© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Chef Kwame Onwuachi explores his roots in his debut cookbook 'My America'

Kwame Onwuachi. (Storm)
Kwame Onwuachi. (Storm)

Here & Now‘s Jane Clayson speaks with James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi about his new cookbook “My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef.”

Recipes from ‘My America’

By Kwame Onwuachi

Jamaican Beef Patty

Origin: Jamaica

Yield: 18 small patties

No other entry in the Jamaican canon of cooking captures the island’s history as tidily, or as deliciously, as the beef patty. Layer upon layer of history and immigration—some forced, others voluntary—can be found in this patty and its pastry casing. English immigrants from Cornwall, where meat pies called pasties are common, are responsible for the invention of the hand pie itself. Indentured Indian laborers, who often served in the houses of the English colonizers, introduced turmeric to the pastry and curry to the filling, as revolutionary an evolution as perspective is to painting. West Africans and their descendants sharpened the flavors with peppers, while Jamaica’s own Scotch bonnet pepper brought additional heat. As Jamaicans moved abroad, they carried these patties with them from Brixton to the Bronx. The yeasty sweet smell of the dough baking rises from the end of the line of the 2 train, in Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, to the other in Wakefield, in the far North Bronx. Dancing images of beef patties tucked into pillows of coco bread got me through endless church services on Sundays because I knew what awaited me, a divine reward.

For the dough and to assemble

  • 1½ cups all- purpose flour, plus more as needed for dusting 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and frozen
  • 1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons ice water
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk

For the filling

  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
  • 1 tablespoon Ginger-Garlic Purée (GGP)
  • 1 tablespoon Jerk Paste
  • 1 tablespoon Green Seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon Peppa Sauce
  • 1 ½ teaspoons Curry Powder

*Note: Kwame makes the above 5 ingredients from scratch, but you can find them at most grocery stores or online. The recipes for each are included in the cookbook.

  • ¼ cup panko breadcrumbs
  • ¼ cup chicken stock
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

For the dough

Prepare the dough by placing the flour, along with the bowl and blade of your food processor, in the freezer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, assemble the food processor, then add the flour, turmeric, and salt and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse to a coarse meal. (The butter should be in dime- sized pieces.) Add the ice water a tablespoon at a time, pulsing until the dough begins to come together in large clumps. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until it comes together into a smooth dough. If it’s sticky, sprinkle in a bit more flour; if it doesn’t come together, add a bit more water.

Flatten the dough into a disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

For the filling

While the dough rests, make the filling: Heat the oil and GGP in a large pan over medium- high heat. Cook, stirring often, until very fragrant and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the jerk paste, green seasoning, peppa sauce, and curry powder. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes, until deeply caramelized.

Stir in the breadcrumbs and chicken stock. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are completely hydrated, then add the beef and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook until well browned, crumbly, and cooked through, 7 to 10 minutes. The liquid should be mostly cooked out but the pan shouldn’t be totally dry. Taste and adjust seasoning, then remove from the heat to cool slightly. Refrigerate until completely cool, at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.

To assemble

Cut the dough into quarters. Set 1 quarter on a well- floured work surface and return the rest of the dough to the refrigerator. Roll the dough as thinly as possible (1/8 inch) and use a 41/2- inch round cookie cutter to cut it into discs. Set the discs on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper, and place a sheet of parchment between each layer of discs. Keep the sheet tray in the refrigerator, and repeat this process until all of the dough is cut, combining and rerolling any leftover scraps until you have 18 discs.

Scoop 1 tablespoon of the filling into the palm of your hand and squeeze firmly to make a small ball. Repeat with the remaining filling— you should have 18 balls total.

Fill a small bowl with water. Place a portion of the filling onto the center of a disc of dough. Using your finger or a pastry brush, wet the edge of the dough halfway around, then fold the dry edge onto the wet edge and press down gently but firmly to seal, pushing out as much air as possible and spreading the filling around the inside of the patty. Crimp the edges with a fork, then place on a parchment paper– lined sheet tray. Repeat until all the patties have been shaped, then freeze for at least 30 minutes, or until ready to bake.

Heat the oven to 410°F. Beat the eggs and milk in a small bowl to make an egg wash. Brush the frozen patties with egg wash, then bake on a sheet tray until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Note: Beef patties are best served immediately, but the dough and the filling may both be made up to 2 days ahead and stored separately in the refrigerator. Unbaked patties may be frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw the frozen patties in the refrigerator then bake as described above.


Origin: Nigeria

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Suya is the grandfather of American BBQ. In Nigeria, the spices draw out and fire up the meats, often cooked over an open flame. Here I do the same. But if you don’t have a grill, use a well- oiled cast- iron skillet over high heat in a kitchen with open windows. The open windows are very important, unless you find the blare of a smoke alarm harmonious and enjoy fits of sneezing. I find the sweetness of the char plus the heat of the spice totally irresistible. I did when I first smelled it from beyond the walls of my grandfather’s compound in Nigeria, or when we went to market when I could sneak a skewer. (Since my grandfather was an obi, or chief, there were many customs and rules around what he and his family could eat.) When I opened my second restaurant, Kith and Kin, I wanted to suya everything. The reaction from the diners, at least initially, was mixed. Many Nigerians scoffed at the idea that suya could be applied to, for instance, brussels sprouts. They were, on the whole, proud that Nigerian cuisine was being given the attention it so much deserved but arrived at the table with some strong opinions. Judging from the empty bowls that came back to the kitchen, I think I won them over. But it was always a battle.

In this recipe, I stick to the traditional proteins— steak, chicken, and shrimp. In Nigeria, suya is served with sliced tomatoes and onions, which help mellow the heat. Here that role is played by a tomato- ginger soubise and a traditional onion cream sauce from France, and I keep the tomatoes and onions in the form of pickles, whose burst of acidity rounds out the flavors.

For the suya and to assemble

  • 1 pound large (16– 20 size) shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 pound boneless ribeye steak, excess fat trimmed, sliced into ¼- inch strips
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into ¼- inch strips
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons Suya Spice, divided, plus more to garnish (*Note: Kwame makes this from scratch, but you can find it at most grocery stores or online. Kwame’s recipe is included in the cookbook.)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
  • Tomato-ginger soubise, to serve
  • Pickled tomatoes and onions, to serve
  • Lime wedges, to serve
  • For the tomato-ginger soubise
  • 1 Roma tomato, roughly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
  • 3 tablespoons Ginger-Garlic Purée (GGP) (*Note: Kwame makes GGP from scratch, but you can find it at most grocery stores or online. Kwame’s recipe is included in the cookbook.)
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • For the pickled tomatoes and onions
  • 1 cup Spice Pickling Liquid (below)
  • 1 medium red onion, large dice
  • 1 medium ripe tomato, large dice

For the suya

Place the shrimp, steak, and chicken in three separate bowls. Season each with 11/2 tablespoons of suya spice and 1/2 teaspoon salt, mixing well to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (You can marinate the shrimp for up to 12 hours, and the steak and chicken for up to 48 hours.)

For the tomato-ginger soubise

Heat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Toss the tomatoes with olive oil and season with salt. Spread evenly over the sheet pan and bake for 15 minutes, until deep red and a little wrinkly.

Meanwhile, heat the grapeseed oil in a medium pot over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the GGP and cook until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook until translucent and soft, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes, along with the cream and milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until reduced to about 1 cup— watch carefully, as cream has a tendency to boil over, so reduce the heat as necessary to keep it from sputtering or burning— about 1 hour. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, then transfer to a blender and purée until velvety smooth. Season to taste with salt and set aside. You should have 1 cup of soubise.

For the pickled tomatoes and onions

Bring the spice pickling liquid to a boil in a small pot. Place the onions and tomatoes in a nonreactive bowl and pour the hot liquid over them, stirring to combine well. Let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour before serving. You should have about 3 cups of pickled tomatoes and onions.

To assemble

When ready to cook, prepare a grill for high heat. Let it heat for 10 minutes. Grill the shrimp, steak, and chicken, turning occasionally, until deeply browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes for shrimp and steak and 4 to 5 minutes for the chicken.

In a small pot, warm the soubise over low heat. Place the grilled items on a platter, dust with extra suya spice, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with warm soubise, pickled tomatoes and onions, lime wedges for squeezing, and jollof rice.

Note: Cooked suya shrimp will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 day, chicken and beef suya for up to 4 days. Tomato-ginger soubise will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Pickled tomatoes and onions will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Spice Pickling Liquid

Origin: American South

Yield: 3 cups

Pickling is an act of food preservation and also, thankfully for us, adds an entire dimension of bright angular flavors. This pickling liquid includes a touch of spice but it largely neutral, allowing the flavors of the pickled vegetables to emerge. I like the balance between the thyme and coriander on the softer herbal side with the habanero and ginger more biting, but play around as you like. Garlic goes well, ditto allspice, cloves, and bay leaf. Here’s your chance to go freeform and experiment with what aromatics you use in the pickling liquid and what you pickle. Among my favorite vegetables to pickle are onions, mushrooms, and pig’s feet—which aren’t a vegetable at all, of course, but are delicious.

  • 1 ¾ cups white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup granulated white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 fresh thyme sprigs
  • 4 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
  • ½ habanero pepper, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
  • 2 thin slices ginger, about 2-3 inches long
  • 2 cups water

Place all the ingredients into a medium pot and bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat. Let cool completely, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve and transfer to a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Note: Spice pickling liquid will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

From “My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef” by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein. Copyright © 2022 by Kwame Onwuachi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.