Chef JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls give readers permission to explore their cookbook, “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day,” to create flavorful dishes or use it to improvise like the great jazz musician Charlie Parker. The duo share anecdotes about their love for Harlem with emphasis on its food, music and people. They frame the conversations around the cultural influences of Asia and Africa that helped to shape Harlem’s rich history. Their culinary journeys bring a wealth of experience, truth and passion to the discussion which makes the read more enjoyable.
As a child, Johnson spent every day in his Puerto Rican grandmother’s kitchen. Cumin, coriander seeds and peppercorns filled the air while the sounds of Latin artists sang in the background. He spent his young adult years studying at the Culinary Institute of America. Later, the James Beard-nominated chef contributed to New York’s restaurant scene by cooking at the Tribeca Grill, The Cecil and Minton’s, to name a few. He also honed his skills at Villa Monticello, a boutique hotel in Ghana. In his travels, he learned, “Food was home and home was food.” The smells alone teleport souls back to that familiar place.
Smalls grew up in South Carolina with meals inspired by West Africa and rooted in Afro-Asian-American flavors. However, his first love was singing. He became a classically trained baritone and toured Europe as a world-renowned opera singer. Still, he found himself in the kitchen paying homage to his ancestors. In September 2013, he opened two restaurants Minton’s and The Cecil, both in Harlem. He knew “slaves were the culinary game changers” who took their cuisine across five continents: Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America. He wanted to give a voice to the diaspora.
This hardcover book features more than 100 recipes ranging from colorful salads to succulent sauces, dressings and jams and refreshing cocktails. It also includes a vegetarian entrée section presenting a spiked rosemary macaroni and cheese pie with caramelized shallots and tofu gnocchi with black garlic crema and scallions. Most ingredients appear to be standard with a few exceptions such as yuzu (citrus fruit), octopus and goat. The step-by-step instructions make the cooking process seem simple. The high-quality images excite the palate quite often and add to the growing “meals-to-try” list. They consist of cinnamon-scented fried guinea hen, BBQ brisket egg roll, feijoada with black beans and spicy lamb sausage, Gullah shrimp mini burgers, and purple yam puree. The names roll off the tongue with ease and desire to “Take the A Train.”
The sights, sounds and fare of “Between Harlem and Heaven” offer a glimpse into the past and present. The culinary duo’s book does this by exploring the role Africa plays in shaping the world’s diet. And, it highlights a neighborhood where it continues to live and thrive. Welcome to Harlem!
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