Here’s something we wrestle with daily on this blog: “African & Caribbean food” is one hell of a broad brush. Are we talking Ethiopian, Nigerian, or Moroccan? Trinidadian, Jamaican, or Cuban? Hausa or Yoruba, even? And just as diverse as all that the label encompasses are the people who embrace the food traditions of each region and who have a stake in their future.
How that future looks, it must be said, can be very different depending on what camp you fall into. Camp One could be described as understandably protective. Most of these foods have been made with the same ingredients and sometimes even the same techniques for hundreds of years; they evoke a strong sense of family, national or cultural identity, and pride. For someone who says, “why would I fuck with something as delicious and time-tested as groudnut stew or bussup shut?,” well, we don’t really have a good answer. Driving home the point further is my experience in the African community, where everyone agrees on the chef who makes the best traditional foods: she goes by “Mom.”
But there’s another camp who believes that we can show love for this culinary heritage by spreading it – finding new ways to make them accessible to people who may have been curious, but intimidated by, or victims of misconceptions of the food.
It’s that passion to re-frame, re-interpret, extend, and welcome that’s been the mission of some of the best Caribbean and African food instagrammers and bloggers. It’s the mission of this blog, certainly. And so will it be the mission of some extremely talented and driven chefs out there, who we think will be leveraging 2018’s predicted food trends to diaspora cuisine in the following unique ways.
Deconstructions for the ‘Gram
True lovers of African food among us know the value of the color brown, tan, and burnt orange. These after all are the colors of flavor: the sum of produce + palm oil + stock + heat + time x 6. But with the upward trajectory of colorful, Instagrammable foods, many contemporary chefs may find (and some already have found) that by isolating key components, the lip-smacking melting pot of egusi soup becomes a hashtag-ready rainbow of bright red crayfish in a palm oil confit, emerald pumpkin leaves, and crispy, cinnamon-coated egusi seeds. More plates that build traditional dishes through celebrating each ingredient separately could find serious footing in 2018.
A number of industry outlets are putting their money on bowls in 2018, following the recent success of poke (a sort of “sushi bowl”), breakfast bowls, and an overarching bend toward higher-protein, alternative grains like quinoa, lentils, and wild rice. If the deconstructing trend we suggest holds true, one need only look at the jerk bowl pictured above that we fell in love with at Gladys in Brooklyn to see how the vehicle can be a natural palette for the vibrant colors of traditional foods that provide even more pop more once pulled apart. Bowls like Gladys’, with plantain, chicken (or seitan), rice and peas, and pickled onion, are a great path for Caribbean flare; a wheel of black eyed peas, spinach, fire-engine-red diced tomatoes, and peri peri shrimp is certainly imaginable for the African contingent.
In a food world clamoring for the next root, seed, herb or powder offering energy, clear skin, and gut health, the future is bright for traditional African and Caribbean ingredients. Modest re-branding turns “cassava” into “yuca root – the stuff of teas and vitamins.” It can also exploit the shift toward food transparency and sourcing, where “Caribbean Ginger” or “Jamaican Allspice” could have the same clout as “Vietnamese Cinnamon.” Even without name recognition, one can easily imagine Whole Foods aisles lined with ogbono and egusi seed butters or salad dressings, their kiosks doling out sorrel teas and soursop frescas, all of it indicating another, even stronger trend:
Even more pervasive than the projected food-as-medicine movement, plant-based diets’ growth are seen as a near lock among experts, and the opportunity for diaspora cuisine seems as easy as opening the door. In fact, more than a few Rastafarian chefs and eaters – having been entrenched in meatless and raw fare for years – may feel simultaneous satisfaction and irritation that this vegan bandwagon is accompanied by new evidence that even certain types of cooking are linked to carcinogens.
All this to say that plant-based or plant-heavy food traditions in African and the Caribbean easily predate the current wave, and will have expertise to help them capitalize. Bean-based foods like moin moin or akara/ata could replace on menu’s Starter sections; plantain chips with nsunu dips or chin chin could line bartops. Even NRN expects jackfruit to be literally enveloped by new-model tacos. Look for more easy expressions of diaspora produce like these.
Haitian coffee & Ivorian chocolate
Most folks are still as shocked as I was to discover that today Cote d’Ivoire leads all other countries in the production of cocoa for chocolate. They won’t be surprised for long. As food origin and sustainability indicators become more important and visible to consumers, the price for single-origin, small-batch, co-operative beans from Caribbean and African countries will seem a small price to pay. Consumers will want a story and personality to the products once considered commodities, and coffee from Jacmel or bars from Accra could see as high a demand as ever before. Particular return may go to the shops that feature tastings as a way to vicariously tour the producing country, appreciate the quality, and articulate their distinctions.
The anticipated success of comfort foods, ethnic spices, regional cuisines, and international breakfasts in 2018 all underscore that an obvious way to hook newcomers is to hook them early. Early in the day, that is. Chefs who plant the cultural seed at brunch could see more significant crossover bloom down the road. Who wouldn’t spring for jerk chicken and waffles and Bahamian johnny cakes, drizzled with housemade palm syrup? Or biscuits served with kola nut butter and baobab jam? Would it be sacrilege to eat chin chin like cereal, or to forsake grits for a cheesy, buttery…fufu?? I mean, probably, but let’s say the ends justify the means if they order the cow foot soup and callaloo next time.
As we consider the (perceived) accessibility barrier of island and African foods, it’s very tempting to imagine First Gen chefs getting particularly creative with alternative food distribution models. While online retailers like Amazon are embracing brick-and-mortar retail, it’s still something of a golden age for non-traditional food service, with off-premise dining options like third-party delivery expected by industry leader QSR Automations to continue growing in 2018.
For experimental chefs and hesitant new diners, the opportunity is for new and different food without the commitment (less upfront investment and overhead for chefs; lower time expenditure, price, or portion size for patrons). 2018 could be a year of hyper-local caterers, private chefs and small enterprises who operate the bulk of their business via Ubereats for neighbors and UPS for out-of-towners. Their offline presence could be limited to pop-ups, local farmers’ markets, and partnerships with local restaurants. Keep an eye out for menus featuring gluten-free puff puff from a local baker, or Caribbean spices grown, ground and sold wholesale locally.
Flexible fusion as a way in
Finally, while not explicitly suggested by the lists of respected Food Trend forecasters, we can’t deny what seems to be the most obvious trait of successful crossover African and Caribbean concepts thus far: regionally-relevant fusion. Whether it’s the magic that chefs like JJ Johnson created with African, Asian, and Brazilian flavors in Harlem, or what chef Roy Choi has done in arguably the only trendy Caribbean outpost in Los Angeles thanks to Hawaiian and Mexican links, familiar ethnic bridges in social, well-designed spaces could be the next frontier of Diaspora Cuisine. The door is cracked, but it needs to be kicked in. Sans-Animal cuisine congolaise, complete with French bread and dark-roast coffee, in a space like this would devastate the game. Don’t even play, you just know “AfriCal” food is upon us!
Curious what 2018 could hold for us beyond Caribbean and African fare? No, nor should you be. BUT if you know anyone who is, be sure to have them check out the Rum & Biscuits predictions of all food trends for the year, based on the compiled insights of ten industry leaders.