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What makes food African?

To spread the gospel of African cuisine is to first tell the story of the history of the continent. One of my favorite quotes is by the gastronome Brillat Savarin where he states: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” This cannot be truer than in our dishes. To eat African food is to experience the journey that our people have taken and the visitors that have introduced their flavors and techniques into the local culture.

Who would have known that West Africa alone has intercontinental influences from France, Europe and the Middle East. In other parts of Africa, every culture from Mediterranean to Italian is represented in the cuisine, leading to the conclusion that African food is what I describe as world food with African flavor!
Now to the original question: what makes a meal decidedly African? I believe that a meal must pass three criteria:

• It must be natural and sustainable with little to no processing. African cuisine is notorious for using fresh and natural ingredients straight from the farm. This makes the resulting food more nutritious and delicious.

• It takes time to prepare. In today’s microwave culture of food preparation where everything is expected to be completed at the speed of light, African cuisine is a sane reprieve. African cooking is about love and soul. I believe the term “soul food” in African-American cooking came from the African slaves who cooked in the way their forebears cooked — slow and full of love.

• It is flavored with an assortment of African spices and contains at least one ingredient that is sourced from Africa. I have found that what differentiates foods across different regions of the continent are the spice mixes that create the flavor profiles that define each region’s food.

The importance of eating fresh food in season cannot be over stated. I remember growing up in Nigeria and my mother cooking food in season. Every evening, we had to go to our backyard to cut whatever leaves we had available to make soup. Eating this way has now become a trend internationally, and it goes under the moniker “clean eating.” People are finally starting to clue in to what we have known for years — eating natural and fresh food is the way to go. Eating clean has been proven to maintain a healthy weight, improve health indicators like blood pressure and blood sugar and promote life longevity.

In my profession as a pharmacist, I have seen the effects of poor eating and lack of physical exercise on lifestyles as people age. I have seen individuals as young as 25 dying of heart attacks and cancers that a few years ago were only seen in people much older. Studies have shown that a lot of this is a result of people increasingly relying on processed food and being more sedentary. Most integrative medical doctors will attest to the power of diet to health.

It is a matter of fact that most medications that cure and alleviate disease had their starts from organic sources like the very food we have growing in our backyards. The old ways of curing disease that our parents and grandparents employed are actually very effective and healthy for us. Does anyone remember giving Agbo for fever or serving fish pepper soup with yam to a new mother to help her breastfeed? Food is medicine, and when sourced and prepared well, it can lead to a long and healthy life.

It is now spring where I live, and it is marked by warming temperatures and lots of fresh-water fish and leafy greens. It also is the start of the swimsuit season as people will now start taking to the beaches and pools, so it is time to start getting ready to tone up and trim down a bit. I have developed a delicious Salmon Suya that pairs perfectly with a fresh garden salad. It will not only satisfy but also will help you fit beautifully into your bathing suit or favorite pair of jeans.

Enjoy!

Salmon Suya Salad

What You Need
1 pound salmon fillet (or any available firm fleshed fish with bones removed)
5 tablespoons Suya spice mix
3 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon (or efirin)
½ cup finely chopped red onion
1 pound fresh spinach leaves
½ cup chopped tomatoes
¼ cup sliced onions
½ cup peeled orange slices (with membranes removed)
¼ cup chopped cucumbers
¼ cup thinly sliced carrots
¼ cup goat cheese (optional)

Salad Dressing
¼ cup vinegar (balsamic preferred)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
¾ cup olive oil (or peanut oil)

How To
Cut the salmon into five ounce pieces, rinse and pat dry with paper towel. Cut slits (about four slits) into the flesh of the fish creating small pockets. In a small bowl, combine the chopped onions and tarragon. Place onion-tarragon mix into the slits making sure to fill the slits completely.

Coat each piece of salmon completely with the Suya seasoning forming a thick coating around the fish. Place fish on baking rack on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to rest for about five minutes.
In a bowl, combine vinegar, sugar, salt and garlic until salt and sugar dissolve. Add the oil one teaspoon at a time until the oil and vinegar are homogenously mixed. Set aside.

In a large bowl, arrange remaining salad ingredients and add three teaspoons of salad dressing. Toss until all the spinach leaves are lightly covered with dressing. Plate salad and top with Salmon Suya.