At home in Angola (in New Jersey)

November 20, 2008

It may appear that we’ve broken two rules of this game.  We left NYC to find the Angolan food described in this entry.  But our travels only took us to nearby Elizabeth, NJ, which is certainly well-situated in the greater metropolitan area (just over the water from Staten Island).  And, because it is home to what was formerly NYC’s only Ikea, most New Yorkers know the town and consider it an extension of the city since most of their furnishings came from there.  So, forgive us, dear readers.  We left the 5 boroughs, but not so much as to lose the heart of the journey. In all honesty, we knew Jersey would come into play at some stage.  It’s inescapable.

The second rule we kind-a sort-a broke was getting food from Antigua and Barbuda before sampling Angolan.  Though this is an apparent breach of parameters, I have an excellent argument otherwise.  Late in October, I rang up the Permanent Mission of Angola to the United Nations, to inquire about Angolan eateries in the area.  The charming and friendly receptionist told me that there were in fact no Angolan restaurants in the city.  Sad news indeed.  We chatted for a while, and I asked her where she goes to eat food from her homeland.  She answered, “At my house!  I cook Angolan food every day.”  To which I naturally replied, “Well, can I come over to your house?”  And she said yes!  But then decided it would be even better if we came to her church on November 9, when they would be having a celebration of their congregation’s second year.  A feast was planned following the service, which would include all sorts of Angolan dishes.  That was certainly worth the wait, so we went ahead and checked out Antigua and Barbuda in the meantime.

tuna

Giant tuna

On that mild and sunny fall day, we left our neighborhood in Central Brooklyn early and headed to Manhattan, where we met up with two other foodie friends who joined us on the adventure.  After a detour to Mitsuwa in Edgewater, NJ for giant blue fin tuna and ramen (we’ll talk more about this amazing place when we get to Japanese food), we arrived in Elizabeth and found Pilgrim Journey Community Church.  The services are held inside an established local Lutheran church, and its congregation mainly consists of Angolan immigrants living in the area.  At the door, we picked up programs with the day’s prayers and songs, all of which were in both English and Portuguese.  As we entered, we were immediately spotted by our host from the UN mission, who greeted us warmly.

church3Because it was the church’s two year anniversary, the service that day was extra special.  The choir and pastor of a church in Trenton, NJ, whose congregation is mostly from Liberia, was visiting.  The pastor, who was formerly Bishop of the Lutheran church in Liberia, delivered a motivating sermon to the African immigrant congregation, which reflected the still palpable excitement in the air about the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States just a few days earlier.  The choir sang upbeat hymns in both English and African languages, and all of us sang along for one in Portuguese (following the words in the program, of course).

buffet1After the two hour service, the 100 or so attendees quickly filed into the back room and lined up for the buffet.  Members of the congregation had cooked about 35 different items, including 8 desserts, almost all of which were traditional Angolan dishes.  As you may know, Angola was a colony of Portugal for about 400 years. Their food reflects this heritage, combining typical west and south African ingredients with Portuguese flavors and spices.

We piled our plates high, starting with a few pieces of boiled cassava, beans cooked in palm oil (beijao de óleo de palma), and generous helpings of collards in peanut sauce (couves cozidas com óleo de palma e amendoim).  Instead of grinding peanuts and mixing them with water to make the sauce, the cooks at Pilgrim Journey had simplified the process by using peanut butter.  The peanut’s history in this part of the world is a fascinating one.  Native to South America, the Portuguese brought the peanut to Africa on their merchant vessels where it was introduced to local cooking.  Later, the peanut traveled with African slaves to North America and settled in there.  Or so claims Cherie Y. Hamilton, author of Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters.

dinner1

Collards in peanut butter and other delicious Angolan dishes

Moving down the buffet line, we added churrasco (Angolan-style grilled chicken); calulu, a fish stew cooked in palm oil with spinach, tomato and onion; and a chicken stew cooked in chicken blood.  We topped it off with a heaping spoonful of funge, the Angolan staple.  Funge is made from cornmeal, manioc or cassava flour (in this case), and resembles other starchy African staples, like banku and fufu in West Africa.

At the end of the table we found a large bowl of what looked like doughnut holes.  They turned out to be less sweet, but just as delicious.  They are called mikate, and are made with rising flour, eggs, oil and water.  The five of us put a hurting on those dough balls: we each had at least 3, and one member of our group probably ate 6 or 7.  They were completely addictive.  Also in this area were eight scrumptious-looking desserts.  I started with some flan, and rice and corn pudding topped with cinnamon.  I also sliced off a hunk of fular, which looked like a sweet bread, but turned out to be stuffed with a variety of meats and vegetables. Deceptive but darn tasty.

dessert

Right/top: flan, rice and corn pudding, meat bread. Left/bottom: pineapple cake, sponge cake, and more

Our host and her 9-month-old daughter kept us company during the meal (her 5-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son were talking with friends at other tables), and told us how she came here 10 years ago on vacation, found a job, and stayed.  She talked openly and at length about life in Angola, describing the physical beauty of the land and its people, and the ugliness of a corrupt government.  After their colonizers left in 1975, Angola went through a civil war that lasted until 2002.  During that time hundreds of thousands of people fled the country, most of them ending up in neighboring African countries, Portugal or elsewhere in Europe.  Only a handful settled in the US.

The other 10 families that make up the church congregation are all from different parts of their native country, and speak very different local languages.  Portuguese is the common tongue they speak together. They are a very close community – very much like family in this country far away from loved ones back home.  They were an incredibly friendly and welcoming group, and we felt at home dining with them.  We’ve been invited back for barbeque and baseball in the park next summer.  I definitely wouldn’t pass up another opportunity to enjoy the company and cooking of this group.

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2 Responses to “At home in Angola (in New Jersey)”

  1. Esha Says:

    We had an awesome time, thanks again for letting us tag along. I want to go back to Mitsuwa and have more of the mikate. Also, thanks for keeping count, I really appreciate it. 🙂

  2. Andrea Westkamp Says:

    I am preparing to move to Angola and am trying to find some Angolan people in the New Jersey area. My online search took me to this blog and I read with interest that there are Angolans around Elizabeth,NJ. Is there any way that I could get in touch with this church community? Thanks a million!!!


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