Exploring the African Diaspora at The Cecil

By Annie Wu, Epoch Times
May 5, 2016 11:41 am Last Updated: March 8, 2018 5:30 pm

Nearly every dish on The Cecil’s menu contains a history lesson within.

The Moqueca, for example, is chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson’s version of a traditional fish stew from Bahia, Brazil, where many African slaves were brought to work on sugar plantations during the trans-Atlantic trade. Those slaves carried their culinary traditions with them, leaving an indelible mark on the local cuisine.

Moqueca ($33) bears an unmistakable resemblance to Southern gumbo, which has roots that trace back to Senegal. In Johnson’s version, he throws in salted cod, smoked fish, prawns, green chilies, and okra—an ingredient that fortifies its ties to West Africa. Southeast Asian aromatics like Thai basil complete the flavor trifecta of salty-umami, spicy heat, and herbal depth. Instead of using the traditional coconut milk, Johnson opts for cassava, giving the stew a cleaner texture.

A spread of dishes from The Cecil. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
A spread of dishes from The Cecil. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The Cecil is in a storied landmark— the same building as the legendary Harlem jazz club Minton’s, where Johnson is also executive chef.

His vision for The Cecil is clear: to explore the history and culture of the African diaspora, one plate at a time. He first felt this calling during a trip to Ghana, where he experienced a lightbulb moment: he had actually grown up eating similar food.

Finding His Roots

Johnson was raised on his Puerto Rican grandmother’s cooking, like slow-cooked stews spiced with cumin, coriander, and pink peppercorns. Tasting those same bold flavors in Ghanaian cuisine, “I was able to dig back into my roots of growing up in the diaspora,” he said.

Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson. (Lindsay Talley)
Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson. (Lindsay Talley)

Discovering this culinary heritage fueled Johnson’s desire to show the world how incredibly diverse and delicious African diaspora cuisines are, “to open everybody’s eyes that there’s more than just the typical cuisines we eat on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

His Hands Only dish ($28) is an homage to that Ghana trip, where he ate with his hands for the first time. “People think eating with hands equals poor, but it’s really traditional. It doesn’t matter how much money you have,” he said. “That’s just their way of life.”

The Hands Only dish. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
The Hands Only dish. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The dish consists of grilled roti, fiery black-eyed peas (which get their intense heat from smoked bird’s eye chili), cauliflower, rabbit sausage, and coconut sticky rice. Its components represent the way culinary traditions of the Old World influence the New World: roti originated in India, but made its way to the West Indies via Indian laborers; black-eyed peas, a prominent ingredient in Caribbean and Southern American cooking, were first brought to the Americas from West Africa.

A Melting Pot of Cuisines

Johnson doesn’t call this “fusion” cuisine because African diaspora food is inherently a mixture of different cultures. Chinese migrant workers in Ghana leave behind their cooking, as do Vietnamese immigrants in Senegal.

He draws out this criss-crossing of culinary influences in dishes like the Braised Goat Dumplings ($14), filled with tender goat meat braised in spices and aromatics familiar to both Asian and African cuisines: cinnamon, pink peppercorn, bird’s eye chili, ginger, and coriander seeds (plus a splash of orange juice). On top is a piri piri pepper sauce (popular in Ghana, Nigeria, and other West African countries) emulsified with peanut butter—a slightly sweet concoction reminiscent of Asian peanut sauce. 

Braised Goat Dumplings with peanut-piri piri sauce. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Braised Goat Dumplings with peanut-piri piri sauce. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The connecting of cultures is part of The Cecil’s appeal, Johnson said. “Because there’s something on the menu that speaks to them, or there’s something they’ve never had before.”

Heritage Grains

A journey exploring African foodways is incomplete without ancient grains. Johnson has researched ways to bring back traditional cereals that once dominated dinner tables across the African continent. After all, Africans were among the world’s earliest cultivators of rice.

Johnson collaborates with Anson Mills, an heirloom grain mill, to find these cereal germs, and farmers who can grow them. African red popping sorghum, for example, features in a dish with collard greens and cod, simply pan-roasted.

Now Johnson is working on obtaining the glaberrima variety, a pearly white rice native to sub-Saharan Africa that has not been eaten widely for 3,500 years. “It was all the rice people ate at one point,” he said.

Collard Green Salad with adzuki red beans, candied cashews, and coconut dressing. (Lindsay Talley)
Collard Green Salad with adzuki red beans, candied cashews, and coconut dressing. (Lindsay Talley)

His spotlight on African diaspora food was recognized in 2015, when he was nominated as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Rising Star of the Year. But he has more work to do: to travel more and absorb more of the local cooking traditions in Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.

“Your travels impact the way you cook,” he said. “It opens your eyes to the way the industry doesn’t believe this style of food exists, [believes] that this style of food is peasant food.

“But when anybody travels to these places, this is what people want to eat. And that’s what I’m trying to deliver at a high level.”

The Cecil is sleek and spacious. (Daniel Krieger)
The Cecil is sleek and spacious. (Daniel Krieger)

The Cecil
210 W. 118th St.

Monday to Sunday
5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday
11 a.m.–3:30 p.m.