Cookbook review: Bring the warm, welcoming flavors of Africa to your table

‘Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen’ by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama (Potter, $28)
"Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen" by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama (Potter, $28)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

"Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen" by Pierre Thiam with Lisa Katayama (Potter, $28)

Anyone who’s grown up on black-eyed peas and okra knows the contributions Africans have made to the American diet. What’s less understood is how deeply those connections extend throughout the world.

“Trace almost anything that humans touch backward or forward in history, and it will take you to Africa,” notes Pierre Thiam in the introduction to “Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, $28).

This realization became clear when he arrived in New York from his native Senegal in the early 1990s for what was supposed to be a quick detour en route to the Midwest for college. Those plans changed when his life savings was stolen out of his suitcase, and he took jobs in restaurants to recoup those losses.

At Boom, a now-defunct SoHo hotspot famed for its multicultural flavors, he often made Senegalese dishes from memory for staff meals. Eventually they made it onto the menu. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of customers and critics, he’s been spreading the word about West African food ever since — as co-founder and executive chef of Teranga in New York, prolific author and founder of Yolele, a company specializing in sustainable African-grown products, such as the ancient grain fonio.

While his previous cookbooks hew closely to traditions as they exist in the motherland, “Simply West African” invites us into his current home in California, where he cooks regularly for his wife and co-author, Lisa Katayama, and young daughter Naia. These highly approachable recipes primarily rely on everyday ingredients, with substitutes offered for less common ones.

Karaage-Style West African Fried Chicken incorporates flavors and techniques of his family’s blended heritages. Charred Sweet Potatoes doused in Garlicky Parsley Rof, Ndambe Nachos with Black-Eyed Peas and Butternut Squash, and Shrimp and Fonio Grits bridge American and African tastes in exciting new ways.

Each page exudes the spirit of teranga, which Thiam defines as a quality of “generosity, love, warm welcoming, and abundance” best understood at the table — no translation needed.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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