efining American cuisine has always been tricky, especially because each new wave of immigrants brought along its own food traditions, enriching and expanding on what was already here. In turn, the produce aisles of our supermarkets have eventually reflected what these new American consumers demanded -- from bean sprouts to fennel to jicama.
Now meet amaranth, ancthea, njamma-njamma and ndole, vegetables grown by farmers who've immigrated to America in the last 15 years or so. These vegetables are not yet in most supermarkets. But, like the produce prized by ethnic communities who've been here for a while, these vegetables may turn up soon, as some Washington area farmers address the needs of those who yearn for the food they ate in their homeland.
"My vision was to produce staples for the African community here in Maryland," says Yao Afantchao, who came to this country from Congo in the early 1990s.
Locally, a support system for people like Afantchao exists at the Small Farm Institute, a University of Maryland outreach program that targets minority farmers and provides them with technical assistance and guidance in farm management, production economics and agricultural marketing. (The institute is set up to provide services to all American small farmers, new to this country or not.)
Many of the people who work with the institute are part of the growing number of what are increasingly known as New American Farmers. The category includes immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and other parts of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean who, no matter what occupations they had in their native countries, have chosen to farm full or part time in this country.
The first group of these farmers tended to be refugees from Vietnam and Laos who came to America after the Vietnam War and can now be found growing Asian vegetables, especially in New England, Iowa and California.
"Over the past two decades, the number of these farmers has increased five to seven times its size," says Gus Schumacher, a former deputy secretary of agriculture who focused on farm and foreign agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration.
Schumacher, who comes from a four-generation, vegetable-farming family, works with the Kellogg Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to apply knowledge to solve people's problems. Its Food and Society initiative is supporting Schumacher's work with refugee and immigrant farmers all over the country. "They're part of a new wave that's adding vitality to rural America as well as adding innovative sources of product to ethnic markets, and increasingly to Main Street markets across the country," he says.
That's starting to happen in this area. The Small Farm Institute, for example, runs a program that focuses on the ethnic vegetables of these more current immigrant groups -- Hispanics, Asians and especially West Africans.
Sonde Mufor came to America eight years ago from Cameroon, where he was a translator. Recently he showed two visitors the rented plot of land in Linthicum in Anne Arundel County where four years ago he and his wife, Priscilla, started to grow the vegetables they missed from home. Among them:
* Huckleberry greens, whose tender tops can be sliced, parboiled and deep-fried in oil with tomatoes and onions, or stewed with tomatoes and semolina.
* Amaranth, the high-protein green whose seeds can be turned into flour for bread and whose young stems and tender leaves can be cooked like spinach.
* Two varieties (large leaf and small) of the highly nutritious njamma-njamma, greens that look something like arugula and that grow to maturity in six weeks.
* Ndole, or bitterleaf, which must be scraped to get the bitter juice out before it's sliced, parboiled and then cooked in soups and stews such as one with ground peanuts and meat. "It's a delicacy, but difficult to prepare," says Mufor of the dish. "You have to peel the peanuts, process the leaves and boil chunks of meat."
* Ancthea, which grows like an eggplant, but whose fruit is not eaten. Only its leaves are used, sliced, parboiled and cooked with meat and ground seeds such as pumpkin seeds
* Also habanero peppers, which, like some of the greens, are attractive to a larger community than West Africans, and tomatoes and basil and green beans.
Mufor, who came to the United States for political reasons, grew up on his parents' coffee farm, where he didn't learn to farm but he did watch his mother grow many vegetables. "Women are in charge of everything that goes into our mouths in my country." His wife agrees. "In Africa, everyone has a small garden," she says.
Although the vegetables Mufor grows now are limited to a plot that's only about an acre, he's starting to make connections with restaurants and some international markets in the area. "I can't keep up with the demand, but meanwhile I do what I can do from year to year."
Over in Upper Marlboro, more ethnic vegetables are thriving at the University of Maryland Research and Education Center, run by Stephan Tubene and David Myers.
There, thanks to a grant from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, on about an acre and a half of the Center's land, data are collected on yield, growth stages and techniques like electronic fences (to keep deer away), trickle irrigation (hoses slowly release water through pinhole-size holes) and plastic culture (the soil is covered with black plastic). On this day, Yao Afantchao, an entrepreneur with a farming background and market connections, is watching over the three-acre plot from a farmer's point of view. "The challenge was to try to produce African crops with American technology," he says.
Then once the crops are brought to harvest, somebody has to think about sales. Afantchao also has a smoked fish business called Deku Enterprises. "Everyone in West Africa eats smoked fish," he says, "all the way to the south." And he's the point person for contacts with the markets, stores and churches frequented by an international community.
Although established with an idea to provide ethnic vegetables for the African community in the area, the research center project grows the kind of produce also sought out by many Hispanics, some Indians and Pakistanis, Koreans and people from the Philippines and the Caribbean. These include several varieties of squash, peppers and eggplant that are not typically found in American supermarkets.
The size of the demand for these vegetables is unclear, but if those other ethnic groups are included, the institute, as well as many of the farmers, estimate from 500,000 to 1 million people locally as potential buyers.
Currently, there is no regular, reliable source of supply, but the produce can often be found at many international markets in the greater Washington and Baltimore areas. Occasionally, so can some other products used in these ethnic cuisines, such as locally raised goats.
The availability of such foods are all a part of the expanding notion of what ethnic food is in this country in 2003. And these new American farmers are eager to provide the goods.
Says Sonde Mufor, as he looks out way beyond the land he rents, "My dream is to have the whole place for ethnic and exotic vegetables."