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Following The Flavors From Africa To America

Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens.
Food writer Jessica Harris prepares Brazilian-style collard greens.

When food writer Jessica Harris first visited Senegal, she scoured the markets and cafes for traditional foods like the savory stew called chicken yassa. She found that the flavors were not all that different from what she knew at home.

"You taste all of these things, this sort of onion-lemon thing, and then you taste a tomato-chili thing, and they were all things that were not quite what I knew, but very familiar," she says.

In fact, Harris found, many of the classic foods and flavors of African-American cooking come from the African continent. She traces that journey in her new book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.

Harris tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that foods like okra, black-eyed peas and watermelon originally come from Africa. "A lot of the foods that we connect with African-Americans, whether totemically, whether positively or negatively, are indeed and in fact foods from the continent."

Our word for okra, in fact, probably comes from the Igbo people of Nigeria. And if you use okra to make gumbo, the word "gumbo" comes to us most likely from the Bantu language.

But here's a startling bit of trivia: Collard greens are not actually African. "They're a northern European green," says Harris, and the word "collard" is a corruption of the German "kohlwort," meaning any non-heading cabbage. So how did collards become such a feature of African-American cooking? "I think it's one of those substitution things," Harris says. "If you can't be with the green you love, love the green you're with."

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