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.
Cooking was his ticket out of Sweden, where he was suffocating. "I grew up in a place where every time you saw a black person you said 'Hi.' You felt a bond," he says. "As an adopted child, I was an island within a culture. And I wanted to live in a multicultural society."
Samuelsson apprenticed in restaurants in Switzerland, France and Austria before moving to New York in 1995 for a job at the stylish Restaurant Aquavit, which serves upscale Scandinavian-fusion food.
Quickly rising to executive chef and co-owner, he has won two James Beard Foundation awards. In 2004 he opened Riingo, a New American/Japanese restaurant and, more recently, August, a casual French bistro. Samuelsson is an official spokesman for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF (which will receive some proceeds from sales of the book) and is focused on providing support for tuberculosis programs in developing counties.
"He's inspiring young chefs in Ethiopia as well as the rest of us who use his recipes, and he's the only person I know that cooks our foods a different way, with a little fusion," says Aster Hidaru, wife of Ethiopian ambassador Kassahun Ayele. "He is very much known in the capital and even in the countryside, where they watch him on TV."
A handsome, wiry guy with a slight but solid soccer build, he's a television natural and stars on the Discovery Home Channel's "Inner Chef" series.
* * *
With "The Soul of a New Cuisine," his second cookbook after 2003's "Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine," Samuelsson started with an Ethiopian focus. "It's the African food with the best legs," he says. "It's so college-friendly, affordable, and you eat with your hands, and you remember that."
Then "one thing led to another, and I saw how the whole continent was related." How chili peppers can bring to life the simplest grilled meat, fish and stewed vegetables. How families and friends eat together over communal platters. The importance of starches, such as cassava and yams, in the diet. "The goal is to take time and talk and eat together."
In the book, more than 250 photographs by Gediyon Kifle of Washington beautifully capture such everyday life. For Samuelsson, though, the biggest challenge was sifting through the tastes and techniques that came to Africa by way of occupiers and immigrants, mixing European, Indian and Asian.
He's particularly proud of the book's Spice Blends and Rubs section, which attempts to simplify the difference between, say, an Arab-influenced boharat that calls for rose petals and lemon powder and a Ethiopian berbere that derives much of its flavor from dried serrano chili peppers and the heady trio of cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.
"Curious cooks" are the target audience, he says, then adds that anyone can make a meal with "Soul."
"Families have a lot of these ingredients already," Samuelsson says. "I'm not saying go out and buy 5,000 things. But if you lose your curiosity, you've lost a lot."
Many of the recipes don't come together in a flash, but "this is about preserving culture," he says.
And that, like a simmering Moroccan tagine, takes a little time.