So often I am sceptical of cookbooks that come out of restaurants because these books, while not exactly insincere, feel more like a promotional item for the restaurant in question, and not a genuine way for fans and diners to cook and share the restaurant’s dishes in their own homes. Recipes are too complicated, ingredients hard to access, the layout and design makes working from the book almost impossible, and the whole point of the endeavour is more about getting people back to the restaurant.
This is not the case with Between Harlem and Heaven, on two counts. First, Chef JJ Johnson has moved on from the pair of restaurants owned by Alexander Smalls where these recipes were originally developed and served. Nobody is concerned with getting you into their restaurant to eat this food, because this food isn’t being served there anymore. And second, even if these establishments were still running with a menu of Afro-Asian-American cooking, this book feels like the authors genuinely wanted readers to be able to cook these dishes at home.
When we think of African-American cuisine, we most often turn to soul food, the dishes created by slaves in the south of the United States that derive from African dishes, made with whatever authentic or ersatz ingredients those cooks could find at the time. Soul food then moves north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to Harlem and New York, but Johnson offers more than traditional soul food, pulling influences and ingredients from the entire African diaspora with an added focus on Asian cuisine.
There are Brazilian dishes like Moqueca Fish Stew and Feijoada, influenced by African slaves arriving in South America. Follow the African influence on the Silk Road with dishes that touch on Middle Eastern, and Indian flavours in the form of hummus and various curries, offering a nod to the Bengali residents of Harlem. Purple yams, yuzu, tofu, and Asian pears all make cameos within this recipe collection, revealing the Asian influences within Johnson’s cooking.
And let’s not forget Africa. Johnson credits a visit to Ghana for opening up his eyes to the possibilities of African cuisine and if you cook nothing else from this book, the recipe for The Mother African Peanut Sauce must be a keeper, for its intensity and versatility.
We might not able to visit Johnson and Smalls’ restaurant and try these dishes in the diverse and welcoming atmosphere of Harlem, but this book is a legacy for a most interesting project.
Usability (based on hardcover version): Very good to excellent. Fonts are big! And clear! Steps are separated by paragraph indents, but the font is big enough that they are still easy to follow. Some recipes have more than one element but the recipes for these are presented together so you don’t have to go flipping around the book to find the sauce or dressing. Ingredients for the majority of dishes are mostly accessible, although things like yuzu or daikon radish might require a specialty shop. Metric measurements are not included.