After speaking with Chef JJ Johnson about his concept of Afro-Asian-American cooking, I was excited to explore the cuisine. Thankfully, this was simple. I turned to his 2018 James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day.
The book is the work of Johnson, his former business partner and acclaimed restaurateur Alexander Smalls, and seasoned writer Veronica Chambers. The trio beautifully examines centuries of rich history and culture through food. From page one, it is clear why this cookbook is so celebrated. Not only is it filled with stunning, innovative recipes, but there are also thoughtful essays and conversations penned by the authors.
What first struck me about Between Harlem and Heaven is that it is “dedicated to the brilliant culinary legacy of the African people throughout the Diaspora.” Oh, the feels. How wonderful is that?! To see our contributions acknowledged so clearly was refreshing, to say the least.
From the start, the pages are filled with gorgeous, colorful photos of the people and foods of the Diaspora. A crate of vividly green okra. A beautiful ebony-skinned little girl with a bright smile posing on the streets of Harlem. Harlem. One of the epicenters of Black culture in America. Head there and you’ll find just about every type of Black people there is: Black American. Caribbean. Afro-Latino. African. And with the people comes flavor. It is in the fashion, the swagger, and the food.
Between Harlem and Heaven & Afro-Asian-American Cuisine
The food. Fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. Curried goat roti with chickpeas and potatoes (here the Asian influence is evident, showcasing the Indian presence in places like Trinidad and Tobago). Jollof rice with lamb dibi and fried plantains.
Harlem is definitely the epicenter for Afro-Asian-American cuisine, and Between Harlem and Heaven celebrates that. Interestingly, the writers are as diverse as Harlem itself. Alexander Smalls is from the South Carolina Lowcountry. Chef JJ Johnson has roots in the West Indies and Puerto Rico. Veronica Chambers was born in Panama. All of this adds to the perspectives they bring to the book.
In order to tackle a cook the book project of this magnitude, I decided to make a recipe from each chapter. One thing I loved about Between Harlem and Heaven was how unique the recipes were in technique, ingredients, and flavors. This allowed me to work with items I never had before, like purple sweet potatoes. Who knew those existed?
Read on below for my experience with Between Harlem and Heaven. I strongly encourage you to pick up your own copy. It is a feast for all the senses. As Chef JJ Johnson writes, “I love the way the dishes in this cookbook bridge that gap between restaurants and heritage food…the biggest compliment you can give us is that a dish tastes like your grandmother’s.”
My Experience Cooking Through Between Harlem and Heaven
Between Harlem and Heaven is divided into seven sections:
- Meat & Poultry
- Vegetarian Entrees
- Rice & Sides
- Sauces, Dressings & Jams
I decided to cook a dish from each of the first five categories. My strategy was to select the recipes that sounded most intriguing to me, while keeping Chef JJ Johnson’s recommendations from our interview in mind. The good thing about this cookbook is that I had a lot of the ingredients on hand and the dishes were not very complicated or time consuming.
Collard Green Salad with Coconut Dressing
From the “Salads” section of Between Harlem and Heaven, I chose the Collard Green Salad with Coconut Dressing. While I am very familiar with collard greens due to their integral place in soul food cuisine, I am accustomed to cooking them low and slow with smoked meat. I had no frame of reference for eating the greens raw.
This twist makes sense. According to Chef JJ Johnson, he “[tries] not to cook something you’ve seen before…I’m like the DJ who loves the mash-up: egg rolls filled with barbecue brisket and edamame, udon noodles with goat meat and West African peanut sauce, roast fish with hominy stew and homemade kimchi. Flavors upon flavors upon flavors.”
I was a bit skeptical of eating raw collards, given that I have only had them braised and was concerned about their bitterness. However, I was pleasantly surprised. They are packed with a lot of flavor and the texture lends itself well to holding up to a lot of toppings and dressing–which is exactly how I like my salad. The collard green salad was topped with raw red onions, cucumbers, spiced red beans, candied cashews, and a chipotle coconut dressing.
For a fast meal, I took a shortcut and used red kidney beans. I sauteed them in onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, and black pepper. I particularly loved the addition of the cashews. I have a soft spot for candied nuts, because they are an oh so addictive combination of salty and sweet. I mixed the cashews with egg white and simmered them with butter, white and brown sugar, ginger, and cayenne pepper. So good!
One thing I appreciate about this recipe is that the salad preparation of collard greens allows them to retain more of the nutritional content (natural antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and K, fiber) that may be diminished by the traditional braised technique.
This dish seems to be the authors’ spin on the popular kale salad. They discuss how collard greens have entered the mainstream as a trendy alternative to kale, which is synonymous with hipster culture. “Every few months, some food magazine or blog pops up with the same tired headline: “Are Collard Greens the New Kale?” No. Collards have worked harder than kale ever will. Collards are out there digging ditches and roofing houses while kale goes to spin class and leaves early for brunch.”
While I appreciate the fact that these delicious greens are being enjoyed by the masses, I hate how tried and trued foods are often treated as if they have just been “discovered”. Especially since they have been eaten right here in America for centuries.
Other salad dishes from Between Heaven and Harlem that I want to try:
- Grilled “Watermelon Garden” Salad with Lime Mango Dressing and Cornbread Croutons
- Heirloom Tomato Salad
Cinnamon Scented Fried Guinea Hen
I will admit that I was initially uninterested in this dish because of the cinnamon. Cinnamon with chicken? Nah, I’ll pass. However, it was Chef JJ Johnson’s most recommended dish during our interview, so I decided to step out on faith and give it a try.
Johnson even sings this dish’s high praises in Between Heaven and Harlem: “This cinnamon scented guinea hen has been on the menu since our earliest days, and if we ever took it off the menu, our regulars would revolt.” He states that the cinnamon is inspired by Vietnamese flavors, which is understandable given the presence of the Vietnamese in Senegal. Because both countries were colonized by the French, there is a profound history of cultural exchange there.
Although the recipe calls for either guinea hen or a whole chicken, I used chicken quarters because I love dark meat. I brined the poultry overnight in kosher salt, Maggi, cinnamon, brown sugar, and thyme. Then I dredged it in a flour cinnamon blend before deep frying it and finishing it in the oven. The meat was so juicy and flavorful with just a hint of cinnamon. It was finger lickin good.
Other meat dishes from Between Heaven and Harlem that I want to try:
- Grilled Ribeye with West African Black Pepper Sauce
- Feijoada with Black Beans and Spicy Lamb Sausage
- Ramen with Crispy Duck
My Favorite Between Harlem and Heaven Dish: Gullah Shrimp Mini Burgers
Alexander Smalls is from the Gullah Geechee culture of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The Gullah people are very connected to their West African ancestry and have their own unique cuisine and dialect. I first learned about the Gullah from watching a screening of Julie Dash’s exquisite film Daughters of the Dust, which I highly recommend. The rendition of Gullah life and the beauty of the people and the setting was captured wonderfully.
Because the Gullah people are very close to the land and sea, shrimp is a huge part of their cuisine. A well known representative of Gullah Geechee cuisine is Kardea Brown, who has a show on the Food Network called Delicious Miss Brown (which I unapologetically binge watched over a couple days!). She frequently catches fresh seafood, including shrimp, that she uses in her food. In fact, shrimp and grits is a particularly popular dish in Gullah cuisine; however, it is different from the Creole rendition in that the shrimp is cooked in a brown gravy.
Thus, the shrimp represents Smalls’ Gullah roots. I pulsed it in the food processor and mixed it with egg, habanero pepper, bread crumbs, lemon zest, thyme, maggi, onion, and soy sauce (a nod to the Chinese presence in West Africa and urban American restaurants). I shaped the mixture into patties, rolled it in more breadcrumbs, and fried the patties.
Although the recipe did not call for it, I toasted the potato slider buns in butter and covered them with a dijonnaise (a cute name which really means I just mixed dijon mustard and mayonnaise together!). I added the shrimp patties and topped them with Paula’s Kitchen pikliz instead of coleslaw. Pikliz is a spicy pickled relish made with cabbage, carrots, bell pepper, and scotch bonnet peppers. I thought this would add a nice crunch and kick to the burger. And it definitely did.
This slider embodies Afro-Asian-American cuisine. The Gullah, Chinese, and Haitian influences are clear, and come together to make an incredible bite: tangy, moist, crispy, with a nice shrimp flavor. It is so simple but so delicious.
As Alexander Smalls writes, “My vision for Afro-Asian-American cooking and the passion we’ve poured in this book is quite simple: I want to explore the history and the culture of the foods of Africa and their intersection throughout the world…one plate at a time.”
Other seafood dishes from Between Heaven and Harlem that I want to try:
- Spicy Prawns in Piri Piri Sauce (recommended by Chef JJ Johnson)
- Moqueca Brazilian Fish Stew
- Salt-Crusted Salmon with Collard Green Salsa Verde
For the vegetarian entree, I chose kelewele. It is a spicy fried plantain dish that originated in West Africa. It is particularly popular in Ghana, and I first experienced it at my husband’s aunt’s house. She diced and seasoned ripe plantains and proceeded to deep fry them. Once she removed them from the oil, she topped them with spices and maggi. It made for such a tasty snack.
The traditional preparation was quite different from the recipe for kelewele in Between Harlem and Heaven. This method is much more reminiscent of West African koose or akara, a fritter made with black eyed pea flour, onion, ginger, scotch bonnet pepper, egg, and spices.
To make this kelewele, I used my food processor to break down the yellow plantains into a paste. From there, I mixed it with ingredients I had on hand: habanero pepper, thyme, salt, pepper, ginger, onion, adobo, maggi, and rice flour. This was my first time using rice flour. I actually only learned that it existed a couple weeks ago when I read Michael Twitty’s new book Rice: A Savor the South Cookbook.
I deep fried the mixture and served it with harissa paste, a spicy North African red pepper sauce, which I was also using for the first time. Working through Between Harlem and Heaven definitely introduced me to a lot of new techniques and ingredients. It was so yummy. The sweet plantain worked well with the spices, especially the harissa, which had an earthy cumin flavor.
Other vegetarian dishes from Between Heaven and Harlem that l want to try:
- Udon Noodles with Edamame and West African Peanut Sauce, which Chef JJ Johnson deems the “foundational sauce to the Afro-Asian flavor profile.”
- Spiked Rosemary Macaroni and Cheese Pie with Caramelized Shallots
Purple Yam Puree
This was yet another dish recommended by Chef JJ Johnson. I was concerned that I would not be able to make it because I had never seen purple sweet potatoes before. Fortunately, they were front and center at Whole Foods!
I boiled the sweet potatoes and mixed them with coconut milk, butter, syrup, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. Then I pureed the mixture and topped them with candied walnuts.
The dish tasted similar to sweet potato pie filling, but the purple sweet potato had a “purply” taste to them. Next time, although the recipe calls for the yams to be boiled, I will roast them in the oven to develop a greater depth of flavor.
Other side dishes from Between Heaven and Harlem that I want to try:
- Okra Fries
- Yam Flapjacks
- Apple Cider-Glazed Brussel Sprouts
For my experience cooking through another cookbook, check out my post on Chef Raquel Fox’s Bahamian cookbook Dining in Paradise.