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black-eyed-peas-ThiamThe cuisine of the Americas was strongly influenceded by that of Africa, according to Pierre Thiam, chief Senegalese, author and cultural ambassador. For the international day of commemoration victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, he prepare various dishes to illustrate this impact. He explains à Jocelyne Sambira from Africa Renewal how her researches thehave amené à this conclusion.

AR: What was your contribution to the International Day of Remembrance of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

PT: I had to present a menu that would precisely represent this slave trade because Africa has had a lot of influence on diaspora cuisine, especially in the Americas. When you go to New Orleans, for example, you see the dishes as "okra", high braised; you see "acarajé" and quite a few other dishes. There are ingredients that have come from Africa through the slave trade and with these ingredients, recipes have arrived too.

So I had to prepare five dishes that are inspired by this tragic moment in the history of our people. One dish is called "rice in bed" among Haitians but at home it is called "sombi". It's a dessert but I presented it in a rather different way with roasted honey mango.

Why especially this "rice pudding"

This rice pudding is symbolic. Why did I choose it? Because we do not realize enough the importance of the contribution of Africans in the American culinary space.

Imagine what the United States would be without rice. North Carolina ... the whole economy was based on rice. They even called it "Carolina Gold" or Carolina Gold. But the story of rice and its arrival in the Americas is quite interesting because at the time, the slave was chosen in relation to the region that grew rice. Among these regions, there was southern Senegal, the region where my parents come from, Casamance. There was a lot of raids. They were looking for slaves because they knew how to grow rice and brought them to the states of Carolina or even Mexico. Mexico did not know rice before the arrival of slaves. And that's a part of history that we do not talk about often enough.

It's fascinating. What prompted you to do this research?

RL: Listen, I first started researching the cuisine of my origins. I started professionally cooking in the late 80 years but I was in restaurants that were anything but African. I worked in the Italian restaurant, I worked in the French bistros and what happened was that I was in New York, the whole world was there but Africa was not represented so I I'm told why not do some research on this kitchen, on my origins. It is through this research and trips to Senegal visit my parents, the women of my family and African women - in fact because it is they who hold the secrets of African cuisine - it is through them that I thought about working on this first book. And reinterpret their recipes to fit the modern kitchen. And in this research, I realized that indeed, there were many of these dishes that existed in the Americas. There were of course other people who had done this research before me. I read books by Jessica Harris, for example, who became a good friend but did this research as a historian. And I came as a chef to confirm the link that existed and the dishes did not change much.

You spoke earlier of the "akarajé" in Brazil that we find in West Africa too.

Yes. It's street food in Brazil but it's street food in West Africa. They call it "akarajé" and we call it "akara" but it's the same dish with black-eyed beans. It's peas coming from here that have been brought here, just like rice and okra. It is presented in the same way with a small crispy donut and is served with a very spicy sauce

"Akaraje" is not the only example?

Not at all, "jambalaya, feijoada, okra, hopping johns" are all dishes returned to Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea, Benin. You will see interpretations of these dishes.

And it's the same thing in the Caribbean: the "leaf sauces" found in Guinea will be found in some form or other in Haiti or Jamaica.

Would your books be a way of honoring the victims of this slave trade?

PT: Absolutely. It's a way for me to honor them. It's a way to kneel in their memory because without them I do not think we would have anything. It was they who allowed us, who brought that legacy that allowed us to continue.

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