{My Harlem} Between D.F. and Dakar: Flavors of 116th Street

I wrote and Alex photographed this article for The Studio Museum in Harlem’s publication Studio. If you’re ever in Harlem make sure to visit the Studio Museum! You can also virtually experience the Museum through their beautiful new website and blog. Harlem is truly a special place, saturated with wonderful people, food and culture.

It’s just before dawn, and West 116th Street is still. As the sun rises above the brick and brownstone, delivery trucks begin to rumble down the street. Double-parked, one driver unloads crates of onions, carrots and cassava in front of Le Baobab. Across the street, another stacks boxes of okra and yams at the entrance to the soul-satisfying Amy Ruth’s. Next door a few dozen whole slaughtered lambs are hauled into the Halal butcher. From the window of my fifth floor apartment, I watch as my street comes to life.

I grab three grocery bags and head out the door. Harlem’s 116th Street, running from Little Senegal to Spanish Harlem, is home to an abundance of diverse flavors. The rich smells of fish stewed in tomato broth and roasted lamb, the hum of French and Wolof being spoken, fade as I stroll east towards Spanish Harlem to gather ingredients for my dish, a combination of the Senegalese Thiebu Djen (fish stewed with rice) and the Puerto Rican Bacalao Guisado (codfish stew) with a Mexican twist.

At the Mexican grocer I sift through bins of dried chilis: smoky ancho and chipotle, mild guajillo and pasilla, and the piquant arbol. Instead of purchasing the fresh habañeros or scotch bonnet chiles used in West Africa and the Caribbean I opt for the smoky rich heat of dried Mexican chipotles. I also grab a bag of Hibiscus petals and fresh mint to make agua de jamaica to serve alongside my hearty stew.

Down the street another grocery store displays its fresh produce in bins and crates out front. I buy fuzzy green okra, succulent on-the-vine tomatoes, rough, waxy cassava, and plenty of pungently tangy culantro and cilantro before heading towards home.

Just before Malcolm X Boulevard, I slip into Sea & Sea Fish Market. Bypassing the heaps of fresh fish, I pick up some dry salted cod. I then pop into the Halal grocery, just opening for the day, where the store attendant is speaking on his cell phone in a language I do not understand. I point to the word thiakry on my grocery list; without interrupting his conversation, he digs through some plastic bins, removes a bag of the nutty brown millet and holds up four fingers. I hand him four dollars and cross the street to climb five floors to my apartment where I will simmer Harlem’s flavors from Le Petit Senegal to El Barrio.

As my kitchen heats up, the smells of West Africa, the South, Puerto Rico and Mexico waft out my windows and back onto 116th Street in Harlem, my own culinary cross-section of the globe.


116th Street Inspired Fish Stew

1 pound salt cod / bacalao
1 yellow onion diced
4 cloves garlic minced
3 cups yuca /cassava chopped into bite-size cubes
3 dried chipotle pods
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1/3 cup culantro/recao finely chopped
1/3 cilantro finely chopped
1 cup scallions chopped
½ pound fresh okra chopped
3 tomatoes chopped
1 Tablespoon Olive oil
In a large pot, cover the salt cod with water. Bring it to a boil and cook for 15 minutes to remove the excess salt. Drain and break cod it into small flakes making sure to remove all bones. Set aside.

In a large pot heat the olive oil on medium. Add the yellow onion, garlic and yuca and cook for 3 minutes, until onions become semi-transparent. Add 12 cups water, cod, chipotle pods and tomato paste and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the yuca is tender but firm. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Serve with rice or grain of choice.

Serves 6-8

Agua de Jamaica

2 Tablespoons jamaica petals (hibiscus, roselle)
1 sprig fresh mint
2 Tablespoon Honey
8 cups water

In a saucepan or tea kettle bring 8 cups water to a boil. Once boiling remove from heat and add the jamaica petals and mint. Let steep for 15 minutes. Strain petals and leaves. Add honey. Allow to come to room temperature. Serve in a pitcher or glasses over ice.

Serves 4

12 Responses to “{My Harlem} Between D.F. and Dakar: Flavors of 116th Street”
  1. S Lloyd says:

    Thanks for the fish stew recipe.
    I will give it a try

  2. Meredith says:

    Hey neighbor! I also live on 116th St.. Is that a picture of the store on 116th St. and 3rd Ave.? You’re right- all of the different cultures and access to different ingredients around here are really great inspiration for home cooking!

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      HI! Yep! Aren’t there so many great stores on this street? It has helped make my favorite activity grocery shopping.

  3. gloria says:

    Oh how great. Wow. You live right next to the stores, and don’t need a car to go here and there to shop. I am jealous. Well not really, but I’ve never lived that way. I’ve read about it, seen movies about it, and always wanted a loft or to sit out on the step of the brownstone. How wonderful. I can dream. Your food looks awesome and the photos were grand and your words just had me there momentarily. Thank you for that. ::sigh:: Nice post

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      Hi Gloria, I love living in a way that I can just walk everywhere, I’m glad my story could take you along!

  4. Zoe says:

    This is really beautiful. Well done, guys!

  5. Cheryl says:

    This menu sounds amazing! I can’t decide which I want to try more, the Agua de Jamaica or your stew! I loved hearing about your trip to the markets, too. Thanks for taking me along, mentally. You painted a lovely picture with your story and made me want to move to 116th street, even though I’ve never been to Harlem (or NY for that matter) 🙂 It sounds like a great street to live on.

    • gabriellemarielopez says:

      Cheryl, If it’s as hot in L.A. as it is here in NYC I’d say you should try the agua de jamaica! And, yes, Harlem is a great place to live….I don’t think I’d choose any other neighborhood in Manhattan to be a part of.

      • Cheryl says:

        Sipping some as I type this. I couldn’t resist making it! It is so refreshing; I love it.

        I also bought a lemon verbena plant today so I can try your cucumber one now, too 🙂 I’ll put that one together later in the week.

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