Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden by adoptive parents, Marcus Samuelsson has always bridged cultures and cuisines. The critically acclaimed chef rose to prominence in New York for his cooking at Aquavit, the Scandinavian fine-dining destination, and now owns two additional restaurants in New York: the casual AQ Café, at Scandinavia House, and the Japanese-American fusion restaurant, Riingo.
Samuelsson’s just-released book, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, finds him exploring the culinary traditions of his homeland. From Morocco to Ethiopia and Senegal to South Africa, Samuelsson spans the continent, feasting on home-cooked meals and street foods, and then adapting those recipes for the American kitchen. Here, Samuelsson shares travel tips and highlights from his African adventures, and tells Fodor’s where to find the best Ethiopian cuisine in New York.
What was the thing that surprised you most on your travels through Africa?
The coolest thing about Africa is its huge diversity of people — it’s not one country, one culture, one religion, or one color. And the heart of that diversity, in terms of its expression in food and music, is incredible. That was the neatest surprise for me. Also, Africa is a new hidden continent in terms of tourism. I mean, everyone knows Europe. You can go to Paris for the fifth time, or you can look for a new adventure. When people go to Africa, they’re going to be surprised at the level of sophistication they find throughout the continent.
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How do those international influences come through in the cuisine?
You have to remember Africa’s history. Invaders, settlers and traders have crossed the continent for centuries. So many of the ingredients are the same you would find in other international cuisines, but they’re used in different ways. For example, you may not know berbere, the spice mixture that is the cornerstone of Ethiopian cooking, but you know what chili powder is, and you know the other spices that go into berbere, like cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and nutmeg.
You see the influences of other cultures all over Africa. In South Africa, you have fiery sambals that were brought by the Malay slaves who created Cape Malay cuisine. In Morocco, you see Arab influence in the spice blends, olives and preserved lemons. And in West Africa, I was surprised to find people using French-style condiments like mayonnaise and mustard.
What would you recommend as a “must-see” destination in Africa?
Cape Town is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, like San Francisco or Stockholm. In Cape Town, I would say you should do the urban experience in the city, but also go to the wine country.
In the city, go to District Six for Cape Malay food. The cuisine is a beautiful blend of Malaysian, Indian, African and European cooking that is possibly the most celebrated cuisine in Africa. It’s not necessary to dine in a hotel restaurant. Just go to one of the neighborhood restaurants.
In the wine country, go to Paarl or one of the other small cities in the Cape Winelands. If you can, stay on a winery property so you can really enjoy the area. Many wineries have rooms or villas you can rent.
New York has a sizable African-immigrant population. What are your favorite African restaurants in the city?
You’ll mostly find Ethiopian, Senegalese and Moroccan restaurants in New York. But the real secret is that African food is so easy to make at home. It’s a lot different than when I was working on the Aquavit book, and trying to translate [fine-dining Scandinavian] restaurant food into home cooking. But with African cooking, it’s family food that can be difficult to translate to restaurant cuisine.
In New York, there are a few Ethiopian restaurants I’d recommend: Ghenet (284 Mulberry St.; 212-343-1888) in NoLITa; and Meskerem (468 W. 47th St.; 212-664-0520); and Queen of Sheba (650 Tenth Ave.; 212-397-0610), which are both in Hell’s Kitchen.
As an accomplished globe-trotter, what are some travel tips you’d like to share with Fodor’s readers?
The point of travel is to travel, not to stay where you are. If you want to get something that you can have at home, stay home. But if you want to travel, really travel, then talk to the local people you meet, find out where they go, and be open to new experiences.
I’m lucky because I always go looking for food, so I meet someone at the market or at a restaurant and I ask for their recommendations. But I don’t care if you’re traveling alone, with your church, or with your family, there’s always a way to get off the beaten path. You just have to work for it.