Correction to This Article
A Nov. 8 Food article incorrectly said that Kassahun Ayele is Ethiopia's ambassador to the United States, and it identified Aster Hidaru as his wife. The current ambassador is Samuel Assefa, and he is married to Hidaru. Ayele is a former ambassador.

One Chef, One Book, One Continent

(Allison Dinner Ftwp)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

It took a Swedish man to tackle the diversity of African regional cooking, to spend five years on an exhaustive book project that would send him from Soweto to Marrakech, from the remote villages of Senegal to the savannas of Tanzania.

But then Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, is not your typical Swede. "I did it because I was one of a few people who could do it," says Samuelsson, 35, an accomplished chef with three restaurants in New York. "From the viewpoint of food, Africa is an undiscovered continent."

While visiting Washington recently as part of a 15-city promotional tour for "The Soul of a New Cuisine" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2006, $40), he shopped for fresh injera -- the spongy bread -- along U Street's Little Ethiopia. He's no stranger to the area. "This is where my friends are," he said as we turned onto Ninth Street NW, where Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants line the street. (The Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area is home to an estimated 75,000 people of Ethiopian descent.)

Samuelsson popped into the popular, modern Etete restaurant, immediately heading into the kitchen for a look at the luncheon specials being prepared by cook Fantu Denku. And later, at the Ethiopian Embassy, he prepared tibs wett, seasoned with his own blend of sensory-stimulating spices.

Tibs wett, a specialty dish at several restaurants in Little Ethiopia and at countless street stalls in Addis Ababa, calls for a ginger- and cumin-laced clarified butter that is liberally added to many stews. Samuelsson calls tibs wett "one of the easiest Ethiopian dishes to make. It's more like a stir-fry than a traditional stew, cooked in minutes and served immediately so that the tomatoes and jalapeños still taste fresh, not stewed."

As he shopped, strolled and cooked, he explained the motivation behind such an ambitious book. "The whole idea was to get people to the table and show them that Africa is not just all about war and AIDS and poverty," he says, his arms in motion as if conducting an invisible orchestra. "I had to describe the Africa I've seen."

What Samuelsson also saw was a great untapped book segment. "You go into Barnes & Noble, and there are a thousand Tuscany books and a thousand Chinese cookbooks, but nothing for a billion people," he says.

That was reason enough. He would persuade Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the man he calls "my Mr. Africa," to write a foreword, or there wouldn't be a foreword at all.

* * *

Marcus Samuelsson was born Kassahun Tsegie in a small village northeast of Addis Ababa in 1970. Three years later his mother died in a tuberculosis epidemic, and he and his sister, Linda, were placed in an orphanage. Both were adopted by Lennart and Ann Marie Samuelsson and started a new life in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The night after Ann Marie brought the two home, he writes, "she woke up to find us pounding on the door of the refrigerator because after the deprivation of our life in Ethiopia, we'd seen all the food coming out of it and wanted more."

In Ethiopia, men rarely, if ever, cook or even enter a kitchen, but in Sweden his grandmother, Helga, taught him how to make traditional Swedish meals. First came his favorite part: foraging in the countryside for wild mushrooms, strawberries and herbs, and working in the family garden and orchard. After a series of food-related jobs, from scaling fish to baking bread, he enrolled in culinary school at age 16.

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