versions of the Swedish cuisine he ate as a child. But Samuelsson had other ideas, and after four and a half years of traveling through Africa, he has produced a loving, enticing tribute to a continent he believes represents, foodwise, the next big thing.

The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa captures the traditional recipes of countries from Morocco to South Africa, and also includes Samuelsson’s spin on the flavors he encountered. A recipe for Ethiopia’s classic berbere—a fenugreek and paprika spice mix—precedes one of his own creations: quail-foie gras soup. ( Egypt is the real home of foie gras, Samuelsson points out, not France.) The 200-plus recipes are leavened with photographs of daily life and Samuelsson’s travelogue, both offering a culturally rich version of Africa that seldom makes it into the Western media or consciousness.

“If you look in The New York Times, where does Africa come?” Samuelsson asks. “It comes on the second page: It’s Darfur right now, and next it’s going to be Somalia.” In bookstores he would see “500 cookbooks about Tuscany, 5,000 about Provence, and one covering a billion people.”

The billion people is a reference to Africa, of course—the continent Samuelsson is originally from, before he was adopted at the age of 3, along with an older sister, by a Swedish couple. The Samuelssons raised the Ethiopian-born Marcus and Linda in Sweden’s seaport city of Göteborg, and he lived in a world of bright summer days, long winter nights, and lots and lots of pickled herring. He had a grandmother who taught him how to cook “poor man’s food,” which uses inexpensive ingredients and often demands more ingenuity at the stove.

“There was a lot of braising and slow cooking because you didn’t have the best parts,” Samuelsson says. Spices not only tenderize lesser cuts of meat but also can work as a beautiful distraction. “If you have a tenderloin or the perfect rib eye, it does its own work. But when you suck on an ox tail, how much meat is really there? It’s more about getting the flavor out.”

In this book, corncobs simmer to make a naturally sweet broth and heads of thyme-roasted garlic become a pantry staple, something to keep in the fridge and use, a clove at a time, for flavoring. If you can’t find morning glory vines to sauté in soy sauce and ginger, he suggests substituting bok choy. But most of the ingredients he calls for can be found in the African, Asian, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern markets of North American cities. In fact, Samuelsson says, he was more worried about the availability of ingredients for his earlier Swedish cookbook than he was this time around.

What Samuelsson wants more than anything is for people to give these African flavors a try. “Just be open to them,” he says. He’s not doctrinaire, however. If you like the Ethiopian chicken stew doro wett but not injera, the sour bread used to scoop it up, use pita instead. And though Samuelsson tried every dish that was offered to him, even he had his limits. There are, for example, no recipes that call for sun-dried caterpillars, which he sampled in Soweto: He diplomatically describes them as “an acquired taste.” But tastes can change, he maintains, given curiosity and exposure. “The first time I had okra, you know the sliminess it has?” He purses his lips in disdain, then breaks into a smile. “Now I love okra.”

Compiling the book took twice as long as scheduled, in part because Samuelsson wanted to show the diversity of a continent made up of 53 nations, each with a distinct trade and colonial history “There is not one cuisine of Africa, just as there’s no one cuisine of Asia or of Europe,” he says. “The foods reflect the story of the country. In South Africa, the Indonesian and Malaysian slaves, who came several hundred years ago, brought their food with them. It mixed with Dutch, European, and tribal African food, and now it’s a cuisine called Cape Malay. In Mozambique you have Portuguese food. In Dakar you have French influences, and in Kenya you have a lot of Indian.”

Another surprise for Samuelsson was the range of cooking styles. He did encounter simple stewed fish and rice in Dakar, for example, but in many cities, especially in South Africa, the food was as upscale and concept driven as you’d find in trendy restaurants in Paris or Tokyo. “I didn’t want to create Africa as this ‘Kumbaya’ experience where everybody holds hands. It’s as sophisticated as anywhere else. Jo’burg [ Johannesburg] could have been Atlanta.”

In many ways, the book is an invitation to follow Samuelsson’s own path of discovery. When he was young, his Swedish mother encouraged him to explore African culture, but Samuelsson resisted. As many adoptees do, he worried that showing interest would somehow be disloyal to the parents he loved. Also, he was a teenager with a teenager’s priorities: “What are you talking about?” he remembers as his attitude. “I don’t want to eat this food; I’m gonna listen to David Bowie and play soccer.”

Samuelsson, 35, is now a citizen of the world. He trained in Austria, Switzerland, and France, has settled into a swanky Harlem duplex, and, in a full embrace of American culture, hosts a cooking show on the Discovery Home Channel. In 1998 he returned to Africa for the first time with his sister and has gone back almost every year since.

Food is a great bridge across cultures, Samuelsson says. “Break bread, and it opens every door.” He stayed with Aquavit’s dishwasher’s family in Senegal, and met a fellow diner in the Cape Winelands who took him to find the best koesister, a local doughnut.

The desire to discover, as presented in The Soul of a New Cuisine, is irresistible. Some recipes—like the beet-ginger chutney—are not such a leap; others, like an avocado fool dessert, might take getting used to. But whether he’s writing about the cuisine of his birthplace or his youth, Samuelsson wants to invite people in. “There’s a beauty about being undiscovered. But it doesn’t mean that the food ain’t good—you know what I mean?”