The African American culinary experience

February 4, 2008 10:08:28 AM PST
One restaurant focuses on the cuisines from Africa, while the other continues a legacy of dishing up down-home soul food. American soul food traces its roots back to slavery when people made do with what was readily available: okra, chicken, pork and greens. But if you take a longer look back, you have to travel to Africa, which is precisely what one local restaurateur did, in an attempt to recreate the dishes from his beloved homeland.

Black history is traced to Africa. So any culinary quest begins on the continent, or in our case, in Rogers Park, at African Harambee, where several countries' cuisines are represented.

"From my experience, there were many people who were asking me to have an African restaurant for people to sample the different cuisines of Africa and it has always been in my mind," said Sisay Abebe, African Harambee.

From South Africa, a dried fruit curry with raisins, dates and apricots; from Morocco, a vegetable tagine, containing boiled potatoes, cauliflower and eggplant, sauteed with ginger and chili powder. A Senegalese peanut stew is thick and slightly sweet. Also from Senegal, the che bu gen, a saute of shrimp and tilapia with African spices. From Ethiopia, a platter of spongy injera bread is the base for a number of highly-seasoned beef and vegetable stews called "wats." All dishes here come with a choice of couscous, injera, rice or ugali, a corn-based dough.

When African Americans initially settled in Chicago, they went to Bronzeville on the South Side. Restaurants like Izola's, Captain's Hard Time and Army and Lou's have been there decades, but on the West Side, there's just one word to remember when it comes to culinary history ? Edna, as in Edna Stewart, the matriarch of her namesake soul food restaurant.

"Back in 1966, it was real busy. I mean no empty storefronts no where in 1966. Everything was blooming," said Edna Stewart, Edna's.

Even after the riots on Madison Street, Edna's survived, and continues to thrive.

"I got customers that are still coming in from 1966...they like the food, they like the atmosphere," said Edna.

They also like the fried chicken, Mac n' cheese and collards, plus, smothered short ribs, fried catfish and some of the best peach cobbler in town. Of course, any regular will tell you a visit to Edna's wouldn't be complete without sampling her dynamite biscuits.

"My momma used to make biscuits, and she used to make good rolls too. From time to time I've just been working with them and working with them and I've got a couple employees that is right behind me so we do the best biscuits on earth," said Edna.

There are a handful of other African restaurants in Chicago. But they typically feature the cuisine from one country, such as Senegal or Ethiopia. As for soul food, in addition to these South Side legends, MacArthur's on the West Side is notable.

African Harambee
7537 N. Clark St.

3175 W. Madison St.

also mentioned:

Army & Lou's
422 E. 75th St.

Captain's Hard Time Dining
434-440 E. 79th St.

522 E. 79th St.

5412 W. Madison St.