The older people, when they eat here, they are fond of telling me it tastes like old Creole cooking," says Fanta Tambajang, owner of Bennachin restaurant. Since 1991, Tambajang has operated restaurants in Metairie and the French Quarter, and since 1991 she has served jama-jama to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival attendees looking for healthy options at the Fair Grounds.
Bennachin serves cooking from western Africa, particularly Gambia and Cameroon. Tambajang's holy trinity is actually a foursome of tomato, ginger, garlic and onion, but otherwise the rice-and-legume-heavy menu feels like New Orleans fusion.
Cajun and Creole cooks will find themselves quite comfortable with African cooking. The cuisines are similar, sharing a heavy reliance on ingredients like okra and tomatoes and the technique of using starches to stretch a meal. Coconut and ginger flavors are the main departure: Tambajang's famed jama-jama is sauteed spinach with touches of ginger that American palates don't expect. Her rice is flavored with coconut and accented with greens and vegetables.
Variety, heritage and a wealth of international influences in African cuisines means health-conscious chefs hit the sweet spot where novelty, nutrition and flavor intersect. The dishes stand on their own, yet meld with Middle Eastern, French and Indian cuisines effortlessly, begging for creative, nutritious combinations.
Jane Francis, a musician, spent four months in Eritrea in East Africa. Francis ate a diet of lentils, tomato sauces, lamb and injera, a flatbread made with high-protein teff flour.
"I was never so healthy, I don't think, (as when) I was in Africa," Francis says. "'Organic' as a term doesn't exist because that's just what they do."
Both Nile and Cafe Abyssinia Uptown serve traditional Ethiopian cuisine, which often features various stews served atop injera bread (which doubles as a utensil) and tends to rely heavily on clarified butter.
For this recipe, I created a variation on berbere seasoning, a common spice mixture in Ethiopian cooking that can stand in for blackening seasoning or curry powder. You can easily use it as a spice rub, the basis of a marinade with olive oil, a dipping sauce for vegetables or a finishing sauce for lean meats.
Recipe from Saveur magazine. Adapted by Russ Lane
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1⁄4 teaspoon whole allspice
6 green cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1⁄2 cup dried onion flakes
5 dried chiles, crushed
3 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
In a small skillet, toast spices over medium heat, swirling skillet constantly until aromatic. If toasting spices in the pan is new to you, hold the pan a few inches above the heat and swirl the pan. This will take longer, but there's less risk of burning the spices.
Let cool slightly; transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder along with onion flakes and grind until fine. Add chilies and grind with the other spices until fine. The use for the spice mix will determine which tool is better: The irregular textures of a mortar and pestle make a better presentation for spice rubs or dipping sauces, whereas the uniform powder of a spice grinder would be better for marinades and sauces.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir ground spices. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.