Adrian Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Follow him on Twitter at @soulfoodscholar.
Although fusing cuisines may define today’s food-world zeitgeist, the concept is nothing new for African Americans. Due to an enduring and volatile mix of class and race superiority, Anglo-Saxon white elites made sure that African Americans, poor whites, and newly arrived ethnic immigrants—even those from Europe—lived in close proximity to each other in both rural and urban areas around the country. Of these immigrant groups, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican restaurateurs and street vendors realized that all money is green and welcomed black customers when others wouldn’t.
As a result, African Americans enjoyed many ethnic foods—notably chili, chop suey, and spaghetti—at the turn of the 20th century that wouldn’t enter the American mainstream until the 1950s and later. Not only did African Americans heavily patronize these restaurants, but ethnic-restaurant recipes made their way into cookbooks and the food sections of newspapers and magazines intended for African-American cooks. As African Americans became more familiar with the once strange and foreign foods, they were eager to make these dishes in their own kitchen, and in time began to put their own spin on them by tinkering with ingredients and technique.
Here are five examples of immigrant foods that African Americans have adopted and transformed to make their own.
Native habitat: Georgia
The backstory: When we think curry, our minds understandably drift towards South Asia. Yet curry dishes have long been part of the African American culinary experience. Fish curries were a popular dish in the “Big Houses” of the antebellum South. The iconic cookbooks by both Martha Washington and Mary Randolph (Thomas Jefferson’s cousin), as well as The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan, have recipes for curry powders and composed curry dishes. The fact that elite Southern families liked curry often meant that their enslaved cooks prepared such food.
At some point, black cooks brought the dish into their kitchens, and a popular example is a chicken curry dish called “country captain.” Several origin stories exist, but the most colorful is that an exotic sea captain divulged the secret recipe while visiting the port of Savannah, GA in the 1700s. That would explain its name, and why the dish is most associated with Georgia. Much like a chicken curry is made in India, Country Captain is often prepared in a two-step process. The bone-in or chopped chicken parts are quickly cooked by pan-searing or poaching, and then braised in a tomato-based, curry-spiked sauce. When ready for serving, the dish is often served with boiled rice and the traditional curry accompaniments of chopped parsley, dried currants, fried onions, slivered almonds, and toasted coconuts.
Country captain is a dish that African Americans make more often at home, but it does make an occasional appearance on the menus of upscale soul-food restaurants.
Native habitat: Northeastern U.S.
The backstory: Since the late 1800s, Chinese restaurants have been a vibrant part of the dining scene in African American neighborhoods. This fact is particularly poignant at a time when black neighborhoods have fewer dining options outside of convenience stores, fast-food operations, and gas stations. Egg rolls are on the short list of mainstreamed Chinese foods, and African Americans have inventively created the “Soul Roll”—an egg-roll wrapper filled with soul-food ingredients like barbecued meat, collard greens, chicken, rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese, or puréed candied yams.
It’s hard to say when and who invented soul rolls, but it appears to be something that started as a home-kitchen experiment. In his cookbook, Cooking with Coolio, the rapper and self-proclaimed “Ghetto Gourmet” described how in his childhood he would travel from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton to nearby Watts, literally dodging bullets along the way, to get to a friend’s house and “have his momma’s famous Blasian (Black and Asian) egg rolls.” From the home kitchen, soul rolls eventually made the jump to soul-food establishments. The New York Times reported that by the late 1990s, the now defunct Mekka Restaurant was serving what they called a “soul roll,” which was filled with beans, chicken, and rice. I didn’t have my first soul rolls until the late 2000s when I was eating my way through the country to research my book on the history of soul food. Today, their presence has become widespread.
Native habitat: Mississippi
The backstory: American cuisine owes a tremendous debt to the indigenous people who taught European and African immigrants how to utilize their native foods. Maize, more commonly known as corn, was critically important to their survival. We all know what grits mean to soul foodies, but you probably didn’t know about another corn-based dish that has tremendous staying power in soul food cuisine: the tamale. The Mississippi Delta region has a strong tamale tradition, and it’s likely that Mexican agricultural workers brought tamales with them while doing seasonal agricultural work in the American South during the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century.
Thanks to the oral histories recorded in the 1930s, there are accounts of enslaved African Americans making and eating tamales prior to extensive contact with migrant Mexicans. In this scenario, the enslaved most likely borrowed tamales from local Native Americans who were making something similar to what we today call a tamale. The Mississippi Delta tamale differs from the standard tamale in the sense that it uses a coarse cornmeal rather than the finely-ground masa harina typically used, and the filling tends to include a lot more meat.
Though black and white Southerners make and consume Mississippi Delta tamales to this day, whites outside of the South often associate it with African Americans. By the 1920s, black street vendors were hawking tamales in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, and tamale references have long been used in black popular culture. Most famously, bluesman Robert Johnson sang about tamale vendors (and alluded to women) in his 1936 hit song, “They’re Red Hot.” The next time you’re traveling down Mississippi’s “Blues Highway” (U.S. Route 61), be sure to make a stop at any of the numerous tamale vendors.
Native habitat: Southeastern Pennsylvania
The backstory: Sometimes culinary innovation is borne out of necessity rather than being a fun experiment. In places where there is a large customer base that doesn’t eat pork, a soul-food restaurant is not long for this world if it insists on serving swine. One example is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where there are a significant number of Black Muslims with dietary restrictions. In order to meet their customers’ needs, restaurants like Deborah’s Kitchen and others have given a soulful treatment to a cut of meat popular in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking—the turkey chop. You may not easily find them at your grocery store, but I first laid eyes on turkey chops when I perused butcher shops located in Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal Market.
They call the dish a smothered turkey chop and it’s prepared the same manner as a smothered pork chop—dusted with flour and then seared in a skillet with a shallow amount of grease. After a nice crust is created, the turkey chop is braised in a rich, brown gravy and then served on a bed of rice. The turkey chop is not as ubiquitous as the cheesesteak sandwich, but it’s increasingly earning a national presence. Because of requests from their customers to make healthier fare, soul-food restaurateurs are constantly on the lookout for creative ways to make pork-free soul food, and they’re happy that turkey has flown to their rescue.
Native habitat: Lower Mississippi Valley, U.S. Atlantic Seaboard
The backstory: Yaka mein is an Asian-inspired dish that contains noodles (lo mein or spaghetti), some meat (usually beef, chicken, or pork), soy sauce and/or ketchup, a spicy broth (frequently cayenne and onion flavor notes), and a hard-boiled egg on top as a garnish. Yaka mein is the New Orleans’ nomenclature, but it has a lot of different spellings and aliases: “ghetto pho,” “low-rent lo mein,” “Seventh Ward ramen,” “yock a main,” and plain-old “yock.”
One origin myth says claims that yaka mein was brought to New Orleans by African Americans returning home from the Korean conflict of the 1950s, but there are newspaper accounts of Chinese restaurateurs in New York City serving a dish by that name as early as 1903. This makes it likely that yaka mein is immigrant food, pure and simple. Yaka mein’s known habitat now stretches from New Orleans to the northeastern U.S., where its reputation can be both devilish and divine. For some, it’s a reliable hangover cure right up there with the Vietnamese soup pho or Mexican menudo. There are also yaka mein hot spots in the Tidewater area of Virginia, where African-American churches extensively fundraise by serving up “yock” during the winter months when barbecue and fish fries are less frequent.