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FOOD AND DRINK

5 MIN

A Food Lover's Site With a Black Focus

Eden Hagos talks about her initiative Black Foodie, which celebrates African, Caribbean and Southern American cuisines

When Eden Hagos was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, she wasn’t proud of the Ethiopian food that surrounded her. Her mother was a caterer her grandmother sold homemade injera – a sourdough flat bread that accompanies most Ethiopian stews – but she didn’t want to bring spice-ridden meals to school or eat with her hands in front of others. “I didn’t want kids to look at me differently because I’m already different,” Hagos explains. “So that’s the way I kind of looked at Ethiopian food – something I could enjoy, but only at home.”

Some 15 years later, when Hagos moved to Toronto, her experiences led her to think about food and race more critically. She began looking at the food of her mother country with a new lens and questioning why she didn't seek out more African and Caribbean restaurants. She also noticed that some of her colleagues were bringing Ethiopian food for lunch. Perhaps she should embrace the food she was brought up with, especially “if someone else cares enough to go seek out those dishes, and they have no direct connection to the community – whereas I have those resources and I wasn’t proud of it.”

Hagos decided to stop hiding her food heritage: “I just didn’t want to live like that anymore. I wanted to celebrate it,” she says.

In the fall of 2015, Hagos launched Black Foodie, a blog that explores food culture from the perspective of young, black food enthusiasts. Billy chatted with Hagos about cultural appropriation, why “elevated” jerk chicken doesn’t exist (yet), and her favourite black restaurants in Toronto, Montreal and New York.

Whose job do you think it is to promote black food?

Everyone [involved with it] has a level of responsibility. A restaurateur is responsible for creating great food, a wonderful experience and welcoming the guest. But food writers and people in the culinary scene who have platforms – Food Network and all these groups who are the leading voices in this space – have a responsibility to look deeper; to hire people from African and Caribbean communities and bring in writers who can understand the context and maybe even have an insider’s point of view. Once you bring on those voices then it’s only natural that these conversations will be had.

I also strongly encourage readers who are interested in food to branch out and look for these niche communities because you’ll probably find some really cool places, experiences and dinner events that you never would have heard of otherwise.

For you, what distinguishes genuine, positive promotion of black food from cultural appropriation?

I talk to people across the industry, including people who are selling food items like African spices and people creating products that haven’t been available to the mainstream until now. I want these businesses to thrive. I think it’s amazing that people are using African and Caribbean culinary techniques and flavours.

What I don’t like is when the originators of these flavours are not accepted in certain spaces – like if a restaurant promoting African and Caribbean food doesn’t hire people of colour or recognize where it comes from. It’s cultural appropriation to me when someone else grabs hold of the power to define one cultural group’s food. To me, the line is crossed when the someone else becomes the voice, [while] African or Caribbean restaurants and chefs from have not been recognized at all. When someone else becomes recognized as an expert, and others – who actually come from that community – are ignored, not seen or acknowledged, that’s when I feel there’s an issue.

But when other people choose to purchase from these communities, celebrate the food and experiment with it, I don’t think there’s a problem with that. We don’t own it in a way that other people can’t learn and remix it because that’s what’s food is all about.

Courtesy Black Foodie

What are some of the challenges black restaurants face?

I think a lot of people have the assumption that Caribbean food is jerk chicken – it costs $5 and comes in a takeout box. People are used to that price and used to that experience around the food. I feel like it’s a challenge to train your audience. A chef talked to me about this last year:  He said, you can find $5 pad thai or $15 pad thai, and you can get a $2 slice of pizza or you can go to an Italian restaurant and pay $20 for a thin crust, and people don’t question that. Whereas with African and Caribbean food it’s a challenge [to charge more].

Are there any restaurants in Toronto that you’d suggest visiting?

If you’re flying into Billy Bishop Airport, right up the street (you could even walk if you wanted to), by Queen and Bathurst, there’s a restaurant called Street Shak, and it’s fresh, Caribbean food with a twist. Owner Tony Bradshaw is from Barbados, and he really adds that flavour to everything he does. I’d recommend the seared fish sandwich there.

What about in Montreal and New York?

In Montreal, there’s a new African restaurant called Le Virunga, owned and run by Zoya de Frias Lakhany and her mother, who are Congolese. Zoya’s really interested in presenting African food in a new way and showing people that you can experience African food in a beautiful setting. Her menu is really diverse – foods from the Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. It’s a lot of fusion.

Another restaurant I went to in Montreal that was really interesting was called Akwaba. It’s Greek-African fusion restaurant – Greek flavours and West African flavours. It was just really cool to have baklava for dessert and African-style fried fish. It was a novel mix of flavours (they used traditional West African spices and Greek spices for the chicken). It was fusion in a way I’d never seen before.

A chef that I know and really admire [in New York] is Chef Roble Ali, and he has a really cool travelling brunch series called “Everyday People.” He has a restaurant called StreetsBK in Brooklyn. And of course, in Harlem, there’s Markus Samuelson’s spot Red Rooster (with Ginny’s Supper Club downstairs).

Courtesy Black Foodie

How to Make Sweet Potato Pie 

Hagos gives Billy her recipe for sweet potato pie, a staple in the Southern United States. 

This recipe will make two pies. Or you can use the remaining filling to prepare a sweet potato casserole by topping the mix with marshmallows and baking for the same amount of time.  

Ingredients 

• ⅓ cup of brown sugar
• ⅔ cup of condensed milk
• ½ cup milk
• 2 eggs
• 1½ stick (3 cups) butter
• 2 large spoonfuls of cinnamon
• 1 spoonful of vanilla extract
• 1 tsp of lemon juice
• ½ spoonful of finely chopped ginger
• ½ spoonful allspice
• ½ spoonful nutmeg
• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 2 unbaked pie shells

For brown sugar paste

• 8 spoonfuls of brown sugar
• 4 spoonfuls of butter

Directions

Brown sugar paste:

1. Mix brown sugar and butter together to form a thick paste

2. Spread half of the paste onto unbaked pie shell and bake for 10 mins or until the paste is caramelized (make sure the pie shell doesn’t go brown)

3. Let it pie shell cool as the filling is prepared

Sweet potato filling:

1. Bake (or boil) sweet potatoes until they become very tender

2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into small pieces

3. Blend the sweet potatoes, milk and condensed milk

4. Add all of the remaining ingredients into the sweet potato mixture and blend until it has a creamy consistency

5. Place half the filling into each pie shell and bake for 40 minutes at 350F (175C).

Published Wednesday, November 9th 2016

Header image credit: Eden Hagos and friends / Courtesy Tai Bah

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