Before going down a culinary-focused career path, Lerato Umah-Shaylor always thought she’d be working in international relations. “I never thought I’d be cooking for a living,” says the journalist and cookbook author. “I always had an interest in the African economy and social issues. I thought I’d be saving the world.”
Her vision may have manifested a bit differently than she imagined, but Umah-Shaylor is still fulfilling her dream of impacting and championing the African diaspora. Her cookbook, Africana, features more than 100 recipes that showcase the range of flavors, techniques and ingredients across the continent.
Umah-Shaylor, who is Nigerian, takes pride in celebrating where she comes from. Her cookbook chronicles memories from her childhood, like how her father’s late sister, Auntie Vic, taught her how to add a chunk of onion to soften beans as they cook.
“By sharing those stories, you’re sharing a piece of yourself,” says Umah-Shaylor.
She wants these stories, just like the power of food in general, to be a conduit for understanding the richness of African culture. It’s time, Umah-Shaylor says, for the world to know about the vast nature of the continent’s cooking—and to honor this food in the same way it does other cuisines more widely considered “classics.”
“I’m shouting it out loud, proudly and vibrantly,” she says. “I use my platform to empower people like me to not be shy about their culture. And I’m using food to start those conversations.”
As Juneteenth approaches and Black resilience is commemorated, food is a major player. Umah-Shaylor shares a recipe from her cookbook: Slow-Cooked Beans with Plantain & Crispy Onions, a dish she says is perfect for celebrating the day’s significance. It’s also a dish she grew up eating in Nigeria.
“Black eyed peas (or beans) are seen as a significant meal that brings good luck, it’s prosperity,” says Umah-Shaylor. “Food connects us together; it brings us back to our culture. What better dish to cook for Juneteenth alongside all the other parts of your tradition?”
Get Umah-Shaylor’s Slow-Cooked Beans with Plantain & Crispy Onions recipe below!
Plus: Looking for the perfect wine to pair with this dish? Sweet July’s wine consultant Julia Coney recommends Soave. Coney says, “This white grape from Italy sometimes plays second fiddle to its more popular pinot grigio, but it shouldn’t. It has an appeal and zest with the vitality that is known from Italian white wines. It has enough complexity to work with hearty fare, but when paired with various spices, it will knock your socks off. A wine that can be both savory and fresh.”
Lerato Umah-Shaylor's Slow-Cooked Beans with Plantain & Crispy Onions
300 g dried black-eyed peas, brown beans or Nigerian honey beans, picked and thoroughly rinsed
1 large red or brown onion, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
1 red Romano or 1 bell pepper
1-2 scotch bonnet peppers or habanero chilies, or 2-4 red chilies, stemmed and roughly chopped
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
125 ml sustainable palm oil or Red Oil, plus a drizzle to serve, or 2-3 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 small red onion, finely sliced
2-3 tbsp tbsp ground dried shrimp or crayfish
200 ml fish, chicken, or vegetable stock
2 ripe yellow plantains, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds or ½-inch diagonal strips
1 spring onion, trimmed and sliced into pieces
- Place the dried beans in a large saucepan with 1.25 liters of water and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat. This can take up to 10 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface.
- Tuck half the large onion into the pan along with the bay leaf and season with 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. Cover with a lid slightly ajar to avoid bubbling over and cook over a medium heat for 50 minutes to 1 hour. Check the beans after 25 minutes and pour in another 500ml water. Continue cooking until softened and easily squashed when pressed between your thumb and index finger.
- Meanwhile, prepare a pepper puree. Place the red pepper, scotch bonnet, ginger and the remaining half onion with a splash of water in a food processor. Blend to a puree.
- Heat the palm or Red Oil in a separate small sauce pan over a medium-low heat. Add the sliced red onion and fry for up to 8 minutes, stirring often. Keep a close eye to ensure it does not burn. As soon as it begins to curl up and darken, swiftly remove the onion from the oil with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to drain.
- Pour the pepper puree into the pan with the red oil and fry for 10 minutes over a medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the ground dried shrimp or crayfish and fry for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until thickened.
- Transfer the cooked puree to the pot of beans and add the stock. Season with a pinch of fine sea salt and stir gently to combine. Cover and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 10 minutes, until most of the moisture is absorbed, leaving a bit of sauce on the top layer.
- Once the beans are meltingly soft, remove from the heat and set aside for 20 minutes. The sauce on top will set as it cools.
- Meanwhile, to fry the plantains, heat about 1 inch of oil to 375 ̊ F in a shallow frying pan or deep fat fryer. Carefully place the plantain pieces into the hot oil without overcrowding. Leave to fry for a few minutes, then use a turner or slotted spoon to peek at the bottom of the plantains. Once golden brown on the bottom, swiftly turn to fry the other side. Remove when the plantains are deep golden brown on both sides and drain on kitchen paper. Season with fine sea salt while still hot.
- Serve the beans with a drizzle of palm or Red Oil, fried plantains, and the crispy onions and spring onions scattered on top.
- Lerato’s Tip:
I often cook this heartwarming dish with the plantains added to the beans at its final stage of cooking. Cut the plantains into small 1-inch chunks and add to beans with the pepper puree and 300ml stock. Stir to combine and cover to cook over a medium heat until the plantains are tender and thoroughly cooked. A wide variety of beans can be cooked or mixed together for this dish, as well as lentils, chickpeas, or, for a sweeter dish, add corn, which is a popular variation in many regions across West Africa and similar to the Kenyan githeri.