My father is from Mali, in West Africa, and my mom's side of the family is African American with roots in St. Louis, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. I have a large family, so there is a lot of gathering and cooking--when I visit we feast! Growing up, my grandma had an extensive garden out of necessity, and fresh, homegrown food was a way of life. My cousins and I grew up foraging for fruit all around the neighborhood.
I was an athlete for many years, and in my mid-twenties I struggled with my health and sought out Chinese medicine and moved toward a more holistic path. I discovered the work of Weston Price and Sally Fallon, which had a big impact on me, and I became very interested in my ancestral foods.
I was also a dancer, specializing in African, Brazilian and Haitian dance, and this really led me to fall in love with the foods of the African Diaspora. When we had Brazilian dance events we would eat feijoada (meat and bean stew) and farofa (toasted manioc flour). I assisted in the kitchen and got to enjoy couve a mineira (garlicky collard greens), cozinha (breaded and fried chicken salad), pão de queijo (gluten-free cheese puffs) and so many other foods through my work in Brazilian dance. Brazil is the only country I've been to where I feel my palate would never get tired -- the food is just so amazing.
Through my father's side of the family I've been able to spend time in Bamako, Mali. Eating the traditional foods there, I discovered that I felt healthier and very strong. My digestion improved. Small but chronic health issues healed up. I think my body really resonates with those foods. I remember eating lots of beets, mangoes, soups and stews, rice, fresh fish, and the most nourishing eggs I've ever eaten.
The first time I ate the West African Chicken Stew that we're offering this week was actually at an African dance camp in Hawaii. I remember the exact taste on my palate--it was a version with beef that the African dance teachers cooked for us, and it resonated deeply in my body. I started practicing making it myself, trying to recreate that experience. When I went to Mali and Senegal I realized that versions of that stew are cooked throughout West Africa and made with many different kinds of meat: goat, beef, chicken, guinea fowl. The consistent parts are onions, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, and some habanero peppers, sometimes potatoes, and often thyme.
The version I developed for Three Stone Hearth is less spicy than what I first ate but still quite authentic. The big pieces of carrot are crucial, and I recommend eating it over rice. In Africa you would cut off a piece of carrot and a bit of meat and eat a mouthful with rice.
When I went back to school to finish my degree in International Relations, I decided to focus on the question of how food can restore cultural identity. I wrote about Hawaii, and the relationship between the traditional foods and cultural restoration. Even though my personal journey has had to do with the traditional diets of the African Diaspora, the connections to many techniques and foods in the traditional Hawaiian diet are closely related to Africa. The influence of African foods on the cuisine of the world is overlooked and undervalued.