Going East Across the Park to West Africa

In the summer NYC is exhausting in both bad and good ways. Battling the heat and the MTA breakdowns are exhausting. Sometimes just walking down a crowded concrete sidewalk, garbage cans perfuming the air with rot and decay, makes me feel like going back home, retreating to my dark, cool bedroom with shades drawn.

And yet, if there’s the bad and ugly, there’s the good. Never before has it seemed that our city has at least ten outdoor activities from which to choose for every single summer day. You can stick with safe summer bets like Summer Stage, Celebrate Brooklyn and Films on the Green or you can explore entertainments farther afield like being a kickball free agent in McCarren Park or attending the Classical Shakespeare Theatre of Harlem in Marcus Garvey Park. On one of this summer’s steamiest evenings we went to see their flamboyant production of the Bacchae and stopped in at Sugarhill Creamery Harlem’s only family-owned ice cream store.  Their ice cream is dense, and their flavors are intense. I had Tuma Buna in a rootbeer float: Ethiopian coffee flavored ice cream with turmeric and ginger candies. The Chef had “Green Carts.” Named after Bloomberg’s initiative to eliminate food deserts with green carts, this ice cream has a strawberry base with lemon curd, shortbread and notes of basil. Prices can’t be beat; our $3.50 kids’ cones were ample (I was shocked to note that Haagen Dazs now charges $4.89 for a single scoop!).

East Harlem seems to be a theme of the Chef’s city walks this summer. On any given weekend, he’s likely to head northeast. One day he came upon a son Cubano concert under the Metro North rail trestles as well as Mapping Resistance a larger-than-life outdoor photo exhibition of the Young Lords, a radical social activist group started by Puerto Rican youth in the 1960s.  On the very southern border of East Harlem, at the start of museum mile, the Chef and walking partner Chris liked the looks of the menu choices at The Africa Center’s new cafeteria style cafe, Teranga, which intrepid ethnic eater Ligaya Mishan reviewed in her Hungry City column. Recently we made a spontaneous decision to lunch there (once only open till 5PM, the restaurant is open Tues- Thurs (8AM-7PM) Friday (8AM-9PM) Sat-Sun (9AM-9PM).

I have to say it’s almost redundant to review food after Hungry City has given a place the once, over, but here goes. The only things on my $10-under snack budget were the vegetarian FuFu bowl and the vegetarian market plate ($10.00). Because the free-range grilled chicken with thyme, garlic and thyme sounded so tasty, we split a chicken + sides plate ($13) and a FuFu bowl. While the chicken was the star, the sides are mighty fun. My favorite was the Liberian “ruby red rice,” that tasted like African kasha; I’d take it over quinoa any day. We chose two refreshing salads for hot summer days, to round out the market plate: black-eyed peas salad with tomato, cucumber, and a lime-ginger dressing (I hadn’t realized lime figured so prominently in West African food, but I’m glad it does!), and Beet and Fonio salad with pomegranate. What is “fonio”? It’s another contender to replace quinoa, a West African super grain that Teranga Chef Pierre Thiam has thrown in the limelight. Loved the color, texture and taste of this beet red concoction. The centerpiece of the FuFu bowl was a giant faux meatball made of mashed plantain. This was less interesting to me than the market sides or grilled chicken. A few bites, and I’d had enough of the dense starchy ball. However, I loved the peanut sauce generously ladled over it and the ndambe, sweet potato and black-eyed peas stew, seemed like something to come back for on a cold winter day. Other sides on the FuFu bowl were Attieke, fermented cassava couscous and kelewele, fried spicy plantains—good comfort food but not the piquant standouts of the cold salads we had on our market plate.

After lunch I viewed the exhibit of artwork spurred by the Moleskine Foundation’s AtWork initiative. Artist-led workshops that began in Dakar and wound themselves around Africa and even into Europe challenged teens to turn Moleskine notebooks, those hipster attaché cases, into vehicles of self-expression. No simple journaling exercise, this. Those notebooks were carved into with X-acto knives, hidden in wildly colored knitted creatures, or turned into free-standing sculptures. Coming back through Teranga to exit, I couldn’t help noticing several folks with laptops open, sipping golden turmeric lattes and working to the pulsating music of Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour. I couldn’t help looking forward to brining my own writer attaché case, my MacAir, back to this place to write poetry, sample more West African food and afterwards, stroll through one of the most beautiful corners of Central Park, the Harlem Meer abutting the Conservatory Garden. I feel hopeful about NYC in the summertime when I spend time in places like Teranga!