Harlem Serves Up World Culture. Take A Bite.

Food & migration culture in New York City. A compilation of migration stories by Faith Woodard & Lara Nina Shabb.


Abdulsalam Abajebel (left) and co-worker (right)at the Oasis Jimma Juice Bar on 3163 Broadway, New York — a health-focused Ethiopian juice bar & restaurant. (Lara Nina Shabb photography Lara Nina Shabb.)

Columbia Journalists (’18) Faith Woodard and Lara Nina Shabb, took to the streets of Harlem to discover culinary hot-spots that were not only rich in food and ingredients, but rich in culture and migration as well!

Three Harlem restaurants stood atop the food pack — Lee Lee’s Rugelach, a Jewish pastry shop run by an African-American family in Harlem; Solomon & Kuff, a pan-Caribbean restaurant and Rum Hall in West Harlem named after a slave sold for 4 gallons of rum; and Oasis Jimma Juice Bar on 3163 Broadway, founded by an Ethiopian immigrant who developed diabetes during his time in refugee camps due to his lack of access to healthy food.

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Lee Lee’s Baked Goods: South Carolina Soul Bakes Its Way North

By Faith Woodard and Lara Nina Shabb.

Listen to Alvin and Kevin Smalls’ customers experience their Jewish pastries. (Audio produced by Lara Nina Shabb).

Lee Lee’s Baked Goods is nestled on the corner of Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 118th Street, where it has occupied a special place in the hearts of Harlem’s residents since its opening in 2001.

Photo retrieved from Lee Lee Baked Goods’ Twitter page. (@LeeLeesRugalach)

Alvin “Lee Lee” Smalls, a native of South Carolina, moved to New York in 1964, where he initially worked as an onion peeler at New York Presbyterian hospital. Through hard work, coupled with his love for baking, Smalls eventually rose through the ranks to become the hospital’s head pastry chef.

While working as the head chef, one day, Smalls saw a recipe for Rugelach — a Jewish pastry — in the local newspaper. As a lover of baked goods, Smalls began playing with the recipe until he perfected the crumbly treat.

In 2001, Smalls opened his own pastry shop in Harlem, which specializes in Rugelach, but also serves other pastries like home-made carrot cakes, muffins, and delectable chocolate desserts.

Today, Smalls works with his son Kevin, who helps him take care of his day-to-day errands, including shipping orders to international customers. When Smalls retires, he hopes his son Kevin, will take over the family business. In the words of Smalls’ loyal customers — “don’t take our word for it — come on down and give it a try!”

Taste the dessert that has brought customers from all over the United States to a small pastry shop in West Harlem. But above all else, come meet the man who made it possible: Mr. Alvin “Lee Lee” Smalls himself.

The Smalls display homemade Rugalach and other specialty treats in their Harlem shop window. (Photography by Faith Woodard.)

Solomon & Kuff: Pan-Caribbean & Rum Hall

By Faith Woodard.

Located within the Manhattanville Factory District of West Harlem, Karl Franz Williams, a Yale graduate of 1997, owns a Caribbean-inspired Rum Hall named Solomon & Kuff.

Housing over 100 different rums, this Harlem speakeasy infuses both Caribbean culture and history into its bar menu, food, and even its name.

“My family’s from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said. “Not a big country. But I was born here.” Williams said.

Although Williams was raised in the U.S., he’s always had a deep connection to Caribbean culture-a culture widely recognized for its intimate relationship with rum and other alcoholic beverages.

Photo retrieved from Solomon and Kuff twitter account. (@solomonandkuff)

“As a kid, every Saturday, we would have a big family dinner and my father would make these amazing punches,” he said. “Usually they were a blend of different types of tea, maybe he added some citrus to it as well. And maybe even some other herbs, like mint and basil.”

Flavors and tastes reign supreme from one continent to the other. Photo retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/13/481586649/a-map-of-where-your-food-originated-may-surprise-you.

According to Williams, his father’s love for tasty drinks inspired him to pursue a career in mixology. Today, Williams owns three bars, Solomon and Kuff and 67 Orange Street in New York, and The Anchor Spa in New Haven, CT, all of which have historical twists.

Inspired by the life and odyssey of Venture Smith, a native-born enslaved African who was bought and sold at just 10-years-old for 4 gallons of rum, Williams’ pan-fusion Caribbean restaurant pays tribute to Smith’s legacy through its name, Solomon & Kuff.

Depiction of slaves being bought and sold for rum. Photo retrieved at http://rumroadravings.com/uncategorized/rum-week-the-divine-tears-of-africa/.

Through sheer perseverance, as an adult, Venture Smith not only purchased his own freedom, but the freedom of his wife and his two sons, Solomon and Cuff. The name was originally spelled with a “C,” but Karl Franz Williams changed the spelling to match his first name, “Karl.” Today, Williams’ restaurant is the only restaurant in the New York area that pays tribute to Smith’s legacy in this way.

“I think a lot of our stories don’t get told as black people,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of great stories that sometimes get washed away. I thought it’d be great to do a bar that would infuse some of that history.”

Not only does Solomon & Kuff tell this historic narrative through rums like “Venture’s Punch” and “S&K Dark and Stormy,” but it also does so through interior design.

Inside Solomon & Kuff are dark brown aged rum barrels; metal poles that symbolize the poles inside slave ships; an expensive, tin roof reflecting traditional Caribbean houses; and African-American artwork.

Aged rum barrels line the walls at Solomon and Kuff as a totem of the Venture Smith’s history. Photo retrieved from Solomon and Kuff’s Instagram. (@solomonandkuff)

Oasis Jimma Juice Bar: Nutrients and Smiles

By Lara Nina Shabb

Meet Abdusalam Abajebel, owner and founder of the Oasis Jimma Juice bar on 3163 Broadway.

Abdusalam Abajebel grew up in Ethiopia. His father was a holistic doctor and a community physician - healing patients with natural herbs, foods, and various meditation techniques. As a child, Abajebel assisted his father in what he calls “healing ceremonies” — holding up candles as early as 5 in the morning to provide sufficient light for his father to carry out his work.

When Abajebel was 11, his father passed away, and due to rapid familial and economic dystrophy, he was forced to flee Ethiopia. As a young adult, Abajebel moved from one refugee camp to another across the Middle East and Kenya, until he finally arrived in New York, “without a penny in the pocket, and without a word of English,” said Abajebel.

Abajebel believes that he developed diabetes due to the harsh conditions of the refugee camps, and to the poor quality of affordable foods in New York. That’s when his father’s knowledge was re-awakened in him, and Abajebel decided to open a healthy juice bar and restaurant in West Harlem, to cure himself and to contribute positively to his community. The venture was a big economic risk that ironically cost Abajebel his marriage, as his wife did not share his vision.

An Oasis Juice Bar customer who recently lost all of his teeth visits Abajebel to stay nourished and healthy before his new teeth are implanted. Photography by Lara Nina Shabb.

Today, it is clear to both Abajebel and to his customers that the investment was well worth the sacrifice, as the Oasis Juice Bar has become an extension of home for both the founder and its customers. People come from all over New York for a special shake, and neighborhood regulars smile at the simple thought of visiting the bar for a meal, a snack, or a hello.

The bar’s eclectic menu sets the juice bar apart from other health-crazed eateries. For example, Abajebel is the only one who serves immunity shots with wheatgrass, ginger, garlic, parsley, cayenne pepper, and other superfoods in the neighborhood. The juice bar also serves green bowls, soups, salads, sandwiches, and traditional Ethiopian eats like Sambusa.

In Abajebel’s words, everything prepared must be “fresh, affordable, colorful, and tasty.”