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The African Roots Of A Classic Southern Dish

Dadisi Olutosin grew up in Atlanta. His mother is "a southern belle," he says, "and growing up in her household, I was exposed to a lot of very, very good food," he says. She cooked classic southern American dishes like collard greens (which he made for us in this video).

It was only later, when traveling around the world as an adult, that he understood the African roots of his culinary heritage.

In West Africa, Olutosin saw women cooking a range of green leafy vegetables in soups and stews. The food — and how they made it -- reminded him of his own mother. And he also found the roots of southern dishes. His dad grew up in Nigeria. "In Nigeria you find a very popular dish called egusi," says Dadisi. It's a thick soup made with green leafy vegetables like pumpkin leaves or something called bitter leaf as well as melon seeds.

He began to understand his culinary ties to this part of the world — that much of the food he grew up with was brought from West Africa by enslaved Africans. (The Atlantic slave trade also carried these food traditions to Caribbean islands. A dish called callaloo "is really the Caribbean version of collard greens," says Olutosin, who now lives in Washington, D.C., where he's an IT professional and a pop-up chef.)

Now when Olutosin cooks his collard greens, he pays tribute to these historical connections by adding Caribbean and West African ingredients. For example, he adds peanuts to his collards dish – peanuts are a big part of the diet in West Africa. And he adds coconut milk, popular in the Caribbean.
Jump to the recipe.

These days, many southerners like Olutosin are honoring and preserving these food traditions. But back in West Africa, the opposite trend is in force: More and more people are abandoning traditional foods for a westernized diet.

"People are moving into urban areas and you're seeing higher consumption of foods of convenience, things you never found in Africa before like pasta," says Edward Mabaya, an agriculture and food expert at Cornell University.

And so, foods made with refined ingredients like pasta, noodles and bread are replacing traditional sources of carbohydrates like yams, cassava and millet.

The reason is often just convenience. Many old-time recipes call for long hours of preparation and cooking — overnight soaking, grinding by hand, fermenting. These tasks fell to the women in the household. But today, many West African women also have jobs, making it hard for them to spend long hours in the kitchen.

"I think the modern Ghanaian woman wants to eat healthy indigenous foods but the preparation time is what puts most of them off," says Yaganoma Baatoulkou, a food entrepreneur based in Accra, Ghana.

Western vegetables like cabbage and lettuce are replacing a variety of local (and nutritious) green leafy vegetables. Farmers find it more profitable to grow the western varieties.

And as incomes rise in cities, people are drawn to western fast food chains. "We have quite a few American fast food brands," says Baatoulkou. Fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut are popular, she says, and eating at these places is seen as "prestigious" and great for family outings.

As NPR's The Salt reported last year, these dietary changes have dire health consequences — growing rates of obesity and diabetes.

But the old foods are starting to make a comeback. Baatoulkou is part of a new breed of food entrepreneurs who are reinventing them in packaged forms that are convenient for city people.

Her start-up company Wanjo, which means hibiscus in the regional language Wolof, sells juices and jams made from native plants like hibiscus, tamarind and baobab.

"Imagine if you wanted pounded yam," says Ogunranti Feyisara, a food safety consultant and entrepreneur in Nigeria. Pounded yam, is a Nigerian version of fufu – a starchy ball, popular in parts of Africa, that's commonly served with vegetable soups. To make it the traditional way, "you have to peel the yam, you have to cook it and then pound the yam."

Now you can buy premade pounded yam in supermarkets.

And there's definitely a market for these products. "As a career woman, I would like to walk into a supermarket and pick up well-packaged and clean indigenous food ingredients that will cut my cooking time in half," says Baatoulku of Ghana. "This way I spend less time in the kitchen and can still cook wholesome foods for my family."

The newly packaged traditional foods have helped cut down cooking time for women like Mojisola Ojebode, a Nigerian scientist based in Ibadan. One ingredient she is thrilled about is an instant spice mix for a popular pepper soup. Her mother used to make the mix from scratch by grinding each spice before cooking, she says. "I don't even know the names of all the spices in it," says Ojebode. But she does know that it includes nutmeg and pepper.

In theory, she'd happily buy precut vegetables at the supermarket — but right now, she says they cost three times as much as the produce sold at the outdoor market. So she just asks her vendor to chop and bag her fresh veggies.

Dadisi Olutosin's Recipe For Collard Greens

Collard greens was the first dish that Dadisi Olutosin learned to make, when he was a young boy. Today he adds some international touches. But it's still his go-to comfort food.

2 large bunches of collard greens

2 large red onions

1 ounce raw ginger

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

8 ounces baby portobello mushrooms

4 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon raw sugar 2 tablespoons sea salt (or to taste)

4 tablespoons medium yellow or red curry powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces (1 cup) coconut milk

4 ounces chopped roasted peanuts (optional for garnish)

2 Roma tomatoes (optional for garnish)

Optional meat to add: precooked pork belly, bacon, ham hocks or smoked turkey necks, chopped or left whole

Roughly chop both onions, mushrooms, garlic and ginger. Add olive oil to a 3-to-4 quart pot on medium heat. Let the oil heat up a little bit. (If it starts smoking it's too hot.) Then add chopped items — saute until they start to sweat and caramelize. Stir gently with a large wooden spoon while adding salt (to taste), black pepper and curry powder.

Wash and thoroughly clean the collard greens to remove any grit. Cut off the stems but don't throw them away. Stack the leaves in piles of three-to-four, then roll them tightly. Take your knife and chiffonade the rolls — that's a fancy verb that means to cut them into strips.

Slowly add the strips of collard greens to the pot, then fold the seasoned vegetables on top. If you're using meat, add it now. Cook over medium heat.

The moisture in the greens will evaporate from the heat of the water, decreasing their volume.

Once you see steam coming from the pot, your greens are ready for the final step. Gently stir in the coconut milk, then cover the pot and allow to simmer for 30-45 minutes, depending on how tender or tough you want your greens to be.

Serve greens with optional garnishes like sliced or diced raw onions and tomatoes and crushed peanuts. Don't forget, some good cast-iron skillet buttermilk cornbread goes great with greens.

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.