This is a story about a man called J that taught me how to make a particular kind of salsa.
As far back as 2014, I did not know a single word of Spanish. Forget that I was in Chicago and working in the restaurant industry. Most days, I witnessed a particular slice of racism and classism that I was not aware existed. My main concern at the time was that visitors to the restaurant always thought I was a dishwasher because all they were mostly black and spoke little English or occasionally French. I remember wondering how they planned to get by and rise the ranks without even learning English.
There was always a predictable amount of shock on peoples faces when they realized how articulate I was despite being from Nigeria. There was always a need for them to qualify by saying “but he was born in the US” not understanding that I do not consider myself American. Apart from the accent I can code switch into when convenient, I identify fully with being a Nigerian. The beauty of being ignorant is that you are blind to many things until they day they are laid bare before you and you do not have a choice but to accept them to be true.
Everyone is “Mexican” right?
There were “Mexicans” in the kitchen who had worked there longer than most of us combined. Despite that, nobody spoke Spanish apart from the occasional word here and there. I needed to put the word Mexican in quotes because it was used to qualify any Spanish speaker regardless of where they came from. I could confidently say that one of them could cook all of us under the table but he would never be promoted. There was a day when a new Mexican American guy joined the kitchen. I had to qualify his heritage because according to his English accent it was impossible to tell that he spoke Spanish. At times, he was asked to translate to the “Mexican” kitchen staff. Being able to code switch was an advantage and he ended up being promoted in a short period of time to chef de partie.
Before I knew a single word in Spanish, I knew the words desayuno, huevos revueltos and salsa verde. There was a man named J that worked at the restaurant in Chicago. He was resourceful, hard working and whenever there were ingredients he knew would be thrown away he would make desayuno. Now that I am a bit more familiar with Latin American culture, I understand where his passion and fire came from. He was a man on a mission who could not fail. He mentioned on a few occasions that he had a taco cart, but I never got a chance to go see it but I am quite sure it was beyond delicious.
As pans clanked, soft almost rotting vegetables were trimmed and deli cups were lined up on the pass, those that were seasoned in the kitchen would go whisper to J and ask for what they wanted. Often times it would influence the outcome but only if he liked you. I am not someone who loves breakfast but till today, it was some of the best breakfast food I have had in my life. It just so happens that it was made by a Mexican man in a restaurant in Chicago with soft almost rotting produce.
Past, present and the unknown future in one plate
On a few occasions from across the pass, I would see him putting vegetables directly on the flattop and they would turn black. He would also use the mortar and pestle mainly for spices and then blend it all together. I later found out he was simulating using a mocajete. Some days the salsas were green other days red and sometimes brown. On occasion they were chunky and at times more of a paste. I was fascinated by what he was doing but as in all high pressure kitchens, there was no time to stand around and chat. I could only observe from afar.
Immediately after desayuno was ready he would poner la mesa and standing up, we would quickly eat, clean and get back to work. When he would see us sitting around or slowing down he would say “no time!” There was never time but he would insist we eat together. It would make me smile almost 3 years later when I would see the same thing in Argentina. No matter how small or informal the meal, a table would be set. After desayuno I would always make an effort to clean up quickly after J finished serving us and sometimes run the dishes through the dishwashing machine. I did not know that he was paying attention to these gestures.
One day he said “Ramon what you want for desayuno?” I did not know and I said papas which means potatoes. He made this potato dish, with a green sauce and scrambled eggs. That green sauce tasted like ata din din (a fried Nigerian pepper sauce). It surprised me every time because the only way I knew green peppers could be used was to make designer stew (A spicy Nigerian stew with meat typically eaten with Ofada rice). On that day I asked questions and I finally saw the full process for making his salsas. To avoid the raw taste of vegetables and the need to boil the blended sauce to get the acidic flavor out, he used fire. Letting the tomatoes and peppers sit on the flat top till they turned black ensured they were cooked. Then you just needed to blend them and add seasonings to taste.
Are there advantages to this method?
His method was a modernized version of a method I later saw many times a few glasses into a bottle of Malbec or fernet y coca at an Argentinian asado. You throw the vegetables into the fire, peel the outer black layer and then continue cooking or eat it in that state. In those moments, I was then able to draw a parallel to when we would eplucher a tomato with hot water or a blowtorch in French cooking because they believed it aided digestion.
During my time in Chicago, I was searching for flavor. My taste buds had grown bored of pizza, Chicago dogs, doughnuts, ramen, Korean, Colombian and brisket. At that time, I had not yet learned how to make jollof rice and my ata din din skills were terrible. I tried a few times to make Nigerian stew for staff meal and it flopped. Everyone loved it but I knew it did not stack up with what I knew to be authentic. Many excuses later, I postulated that the missing ingredient was tatase (a type of bell pepper common in Nigeria). Then it hit me! J used poblano peppers not bell peppers for the salsa he taught me.
Feeling inspired got red poblanos from the green grocer, took them home and made a sauce that almost tasted like ata din din. I made it for staff meal after that and it was good though I am quite sure nobody else noticed the difference compared to the one I made before. I then started to question the stews we made in Nigeria. Why did we fry our stews in oil? After I left Chicago and returned to Nigeria I was craving papas and J’s salsa. I then made the leap and and tried his method out with with the ingredients used for ata din din. It was magic!
My passion for food is reignited in moments like that. Being able to look back at 5 years of experiences at different times, with different people and different foods only to reveal that we all treat ingredients quite similar but just call them different names. Who knew that burnt tomatoes would end up teaching me about fried Nigerian stew?