Across the African diaspora, a term that refers to populations descended from African people that are now scattered all over the world, food is an important part of family life, culture, and tradition.
The diaspora was shaped by the transatlantic slave trade, which violently uprooted African people and sent them to plantations, as well as more recent voluntary migration. Today, its various populations are connected by — among other things — food.
Due to cultural and socioeconomic conditions, people of African descent in the United States and Caribbean may have very different lives and sometimes struggle to see the similarities that persist due to a shared history and racial inequality.
Yet, Black people who live in different places and have divergent experiences often enjoy the same dishes.
From generation to generation, people of African descent have retained knowledge of food. Over time, practices have evolved and fused with those of various countries and continents.
Although the names, ingredients, and techniques may differ, we eat the same foods and sometimes engage in friendly debate about which version is best.
Let’s take a look at four popular African diaspora foods — macaroni and cheese, grits, jollof, and burnt rice — and how their preparations vary just enough to fuel friendly competition.
Macaroni and cheese is always a certain family member’s claim to fame. At large gatherings, one of the most pressing questions is, “Who made the macaroni and cheese?”
In my family, my parents are the macaroni experts. On my mother’s side, she’s always asked to make the macaroni for family gatherings. On my father’s side, he’s one of the two preferred cooks.
Their pans of macaroni are different in texture and ingredients but equally delicious. My mother’s is firmer and includes green pepper, while my father’s recipe has far more cheese, making it a little softer — especially when it’s steaming hot, fresh out of the oven.
Disappointment abounds if the answer to the macaroni question isn’t one of the preferred cooks, but we all go for a piece. There may just be less demand for seconds and thirds.
This classic dish, which has many variations, has the power to determine the direction and lasting memory of birthdays, baby showers, holiday gatherings, and cookouts. It’s all about the macaroni and cheese.
What makes a good mac and cheese?
The boxed version of macaroni and cheese is a nonstarter, completely unlike the homemade delight of a dish made from scratch.
The only things more off-putting for macaroni and cheese connoisseurs are attempts at elevating the dish that go too far beyond the basic recipe. There should be no peas for color, no corn for texture, and no broccoli for a healthy twist.
Black people, wherever we are in the world, aren’t looking for macaroni and cheese to be anything more than it already is. We all agree that when too many ingredients are added, it becomes a casserole.
A generally acceptable recipe includes macaroni pasta or pasta of a similar shape, such as penne, followed by cheddar cheese, eggs, either milk, evaporated milk, or heavy cream, and the ticket to flavor town — diced onions, bell peppers, hot peppers, and herbs like thyme.
The specifics depend on the budget, dietary restrictions, family secrets, and the herbs and spices that are readily available and part of local culture.
For some, the recipe calls for a roux — a thick paste made of flour and fat. For others, a roux is completely nonsensical. In many versions, flour is not even a required ingredient.
There are those who use cheese sauce and those who regard it with the same disdain as the blue box. For most, only grated cheese will do. Whether it’s solely cheddar or a blend of cheeses depends on the commitment to recipes and, of course, the budget.
Mac and cheese is consistently judged based on its texture and consistency, but there are two schools of thought.
For some, it should be creamy, spreading easily across your plate and making itself at home. It is, after all, comfort food.
For others, particularly in the Caribbean, a proper serving is more like a slice or a cube than a scoop. It has integrity and stands tall, the cheese serving as a delicious glue holding it together, much like love binds a family.
Even the name changes. In the Southern United States, it’s definitively macaroni and cheese. In most of the Caribbean, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados, it’s macaroni pie. In the Bahamas, it’s simply macaroni.
Whatever the name, this dish is expected to be the star of the meal with a satisfying cheesiness that doesn’t overwhelm the other elements of flavor, which come from properly seasoning the pasta water and including at least one hot pepper.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my great-grandmother. She was a woman of routine, waking at the same time every day, doing her laundry on the same day every week, and always traveling on the same airline.
It wasn’t long before Tuesday became my favorite day of the week because that was the day Ma made grits and tuna salad for breakfast. It’s still one of my favorite breakfasts.
I understood grits only as a breakfast item until I went to New Orleans and saw it on lunch menus everywhere. Naturally, I had to try it, and I can confirm that grits are the star of the plate any time of day.
Made from dried, ground corn, grits are versatile and inexpensive — though this very versatility is a source of division among grits-loving people.
Savory or sweet?
The great grits debate is whether it’s best prepared sweet or savory. There’s no clear winner — those who enjoy sugary grits aren’t changing their minds, and the people who prefer butter and salt aren’t particularly swayed by the sweet version.
Grits can be prepared in so many ways that it’s impossible to settle on a superior method. Cooked in water, milk, broth, or some combination, the dish is then enriched with cheese, bacon, salt, or sugar. Add meat or seafood, especially with gravy, and the meal is done.
Shrimp and grits, a Southern classic, is probably the most popular grits meal, but salmon and catfish are not uncommon additions. In some Caribbean countries, grits make the perfect side for stews and souse.
Sweet or salty? It’s up to you, but Black people agree that grits make it easy to feed a crowd. This affordable staple is great to keep stocked at home to jazz up with other ingredients and deliver creativity to the dining table.
If you’ve heard of jollof, you probably know that there’s a fierce but friendly debate between Ghanaians and Nigerians about who has the best version. Yet, before we get into the difference between Ghanaian and Nigerian versions, let’s talk about the dish itself.
Jollof is a rice dish that’s stewed with tomatoes, onions, peppers, ginger, garlic, and other spices. Even if you have never eaten it, you can imagine how scrumptious it is — and it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that there’s a World Jollof Rice Day, celebrated every year on August 22nd.
Jollof rice, which has several variations across West African countries, is said to have originated in Senegal during a barley shortage.
In many cases, the things we love the most are created out of necessity. Black people are not strangers to limited resources. Of course a delicious one-pot meal came from a Black woman making a smart substitution.
Somehow, after traveling from one country to the next, jollof rice has been claimed by Nigerians and Ghanaians.
The differences are small. While Nigerians use washed long-grain rice, which is less starchy, Ghanaians prefer basmati rice, which is more aromatic even before the spices are added — and significantly more starchy.
Nigerians use bay leaves to lend a smoky flavor, whereas Ghanaians kick up the spice with shito, a hot pepper sauce.
While Ghanaian jollof rice seems like the best choice for fans of spicy food, Nigerian jollof is the safer bet for those who are less tolerant of spice.
It’s also important to note that Nigerians also have party jollof, which is cooked over firewood. They even burn the rice at the bottom of the pot to add to the smoky flavor — now that’s dedication!
Burnt rice is the perfect waste not, want not food. Leave it to Black people to make the most out of everything. Sometimes, after a dish is cooked, a thin layer of rice sticks to the bottom of the pot. It may or may not get a little burnt. Either way, it doesn’t go in the garbage.
After scraping it from the pot, some people even let it dry, then deep fry and season it as a snack.
That layer of rice at the bottom of the pot has many names. It’s pegao in Puerto Rico, brong brong in Suriname, concon in the Dominican Republic, and bun bun in many Caribbean countries, including Guyana and Jamaica. It’s called potcake in the Bahamas, where it’s often fed to stray dogs known by the same name.
People race to get to the burnt rice at the bottom of the pot. Home cooks lovingly put pieces of it on children’s plates. Adults have found ways to make it worth saving, seasoning, and eating.
Many of the practices and techniques that are second nature when we prepare food come from the lessons of our ancestors. Many of these lessons come from necessity and the ability to make do with what we have.
Food is for nourishment, but it’s also for enjoyment. Black people are committed to finding ways to fully enjoy the cooking, eating, and sharing of food.
Sometimes it comes with competition, and sometimes it connects us across borders as we’re reminded just how much we have in common.
As we share meals, among the most powerful practices we can adopt is to consider the origin of the dishes, the iterations they have gone through, and ways to honor the variations that other people in the diaspora have created for themselves.
These diaspora foods are a reminder that there’s nothing we cannot imagine, recreate, or transform.
Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, women’s human rights defender, and writer. She’s passionate about social justice and community building. She enjoys cooking, baking, gardening, traveling, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.