Salut a los espíritus of this house and the espiritu que abre las puertas,” (greetings to the spirits of this house and the spirit that opens doors), I said as I entered the small one-bedroom apartment of my spiritual godfather from Cuba. Kneeling down to greet Elegua, the gatekeeper of the crossroads in Cuban Santeria, whom by custom sits behind the front door, I saluted the ancestral spirits that dwell in, guard and protect my godfather’s home.
Sitting down on the sofa, while remaining still, and very conscious of my body language, I listened while my godfather began to conduct the ritual of welcoming me into the space. “Mafarefun,” he said to each of his personal ancestors and the ancestors of the Yoruban tradition. “Mitchelle aa-quita,” (Michelle is here) he said.
As the haze and smell of Cuban cigars and Puerto Rican rum floated throughout the apartment, as is custom, I then went to wash my hands and face before
formally greeting my 75-year-old elder with a hug and eye-to-eye acknowledgement. “They [the ancestral spirits] are happy you are here,” he said with a grin.
“Aah yeh yeh yago, heyey yago yah…ye yago…yah,” he sang in his native language as he roamed around the small kitchen and pulled ingredients from the refrigerator and cabinets. As he chopped vegetables, I asked, “How did you learn to cook, godfather?”
“My mammah taught me,” he answered. “She always wanted me to be able to take care of myself. Cooking is in the hand, it’s the hand,” he insisted.
In an instant, he then headed towards his small kitchen and began to pull out a can of Cuban coffee. “First we will have coffee,” he said.
Over a lunch that included tilapia braised in saffron, steamed white rice, sliced banana, water infused with watercress, and avocado, tomato and onion salad, he lifted his palm and said, “My mammah told me that I had the hand of medicine, that I was meant to do medicine.”
I had eaten his food several times, indigenous food from Cuba, and so I knew that his mother was right: His hand created food that was medicinal.
Coming home that evening, I was inspired to create a dish that mimicked Cuban cuisine. My aim and intention was to allow my hand to become a channel for the ancestors of Africa that had landed in Cuba and America by way of slavery — yes, by way of slavery. Many of us as Black Americans have been misinformed about the origins of soul food, most of which hail from Mother Africa.
What I came up with was braised chicken topped with homemade chili sauce and fried plantains atop white rice. Though my godfather did not taste this dish, in spirit I could see him smiling at my efforts.
The following recipe is included to inspire and ignite the power of your hand to create and channel the essence of our ancestors, make them smile in recognition of the memory of what they have given to us.
2 pounds of chicken drumsticks
2 cups of cooked long- grain white rice
½ pound of dried red beans, rinsed and sorted over
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onion
Crushed oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, brown and white sugar, salt and pepper
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
5 cloves minced garlic
2 cans of chicken stock, or homemade stock
2 ripe plantains
Vegetable oil for frying
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Place the beans in a large bowl or pot and cover with water by two inches. Let soak for eight hours or overnight. Drain and set aside.
In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil and add the onions, celery and bell peppers. Season with the salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about four minutes.
Add thyme and garlic and cook for one minute. Add the beans and chicken stock, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender and starting to thicken, about two hours. (Should the beans become too thick and dry, add more water, about 1/4 cup at a time.)
While the beans are cooking, season the chicken with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano and a pinch of white sugar. In a large frying pan, heat the vegetable oil and slowly add the chicken. Fry on medium-low heat.
While the chicken is cooking, peel and slice the plantains. Lay the sliced plantain on a hard surface and gently flatten with a mallet or a small plate (pressing down firmly). Heat ¼ cup of vegetable oil in a large frying pan, and season the plantains with salt, pepper and a pinch of brown sugar. When the oil is very hot, gently fry the plantains until golden brown on both sides. Lift out, drain, set aside and keep hot.
Spoon the beans over the rice and mix slowly, then arrange the chicken on top and the plantains around the dish.
Michelle Lawrence, MA, MPH, specializes in cooking African-based dishes and relationship-enhancing dining experiences for families and couples. She can be reached at 612-251-9516.