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African Food Is Delicious, so Why Don’t We See More of It in Major Cities?

When it comes to African dishes, spreading awareness is just half the battle.

In cities like London and New York, global cuisines shape and define the culinary landscape. Now, culinary influences from the African Diaspora are working their way into major cities and sparking a celebration of traditional African fare. One such example is Ghanaian American Chef Eric Adjepong, born and raised in New York City. When the COVID pandemic hit, Adjepong’s plans to open a restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Union Market were postponed, but his Ghanian-meets-American flavors continue to inspire.

According to Chef Adjepong, his parents migrated to the states in the 1980s, and he grew up in a culturally Ghanaian household filled with traditional Ghanaian dishes. The strong Ghanaian community in the Bronx helped maintain Adjepong ties to his culture, inspiring flavors, ingredients, and techniques seen in his work.

“I tried to celebrate Ghanaian food when I was young,” explains Adjepong. “The type of chef I have become helps me highlight tradition within the Diaspora. I have had to adapt my taste to being in the U.S. The U.S. offers explorations and global perspectives, offering a taste of everything that has impacted my cooking. There are times I have had to adapt my own cooking style and food, being careful about what [diners] expect.”

 

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The attention that African food continues to receive is spurred on by chefs, bloggers, and creators like Malicka Anjorin, Marc Kusitor, and Samia Behaya. Through their writing, these African foodies share a glimpse of African cuisine. Social media has also been instrumental in the promotion of African cuisine worldwide. Many Africans promote traditional dishes and recipes through social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

Depending on what part of the continent it comes from, African food varies greatly. In the West, similarities tend to exist across countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal—all of which share the popular Jollof rice. Similar foods have varying names in other cases, such as the bean-based fritters known as Ghanaian koose and Nigerian akara. Other times, a dish can be completely different depending on the country it hails from, such as the Moroccan tajine (a traditional stew) and the Tunisian tagine (similar to an omelet).

Cosmopolitan cities like New York, London, and Toronto have experienced influence from African cuisine, although obstacles remain when adapting the fare to a Western palate. Although people appear to appreciate the flavors of African food, there’s a startling lack of diversity among chefs, with few African American chefs holding executive chef positions. The industry is slowly changing, with reports indicating an increase in Black students in culinary schools, though the same can’t be said of the advancement of Black chefs, especially women, within the industry.

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In my opinion, it seems consumers would prefer to eat African food so long as it’s not advertised as being African. Given the underrepresentation of African chefs and their restaurants, it is easy to do away with the African identity. Likewise, food gentrification can be tied to actual geographical gentrification. In some neighborhoods, African American residents are being pushed out of the community and losing their businesses due to sky-rocketing rents and living costs. As neighborhoods gentrify, the cultural influences of these communities are often displaced and relocated, including their culinary identity. Add to this the challenges of marketing African-branded foods to an American audience, as it’s clear that African cuisine has its fair share of challenges.

An interesting phenomenon now shaping the reception of African cuisine is the popularization of hybrid meals, as evidenced by Chef Adjepong’s partnership with AYO Foods, a line of frozen and boxed West African dishes available in grocery stores across the country. This partnership makes local Ghanian dishes—like waakye—readily accessible.

“I like to call it the OG rice and peas,” says Adjepong. While waakye is delicious, it’s a time-consuming dish, and so part of the excitement for Adjepong is taking something so special and making it available to the masses.

“For many people in the Diaspora, eating their local food evokes a feeling of nostalgia and also serves as a form of identity,” he adds.

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