African Restaurants, Strained by Regulations, Consider the Cost of Spices

Traditional African restaurants in Harlem are increasingly using spices and condiments grown in America for their cuisine. But does this make the food any less African?

Africa in Harlem

A wall painting in Accra Restaurant in Harlem. African art and pictures of African leaders line the walls of Accra Restaurant.

Over the past century, Harlem has built a reputation as an “African-American Mecca,” putting black culture on display from block to block. And in Lower Harlem, around 116th Street, that culture is West African.

A couple of African descent strolls down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in Harlem.

Traditional African clothing and headwear is sold in small storefronts. Mosques and churches lie hundreds of feet from one another. Traditional greetings are given to one another at building entrances. There’s still an American influence— a pizza parlor, CVS pharmacy, Popeye’s — but it doesn’t overpower the uniqueness of the community.

The Maclom Shabazz Mosque, on the corner of 116th St. & Malcom X Blvd., is named after the assassinated Civil Rights leader and Nation of Islam leader, Malcom X.

The street is dotted with African cuisines — Le Baobab, Keur Coumba, Safari, La Savane — primarily of West African origin. Most open around 10 a.m., though crowds tend to build closer to noon. Many patrons are of African descent, but “foodie” websites like EaterNY and Yelp draw customers of all races to lauded establishments like La Savane (named one of the “best cheap eats” by EaterNY).

Stews and soups on display at Accra Restaurant in Harlem. The African eatery is one of the only to have its food on display before purchase.

But not only are American audiences increasingly coming to the area. Spices grown in America are as well, and that is a change for some of the businesses.

The Struggle for Spices

A colorful dish at Keur Coumba on 116th Street. African dishes typically have one or two distinct colors, but some, like this one, have many.

To make a dish from back home, it helps to have ingredients from there. But the African community in Harlem is having a bit of trouble getting spices and condiments from Africa to make authentic dishes. Jake Crouse has this report on how two restaurants are coping with this frustration.

A 2013 study conducted by the FDA found that nearly 12 percent of all spices imported by the United States contain contaminants of some sort, from dangerous bacteria like Salmonella (of which 7 percent of the samples contained traces) to dirt and debris. As the report lays out, spices are often treated post-transport in American facilities, but FDA regulators have still found contaminants in those purportedly treated domestically.

The FDA is currently compiling the results of a two-year study aimed at decreasing Salmonella contamination of imported spices, but while spices are under increased scrutiny, businesses like Accra Restaurant and Keur Coumba will likely continue to face the problem of product seizures, Abdullah says.

From Columbia to Africa

To get this taste of Africa, it’s a 15-minute journey east from Columbia. Ajibola Amzat takes you behinds the scenes of Accra Restaurant during our reporting time.

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