A Hint of Africa: Seafood on the Plate

Africa, West

“…with a legion of cooks, and an army of slaves.”–Lord Byron–

Five hundred and eighteen years ago, an event occurred that changed the world in more ways than its perpetrator thought possible. Christopher Columbus’s voyages caused a collision of cultures, people, and foods on a scale never before seen in the history of mankind. With Columbus’s “discovery” of America, thousands upon thousands of people yet unborn were destined to become slaves. And many millions of people around the world, over the centuries, would gain economically, and gastronomically, from those made slaves and from Columbus’s unwitting stumbling upon the New World.

Christopher Columbus, Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo (Library of Congress)
Christopher Columbus, Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo (Library of Congress)

It is in the world’s kitchens where the fruits of Columbus’ “discovery” are most tangible. From India to China to Europe to the Americas to Africa, the culinary mixing of New World ingredients with those of the Old took place. As a primary example of this mixing, consider the much-vaunted cooking traditions of the African slaves.

In the Big Houses of slave plantations, be it in the islands of the Caribbean or the coastal plantations of Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, some of the spices and cooking methods of Africa took over. Subtly but surely the taste hinted at times of Africa. Okra, peppers, dende oil (palm oil) all combined in the cooking pot, aided by bananas, plantains, and coconuts. Huge black iron cauldrons stewed seafood callaloos (soups), fish stews, and shrimp gumbos. Fish fried in coconut oil, peanut oil, or lard, depending upon the geography. And today, in the Caribbean, that taste of Africa still lingers … as I learned so well first-hand during my four years of living in Honduras. Note that plantains did NOT originate in Africa, but their texture approximates a number of tubers commonly eaten in Africa.

Here’s a story of my dinner one night, on the coast of Honduras, near Tela, and the Bay Islands:

To look at it, Chabelita’s ocean-side restaurant looked like the last place in which one would ever choose to eat. The double-screened entrance doors hung from their hinges and neon blue paint crumbled off the walls. Neon blue chairs, tables, walls all assaulted the eyes. Two small white wall fans swished at a tilt.

The smiling young waiter led us outside to the “dining room,” a small thatched roofed lean-to. The night, black as an obsidian blade, shrouded us as the waiter lit two stubby white candles precariously stuck into two old wine bottles. The drip-drip of the candles kept time with the droning frogs in the bushes and candlelight flickered over the old stained menus.

There really was no choice. The only thing to eat was the fried fish with french fries. Everyone knew that.

And soon the sound of laughter rose from behind the restaurant. The kitchen stood outside, nothing more than an enormous black iron cauldron, filled to the brim with a mixture of palm and coconut oils. Settled over a wood charcoal fire, the pot gave off heady odors of bubbling hot oil and smoke combined with the aroma of salty sea air. Four whole large fish, flung unceremoniously into the pot, swam in the oil, skin puffing and crackling. French fries gurgled in another pot. The cooks, all men, swatted at the fish with long metal hooks, turning them carefully, testing for doneness.

Finally, filled plates suddenly appeared on the table. Crisp fish, eyes bulging with white frothiness, squirted with lemon juice and sprinkled with salt, signalled their readiness to be eaten. Tender moist meat under the crisp skin, seasoned lightly with a taste of coconut and a sense of the sea, melted softly in the mouth.

No one spoke. The languorous mood and the tropical moon illuminated the cooks, cooking in the tradition of their long-gone slave ancestors.

C. Bertelsen)
Africa in Haiti (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Every year, historians debate Columbus’s “discovery” with increasing fervor. Much needs discussion, true, but the heart of the matter lies not in dusty tomes but rather on kitchen shelves and in human souls. That’s where the true discoveries took place … and hopefully, still are.

Here are some recipes of interest.


Fish Vendor, Ghana (Used with permission of Joshua Treviño.)


1 pound fish fillets, cooked as preferred
4 large tomatoes
2 onions
Salt and black pepper to taste
3-5 hot green chili peppers
Pinch of dried thyme leaves
2 T. palm or peanut oil

1. Cook the fish as desired. Set aside (or fish may be mixed with sauce, depending upon cooking method).
2. Purée next 5 ingredients in food processor or blender.
3. In a heavy skillet, fry the sauce for 5 minutes in the oil. add the fish if desired, or place fish on serving plates and cover with some of the sauce. Serve with cooked rice.


1 clove garlic, mashed and minced
3 T. lime juice
1/2 t. dried oregano
Black pepper
2 pounds fish fillets

1/4 cup peanut oil
3 cloves of garlic, mashed and minced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1-2 hot green peppers, minced
Bay leaf
1/4 t. dried oregano
2 cups coconut cream
2 T. tomato paste
Salt to taste
1 T. lime juice

1. Mix marinade ingredients, allow to sit for 1/2 hour, put through strainer and pour over the fish (put fish in a glass baking dish for this.) Marinate fish for 1 hour.

2. Dry fish with paper towels, roll in the flour, and fry until done and golden brown. Place fish on a warm plate and set aside.
3. Fry the onion, garlic, and pepper in the oil in the pan in which the fish were cooked. Cook until onion is transparent and beginning to color slightly. Add the remaining ingredients (except for the lime juice) and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and cook for another 3 minutes.

4. Serve fish with sauce poured over the top, garnished with lime slices.

CRAB GUMBO (Martinique)

Note: This more like a stew than a soupy gumbo.

2 pounds crab meat, picked over
3 T. butter
15 okras, sliced
1 medium onion, minced
2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 small hot pepper, deveined, seeded, and chopped
1 T. chives, chopped
1 cup water
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. dried thyme leaves
2 T. parsley, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste

1. Fry crab meat in the butter in a hot skillet, reduce heat, add the next 5 ingredients, and continue cooking for about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, and cook covered for another 45 minutes or so.

2. Serve over rice.

Serves 6

1 medium onion, minced
4 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 T. fresh hot pepper, chopped (optional)
2 T. butter
1/2 pound crabmeat
1/2 pound lobster meat, chopped
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2-3/4 cup beer

1. Fry onion, tomatoes, and hot pepper in butter/oil until onions are transparent (about 10 minutes). Toss in the remaining ingredients, stir, and cook over low heat for approximately 20 more minutes.
2. Serve over rice or polenta.

Acras (Used with permission.)

Makes about 2 dozen

Note: Acras (or fritters) are found throughout West Africa and the Caribbean, and may be the ancestors of hush puppies.

1 1/2 cup salt cod, soaked, drained, deboned, and mashed
3/4 cup flour
1 t. baking powder
3/4 cup milk
2 T. oil
2 egg yolks
4 egg whites, beaten until stiff
1 T. chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, mashed and minced
Pinch of hot red pepper (cayenne)
Chopped chili pepper to taste
Oil for deep frying

1. Mix ingredients together. Form balls with a 2 T.-size soup spoon and dip into hot oil. Fritters should float, double in size, and brown in around 3-5 minutes.

2. Serve hot with hot sauce.

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen



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