For Brenda Whitfield, the taste of home lives in her Southwest Philadelphia kitchen, her hometown of Mount Olive, N.C., and on the other side of the Atlantic.

When she’s had Nigerian and Liberian food, this 71-year-old grandmother to eight could taste the similarities between the leafy greens and flavors shared with her down-home country style of cooking. Across the diaspora, across the centuries, so much about food has managed to stay the same.

“It still takes us back to our roots, where we come from, our comfort food,” explained Whitfield. “We still value those family roots of sitting at the dinner table. No one can take that away from us.”

In the hopes of having a better taste of the diversity and the connections within the food of the African diaspora, The Inquirer asked chefs and home cooks to share recipes this Black History Month. What’s below is just a sampling, with dishes that trace back to the U.S. South, the Caribbean, and West Africa.

Fried red snapper

Bocar Diop shown here with his signature red snapper at his restaurant African Small Pot on Woodland Ave. in West Philadelphia, PA, Tuesday, February 18, 2020.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Bocar Diop shown here with his signature red snapper at his restaurant African Small Pot on Woodland Ave. in West Philadelphia, PA, Tuesday, February 18, 2020.

Bocar Diop learned to cook during Ramadan. He started cooking for himself around 15. While his parents observed the holiday, he chose not to fast.

“It’s not something you just wake up and know how to do,” said Diop, 27, who is Mauritanian and Senegalese and first moved to Philadelphia in 2009 at 17. “I kept doing it for one month, then one day I got it right.”

Today, he and his father, Abdarahmane Diop, are chefs at his Southwest Philadelphia restaurant, African Small Pot.

“The red snapper is my favorite fish of all time,” Diop said. “When you eat it, you’re going to enjoy yourself.”

Bocar Diop shown here with his signature red snapper at his restaurant African Small Pot on Woodland Ave. in West Philadelphia, PA, Tuesday, February 18, 2020.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Bocar Diop shown here with his signature red snapper at his restaurant African Small Pot on Woodland Ave. in West Philadelphia, PA, Tuesday, February 18, 2020.

Fried Red Snapper


Whole red snapper (cleaned, gutted) (1/2 to 1 pound )

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and black pepper to taste

½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (or to taste)

Lime slices (optional)


Wash and pat dry fish. Using a sharp knife, make four diagonal slashes across each side of the fish. Place minced garlic in the slashes, then sprinkle fish with salt, pepper, and Old Bay. Using a skillet, pan fry the fish in vegetable oil until cooked through. About 5 minutes. Remove to a plate or rack and let rest for two minutes before serving.

Recipe courtesy of Bocar Diop of African Small Pot

Oxtails

Andrea Lawful-Sanders pours hot water on her Muva Diva's Oxtail, while they brown in a pot at her East Oak Lane home on Friday, February 21, 2020.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Andrea Lawful-Sanders pours hot water on her Muva Diva's Oxtail, while they brown in a pot at her East Oak Lane home on Friday, February 21, 2020.

Andrea Lawful-Sanders mastered oxtails before they cost this much. Today, with oxtails going for $7 or $8 a pound, she only makes it once a month. But that’s not how it was when she first learned to prepare them in her native Jamaica.

“It was the first full course meal that I ever made that my father loved,” Lawful-Sanders recalled. “I was 9, I’ve been perfecting them ever since.”

John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University, said oxtails, like tripe and chicken wings, are ingredients that were once cheap but that markets are now charging more for because they see there’s a demand. The newer demand, which Stanton said has been driven by flavor-curious millennials, has made foods that were once staples for black home cooks really expensive.

“We cooked a bag of oxtails for 99 cents,” Lawful-Sanders said. “I don’t resent the fact that it’s gotten to that place. What it shows me is that we as a people are capable of anything. We took nothing and turned it into a delicacy, period.”

Andrea Lawful-Sanders stirs her Muva Diva's Oxtail, prepared in her East Oak Lane home on Friday, February 21, 2020.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Andrea Lawful-Sanders stirs her Muva Diva's Oxtail, prepared in her East Oak Lane home on Friday, February 21, 2020.

Fried cabbage

Chopped cabbage on Brenda Whitfield's chopping board at her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on Friday, February 21, 2020. Whitfield is the oldest of 11 children and was born in Mt. Olive, North Carolina.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Chopped cabbage on Brenda Whitfield's chopping board at her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on Friday, February 21, 2020. Whitfield is the oldest of 11 children and was born in Mt. Olive, North Carolina.

“If you have a good meal, you know the family is going to be there,” Brenda Whitfield explained after she prepared baked salmon, fried fish, fried corn, mashed potatoes and beef brisket, corn bread, and sweet potato pie in her Southwest Philadelphia home. Whitfield, 71, hails from Mount Olive, N.C., and believes in cooking the Southern way, even though she moved to Philadelphia in 1968.

As she served her food, she shared some of her tricks: a pinch of baking soda wards off bitterness when making sweet tea and she keeps a tub of seasoned oil similar to lard from North Carolina to use as a fat. While preparing a cabbage grown in a community garden in Southwest Philly on the stove, she explained:

“Back in the day when they boiled it with that big hunk of meat, they took all the flavor out of it,” she said. “But when you fry it? Mmmm!”

Brenda Whitfield prepares cabbage at her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on Friday, February 21, 2020. Whitfield is the oldest of 11 children and was born in Mt. Olive, North Carolina.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Brenda Whitfield prepares cabbage at her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on Friday, February 21, 2020. Whitfield is the oldest of 11 children and was born in Mt. Olive, North Carolina.

Warm Butter Bean Salad with Roasted Bell Peppers

Warm Butter Bean Salad with Roasted Bell Peppers. Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipesby the Bryant Terry, copyright© 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Ed Anderson
Warm Butter Bean Salad with Roasted Bell Peppers. Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipesby the Bryant Terry, copyright© 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

This butter bean salad from chef Bryant Terry’s new vegan cookbook Vegetable Kingdom is modern take on something old school. Terry, a food-justice advocate and chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, said as he researches, he’s found plant-forward food across the diaspora. For this salad, he went back to his childhood.

“I really was just thinking about just the kind of simple foods that my grandparents would often make straight out the garden,” Terry explained. Terry’s grandfather, Andrew Johnson Terry, a Mississippian who moved to Memphis, would raise butter beans in his garden and sauté them. “They brought with them a lot of the agrarian knowledge, and survival instincts, and just this commitment to growing their own food.”

Fried Cabbage

1 head of cabbage, leaves and hearts divided

1 stick unsalted butter

1 tablespoon of seasoned oil, such as bacon fat

½ cube of chicken bouillon (such as Knorr’s)

1 cup of mixed bell peppers (red, green, orange, red, or yellow, roughly chopped)

½ cup sweet onion, sliced

Pinch of sugar

Remove the green leaves from the cabbage. Wash leaves and hearts and pat dry. Quarter and slice the cabbage hearts, discarding tough parts. Roll the green leaves into a tight bundle, then chiffonade into ½-inch strips.

Using a pan on high heat, melt butter and bouillon together. Add seasoned oil to the pan. Add cabbage leaves, peppers, and onions and cook until the leaves are tender. About 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add the pinch of sugar, then add the cabbage hearts. Stir the mixture until all the leaves are tender.


Besitos de Coco

Jessica Van Dop DeJesus mixed the ingredients, from her father's recipe, and now forms each individual besitos de coco. Jessica was cooking in the kitchen of OLOROSO, a tapas and sherry bar, at 1121 Walnut St. in Phila., Pa. on Feb. 19, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Jessica Van Dop DeJesus mixed the ingredients, from her father's recipe, and now forms each individual besitos de coco. Jessica was cooking in the kitchen of OLOROSO, a tapas and sherry bar, at 1121 Walnut St. in Phila., Pa. on Feb. 19, 2020.

There’s something about the coconut in this recipe, Jessica Van Dop DeJesus explained, that has a way of keeping her in touch with who she is. Van Dop DeJesus was born in Rochester, N.Y., but spent much of her upbringing in Guayama, Puerto Rico, where her retired father would take the time to prepare delicious treats, like papaya candy and these cookies, besitos de coco. The cookies, which are similar to macaroons, are made with brown sugar that caramelizes as it bakes.

“Anything made with coconut reminds me of the coast and where concentrations of Afro-Puerto Ricans are,” said van Dop DeJesus, whose father would make his besitos from fresh coconuts.

“Before, [blackness] was a part of our culture that was shunned, but now it’s something to embrace,” she said, speaking about everything from food to more women wearing their natural hair textures. “It’s tapping into that inherent part of us, which I love.”

Besitos de coco, fresh out of the oven, made by Jessica Van Dop DeJesus using her father's recipe. Jessica was cooking in the kitchen of OLOROSO, a tapas and sherry bar, at 1121 Walnut St. in Phila., Pa. on Feb. 19, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Besitos de coco, fresh out of the oven, made by Jessica Van Dop DeJesus using her father's recipe. Jessica was cooking in the kitchen of OLOROSO, a tapas and sherry bar, at 1121 Walnut St. in Phila., Pa. on Feb. 19, 2020.

Besitos de Coco

Similar to macaroons, these cookies become caramelized and crisp. In Puerto Rico, the coconut is mixed in by hand, but feel free to use the paddle attachment on your stand mixer.

Makes 16 to 20 cookies


4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup brown sugar (packed)

4 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Zest of 1 lime

1/2 cup flour

3 cups of shredded sweetened coconut


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Using an electric mixer at medium speed, combine flour, eggs, brown sugar, butter, salt, vanilla and lime until well combined. Add coconut flakes by hand until evenly distributed.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes until cookies are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

Braised Oxtails


6 to 8 pounds oxtails, cut into one-inch pieces

2 large onions, diced

1 whole garlic bulb

12 to 15 fresh thyme sprigs

1 whole scotch bonnet pepper

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Salt

Black pepper

3 tablespoons ketchup

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 28-ounce can baked beans



Combine diced onions, garlic, thyme, pepper, onion and garlic powders, salt, and ketchup. Add oxtails, then let marinate for two hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil.

Using a large pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil. After scraping onions, brown oxtails one at a time. Allow the meat to braise on high heat until brown. Add hot water to the pot until meat is nearly covered. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for about 3 hours or until done. Test oxtails for doneness every hour. When the meat begins to separate from the bone, remove it from the oven, then add the can of baked beans. Simmer until the baked beans have reduced to a gravy.

Serve with rice and peas and cabbage.

Note: If desired, skim off some of the fat from the oil in the pot before adding the beans. Recipe courtesy of Andrea Lawful-Sanders

Warm Butter Bean Salad with Roasted Bell Peppers


1 pound dried large white lima beans, soaked in water and 3 tablespoons kosher salt overnight

1 bay leaf

1 large yellow onion: half diced, half left intact

5 garlic cloves: 3 cut in half, 2 minced

1 dried red chile

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

2 large red bell peppers

2 large yellow bell peppers

2 large orange bell peppers

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons Pili Pili Oil (recipe follows), plus more for drizzling

Freshly ground white pepper

8 ounces baby arugula (about 12 loosely packed cups), washed and spun dry

1 lemon, halved, for garnish

Flaky sea salt, for finishing


Drain the beans, put them into a large saucepan, and add water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam and decrease the heat to medium-low. Add the bay leaf, onion half, halved garlic cloves, and dried chile. Partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until just tender, adding water as needed to keep the beans covered, 1 to 1 1/2 hours (the cooking time will greatly depend on the freshness of the beans). Once the beans are just tender, add 1 teaspoon of the salt and simmer for 10 more minutes. Drain the beans. Remove the bay leaf, onion, garlic, and chile and discard them. Set the beans aside. While the beans are cooking, roast the bell peppers using one of the methods below. Seed and thinly slice the bell peppers. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, warm the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and just starting to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until it smells fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lima beans, bell peppers, and pili pili oil to the pan. Raise the heat to high and cook for 1 minute, gently stirring to combine and warm the ingredients through. Turn off the heat and season aggressively with white pepper. Taste and season with salt. Divide the lima bean mixture evenly among four plates. Add the arugula and 2 tablespoons water to the same pan. Set the pan over low heat, cover, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the arugula wilts. Place a handful of arugula over each serving, then drizzle with more pili pili oil and a squeeze of lemon. Finish with a sprinkle of flaky salt and serve.


Pili Pili Oil

Makes about 1 cup

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

2 (2-inch) thyme sprigs <.p>

2 (2-inch) rosemary sprigs

9 small fresh bird’s-eye or Thai chiles

1 cup olive oil

In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients on low heat, stirring occasionally until the olive oil starts to sizzle and the paprika has completely dissolved. Immediately remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Transfer to a small jar or bottle, seal, and refrigerate for a few days before using. Refrigerate up to 2 weeks.

Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes by Bryant Terry