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Now Online: A Free Library Devoted to West Africa's Food Heritage

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In a Youtube video, entitled A Tale of Two Fritters, Ozoz Sokoh is in her kitchen making both akara, a Nigerian bean fritter, and acarajé, the Brazilian equivalent. As she reviews the ingredients and aromatics—black-eyed peas, Thai and Scotch bonnet peppers for heat, tomatoes, ginger, and orange-red palm oil, it's easy to see that the two dishes, though from different continents, are obviously related.

Sokoh, a food historian born in Nigeria and currently living in Canada, is an expert at making connections between different food cultures. To share her research, she recently launched Feast Afrique, an online library of free digital books that explore the influence of West African foods on culinary cultures around the world. The texts she’s chosen, both cookbooks full of recipes or tomes that touch only briefly on food, speak to the enormous reach and richness of the region’s culinary traditions.

Though Sokoh has had a long career as a food historian and a blogger at Kitchen Butterfly, her current love of food was hard-won. As a child growing up in Nigeria, she hated eating, and often had to be hospitalized due to malnutrition. Only a trip to Edinburgh with her family, when she was nine, changed that. “I guess it was a combination of exertion from the walking, and we were in this other place that opened me up to eating,” Sokoh says, remembering how she scarfed down food during that trip.

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This acquired love for food followed Sokah throughout school and adulthood, all the way across the world, after she relocated to the Netherlands for her work. Homesick and in a new country, she felt isolated. “I was bordering on being depressed. I didn't feel like I was succeeding in my career as a geologist,” Sokoh says. However, an unexpected connection with a Brazilian coworker found them bonding over on acarajé—and discovering how similar it was to akara. It was a foreshadowing of the connections she’d make between West African food and the African diaspora, a link created by the transatlantic slave trade.

In 2009, Sokoh created her blog, Kitchen Butterfly, to document how Nigerian and West African dishes spread around the world. Many of the dishes she discovered, from countries like Brazil, Haiti, and Jamaica, were protected and preserved by enslaved cooks. “The goals for them and I were to feel the same: to find comfort, to pay homage, to document history,” says Sokoh. ''As a Nigerian, it was shocking to discover that Nigerian cuisine—which I had always taken for granted—existed in this exalted, celebrated form abroad and had endured all sorts of tragedy and trauma, but still stood supreme.”

While Kitchen Butterfly served as a place to post her thoughts, Sokoh wanted to create a more academically robust resource for her food findings, in order to “share them with a wider audience, with more of a rigorous, research-based eye,” Sokoh says. She decided to launch a print journal, Feast Afrique, which was due to debut in 2013. However, the death of the planned editor, a close friend of Sokoh’s, put the project on hold indefinitely.

But last year, another friend gifted her Toni Tipton Martin’s groundbreaking works on African-American cookbooks, Jubilee and The Jemima Code. Soon, Sokoh found herself looking online for the texts referenced in Martin’s work. “I found myself not going to sleep. By the end of the first week, I had about 40, 50 books,” Sokoh says. “I wasn't only doing The Jemima Code. I was also looking at Nigerian books, other books I liked, and literature books that had food in cultural contexts and symbols. By October, I had 190.”

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In early January, Sokoh finally launched Feast Afrique, but as an online archive instead of a print journal. The website contains almost 250 links to online books, covering West African, African-American, and African diasporic culinary history. With texts dating back to 1828, many of these books contain some of the earliest documented histories of West African cooking. For example, Practical West African Cookery, published in 1910, has the first documented recipe for jollof rice (and is the first book in Feast Afrique’s monthly reading challenge). Other books, like Austin Clarke’s Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit, a culinary memoir of traditional Bajan foods from his childhood, provides readers with a culinary map of slavery’s effect on the foods of the Caribbean.

However, the collection is ultimately a celebration of the influence and history of West African cuisines on the world. “My artistic practice has a lot to do with cooking, but also documenting. What you don't know, you can't reference and what you can't reference, you can't use to shape future plans,” Sokoh says. “It's important to show people that we do have a food history that stretches back centuries, and documentation that stretches back as well.”

Feast Afrique is an opportunity for Sokoh’s primary audience—Africans and Black diasporans—to know and own their rich culinary history, and give a voice to little-known narratives that are often erased and appropriated. “People don't ascribe the same sophistication to French cuisine as West African cuisine, and foods of Black association tend to be ridiculed and kind of bucketed in this ethnic class,” Sokoh says. “I'm an eater first. And I've eaten food around the world and very little of it comes close to the amazingness of West African cuisine. I'm not going to sit around and let people continue to dumb us down, but we have to have that knowledge.”

To Sokoh, food is far more than just fuel. “It's a vehicle for exploring history—personal history, group history, and how memory can be resistance,” she says. “Everything that we see on the plate says something about history, culture, trade, lineage, strength, and survival. Food on a plate tells the story of life.”

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iwhitney
239 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Tamales de Tia Tila

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It’s a cold December afternoon when we arrive at the headquarters of Tamales de Tia Tila in San Gabriel Etla, about 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Knocking on the door, we catch a whiff of spices and corn that the cold wind quickly steals away. But as soon the door swings open, revealing a family with faces half-covered in masks and hands busy at work, waves of warm, fragrant air envelope us.

The tamal workshop is brimming: a man is moving stews, a woman pressing dough, an older woman laying corn husks and banana leaves on one of the many tables. Everyone’s movements are so precise and focused that we feel guilty for intruding. But that feeling fades away when a young girl waves us in and brings over a cup of hot coffee. We’re now a part of this rhythmic culinary dance.

Wrapped in either a corn husk or a banana leaf, a tamal is a sort of corn dough “cake” filled with all kinds of things, from chicken to fruit. The first written references to tamales can be found in ancient Mexica (Aztec) and Mayan codices, which outline how they were both prepared and consumed on a wide scale during celebrations, particularly religious ones, like fertility ceremonies or harvest rituals. The celebratory nature of tamales remains to this day: They are widely consumed throughout the winter holidays, during the Day of the Dead and at christenings, funerals and many other celebrations, both religious and secular.

Although the tamal is popular across Central America, it’s a quintessentially Mexican dish; there is no other place in the world with more tamal recipes than Mexico, where there are at least 500 different documented versions.

And within this wide world of tamales, those from Oaxaca are some of the most popular in the country. “Probably because Oaxacan tamales are complex and simple at the same time,” says Hernán Cano, 55, one of the many family members powering Tamales de Tia Tila, a long-standing and beloved source of tamales in the city. “The fillings have a universe of flavors, but they are still wrapped in a humble piece of corn husk.”

“The fillings have a universe of flavors, but they are still wrapped in a humble piece of corn husk.”

The family business has been around since 1930, when Helena Santiago started selling her tamales in the improvised open-air market located where Mercado Benito Juárez now stands, in Oaxaca City’s historic center. “My mother started selling tamales even before the city had a proper market,” says 90-year-old Domitila Cruz Santiago, the eponymous Tia Tila; despite her advanced age, she is still very involved in the day-to-day work.

Yet it’s 54-year-old María Antonieta Cruz, Tia Tila’s niece and the wife of Hernán, who runs the show now. “Each week we make a variety of tamales, from green or yellow mole with chicken, rajas [chile stripes with salsa and chicken], salsa verde with chicken to vegetarian options such as bean paste,” she explains. “Black mole with chicken, which is wrapped in banana leaf, is particularly popular.”

Other options go beyond the usual offerings and are transcendent in their simplicity. Like tamal de dulce, in which the dough is sweetened with sugar and cinnamon and filled with raisins and chunks of pineapple. And tamal de chepil, where the dough is mixed with a slightly spicy herb found in the Oaxacan countryside and topped with a flavorful salsa made of tomato and dried chiles.

Tía Tila’s signature, however, is their balance of moist dough with well-seasoned fillings. “The flavors of Oaxaca are wrapped in our tamales. We are very meticulous when preparing the dough, since that’s the key of a good tamal. Then come the fillings, which all have to be flavorful and with generous quantities of beans or boneless meat, depending on the tamal. All this is part of the experience of eating good tamales,” Antonieta explains. We couldn’t agree more, especially after sampling the various tamales she has set aside for us on the kitchen table of Tia Tila’s headquarters – they are neither dry nor meager. Watching the whole family work together as they share their life stories, we understand the point behind tamales: They are not about restraint; on the contrary, they are a symbol of generosity, warmth and community union.

The recipes have hardly changed from Helena’s time – generations of clients, our family included, have stayed loyal thanks to their consistency. “I took over the business when my mother passed away,” recalls Tia Tila. “I treasure her recipes, even the ones we no longer make for environmental reasons.” She’s referring to the very special tamal wrapped in maguey leaves that her mother used to make for the celebration of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). “The tamales looked beautiful, all wrapped in a thin layer of maguey leaf, and the flavor…” she trails off before sighing, “the flavor was earthy, smoky and unforgettable.” Sadly, a dish for the history books, as maguey plants are currently endangered.

It takes a concerted group effort to keep business running smoothly. Back in the late 1980s, demand was so high that Tia Tila needed more hands, so Antonieta and Hernán – who had moved to New Jersey only a few years earlier, in the mid-80s – decided to quit their jobs in the US to come back home and help Tia Tila. “We were homesick and felt we had a tradition to continue and whole families of clients awaiting. Despite the [feeling of perpetual] crisis and the fact that we have to work twice as hard, there is nothing like México,” Hernan says.

“While we were in New Jersey we would spend our days off selling tamales as a side project,” Antonieta adds. “But it wasn’t the same – we couldn’t find good corn or good spices. We would sell them for US$2 back then, and although money was fairly good, we were not feeling it, so we made our way back to our roots.”

tamales oaxaca

They agree that it was the right call, as the business is currently doing better than ever. Every week, the Tia Tila family makes between 800 to 1,000 tamales, which they sell over the course of a weekend at their two stands in the city. “Fortunately, we have increased our sales 25-30 percent during the pandemic. People want comfort food that is filling and affordable, so they call us in advance, order their tamales and pick them up at our market selling points,” explains 23-year-old Jose Roberto Cano Cruz, Hernán and Antonieta’s son, and the fourth generation to work in the business.

Together with his father, Jose Roberto sells Tia Tila’s moist and plump tamales on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in Mercado Paz Migueles, in the north of the city, while Antonieta can be found on Fridays and Sundays at the main entrance of Mercado Benito Juárez (on Flores Magón Street), next to the flower vendors, also from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

We’re impressed by Jose Roberto’s devotion to maintaining the tamal tradition. “Me and my siblings grew up next to the tamales’ pot. I have literally been doing this my whole life,” he tells us. When we ask about the future, he answers without hesitation: “I want to stick to our recipes and methods. We have attained a good level of consistency and together we are like a well-oiled machine. Of course we are adapting to demand, hygiene measures and new selling strategies, but I want to honor the heritage that made me who I am today and fed me throughout this challenging year.”

Filled with inspiration and tamales, we leave Tia Tila’s warm headquarters thinking about how such a simple dish can spark solidarity, a desire to preserve tradition, and even a celebration of life itself. For 2021, may tamales be with us.

The post Tamales de Tia Tila appeared first on Culinary Backstreets.

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iwhitney
286 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Stranger Fruit

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Stranger Fruit was created in response to the senseless murders of black men across the nation by police violence.
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iwhitney
499 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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MSP Restaurant Update: What's Now and What's Next?

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Local restaurant owners know it's not just how far we've come in four weeks, it's how far are we willing to go.

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iwhitney
558 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Online Shop These Independent MN Bookstores

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Amazon doesn't need your dollars right now, but these independent bookstores (offering staff picks) do.

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iwhitney
569 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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Two decades of weird beats from Blockhead, plus more lofi hiphop

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In the vein of the very popular lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to, UK's Channel 4 offers lofi hip hop radio - beats to self isolate to over a loop of Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd. Want to spend this self-isolation time getting to know one specific hip hop artist and his music? Check out Blockhead, Tony Simon from NYC, who's been making beats since '94, and started collabing with Aesop Rock circa 1998 (YouTube interviews x2). Signed to Ninja Tune (who have an [unrelated] ambient livestream) for four of his first five albums (Discogs), since then he's released his music on a couple different labels, plus via Bandcamp, spanning the eras of crate digging to digital discoveries (interview with This Savage Beauty). A selected discography follows ...

One of the earliest Blockhead beat for Aesop Rock: Plastic Soldier, off of Aesop's 1997 Music For Earthworms. And about four years later: Aesop Rock's "Daylight" from Labor Days (Discogs). He also provided beats for Murs (Happy Pillz ft. Aesop Rock), Illogic (Killing Time ft. Aesop Rock), and Party Fun Action Committee (Back N Da Daiz).

Blockhead's first solo release was Blockhead's Broke Beats (Bandcamp), a collection of short beats made specifically for DJ and Mc's, originally on Mush Records in 2001 (Discogs).

Three years later, he released Music by Cavelight (Youtube official audio playlist) on Ninja Tune (Discogs), with videos for Insomniac Olympics and Sunday Séance. John Bush's AMG review likened the sound to Boards of Canada and early instrumental trip-hop. He quickly followed the album with Downtown Science (YT, official audio playlist) the following year (Discogs). Jason Crock's Pitchfork review likens it to DJ Shadow and Daedelus, two other notable instrumental beatmakers.

Uncle Tony's Coloring Book (Bandcamp) was self-released in 2007, distributed by Ninja Tune (if I recall correctly), and is an uplifting detour from his prior two albums (Noel Dix, Exclaim.ca review). But that detour was short-lived.

Two years later, back on Ninja Tune, The Music Scene (YT playlist) "isn't something you put on to unwind, this is something you put on to blow minds and strike fear into people's hearts. The Music Scene sounds like the hip-hop soundtrack to the apocalypse." (Ted Maider, Consequence of Sound) The title track has a trippy video that is still Blockhead's most viewed video/ track, thanks to Anthony F. Schepperd's hand-drawn animation. The public access television-inspired Interludes After Midnight (YT playlist) is more of his instrumental hip hop with a melancholy vibe (Patrick Taylor, Rap Reviews), sampling psych, jazz, and rap tracks to make something new and wonderful. That album was the end of his Ninja Tunes.

In 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017, he released albums with rappers: Dour Candy (Bandcamp) with Billy Woods, Capture the Sun (Bandcamp) with Illogic, Justplaywitit (Discogs; "SumOfItsParts" on Soundcloud and its music video on YT) and Keep Playin' (Bandcamp) with Marq Spekt, then back with Billy Woods on Known Unknows (vocal and instrumental on Bandcamp).

Blockhead also self-released a second album, his 8th album over-all, in 2014. Bells And Whistles (Bandcamp) is another fine slab of funky, jazzy, eclectic boom-bap (Ali Van Houten, The Untz). In 2017, he let loose Funeral Balloons, "eclectic instrumentation, chunky vintage drums, funky percussion, and moody synth passages. At times a somber, emotional exploration, but somehow retains a light heartedness through out." (David Peck, Bringing Down the Band).

In 2018, Blockhead was let loose on the London-based De Wolfe Music library music archive and produced The Art of the Sample (Bandcamp). In his own words "These are not typical Blockhead songs. They're more stripped down and focused for the purpose of being used in TV and film."

Not one to stay still for long, Blockhead collaborated with a range of rappers on Free Sweatpants (Bandcamp), "laid back, chilled out beats and soundscapes he serves up to his wordy companions" (Christopher Michael Ovens Sneddon, The Headscratcher). (If it's too wordy for you, Tony also has the instrumental album on Bandcamp.) The album was a few years in the making, and something he had wanted to do since before he released his first instrumental solo album (Passion of the Weiss interview. He released his 9th solo album at the end of 2019, Bubble Bath (Bandcamp). In the era of "chilled beats" playlists on YouTube, Blockhead continues to stand out (Eric Mellor, Spectrum Culture).

Bonus YouTube playlist, from Blockhead himself: 35 remixes. Bonus remix: Hangar 18: Baking Soda (Remix)

And because everyone's doing work from home, Tony has uploaded about an hour every other day for the past week, under the title Blockhead's Quarantine beats: Brute Camp Clique, 7th Heaven, Doug Flutie, and latest from earlier tonight: Moustache ride -- a beat made live on Instagram, copied then to YouTube.
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iwhitney
570 days ago
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Minneapolis, MN
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