Food for the soul in Harlem

Trail of the unexpected: Head to Upper Manhattan for a real taste of New York

Where do you go to get a true taste of New York City? The pizzerias of Little Italy? The hip ramen noodle joints of the East Village? Or do you head to the United House of Prayer mega-church in Harlem and tuck into a plate of pigs' trotters with collard greens?

Ask Jacqueline Orange, a former banker who now runs culinary tours, and within the space of a few hours she will have convinced you that nowhere encapsulates the Big Apple's ever-shifting communities and their cuisines, like the neighbourhood north of 96th Street. It's finally flourishing again after decades off the tourist radar. "Harlem has a very rich history," she says over a plate piled high with fried chicken and waffles during the lunchtime rush at Amy Ruth's soul food restaurant.

I had never imagined those two ingredients competing for space on the same plate. "Just think of it as meat and bread," Jacqueline assured me. After a bit of a faux pas with the hot sauce (it goes on the chicken, not the waffle), I was a convert, the saltiness of the fried, moist chicken melding with the fluffy sweetness of the waffle.

Amy Ruth's was a good place to start our tour – it serves one of the few uniquely American cuisines. New York's inhabitants rave about its multi-faceted restaurant scene, but when it comes to indigenous fare, many struggle to define it beyond hamburgers and hot dogs.

Not so in Harlem. In its soul food restaurants, the food is bold, flavoursome and laced not only with the salt and fat that has dieters running for the hills and gourmets licking their lips, but also the history of the nation.

Soul food is essentially food from the Deep South, transported up to New York by successive waves of economic migration. The food has its roots in slavery, when African-American families were using whatever ingredients they could get their hands on. "They were just trying to get a meal to the table," said Jacqueline. "Whatever was around, you're trying to make something out of it, stuff from the ground, parts of the pig that the slave master would not want."

Flavours of pork suffused many of the dishes sampled throughout the day, giving particular richness to the collard greens, best described as a cross between spinach and cabbage. We tucked into oxtail, short ribs, baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, buttered corn and catfish. A particularly delicious side dish on every soul food menu was candied yams – mashed sweet potato laced with brown sugar.

As the civil rights movement swept America, this traditional home-cooked fare became linked with African-American empowerment and thus became known as soul food. Jacqueline's tour takes in much of the history of that time.

But the tour didn't just focus on soul food – the entire history of a neighbourhood was encapsulated by tasters at one eatery after another. Next up was Mr Lee's, a tiny bakery with an elderly African-American man seated behind the counter. Although his cases were filled with peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, it was another treat that has New Yorkers flocking to his shop: rugelach, a traditional Jewish pastry that a rabbi taught Mr Lee how to bake. At the turn of the last century, Harlem was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, with a sizeable community staying until the 1930s.

The next big demographic shift was in the 1940s and 1950s, when Hispanics, West Indians and African-Americans starting making Harlem their home. Since the 1980s, the West African community too has grown, and our tour included a stop at a French-Senegalese café, Patisserie des Ambassades, for spicy lamb chops. Another taste of history came at the Tropical Grill and Restaurant, a Dominican restaurant where we tucked into a barbecued chicken with black beans and plantain. Dominican food made its mark on Harlem in the 1950s when the US granted asylum to victims of the murderous regime of Rafael Trujillo. Looking for ways to get by without their husbands, women opened food stalls, giving the area yet another delicacy for its culinary mix.

Nowadays, if you ask long-time Harlem residents, they will say the fastest-growing demographic is middle-class families and young professionals who flock to the neighbourhood for its relatively affordable property prices.

Although there are grumbles of inflated rents pushing out the businesses that gave Harlem its character, it has made it an attractive prospect for visitors. A number of brownstone buildings have been converted into delightful B&Bs, where you can escape the exorbitant prices of Lower Manhattan. Harlem even has a modern-fusion soul food restaurant: the Red Rooster, with a Swedish-American-Ethiopian chef whose CV includes cooking a state dinner for President Obama.

But whether you decide to eat blackened catfish with salsa verde and caperberries at the Red Rooster or pile your plate high with the more traditional delights of Amy Ruth's, the effect will be the same. "When you eat soul food, it's going to lift your spirits," Jacqueline sums up.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly from Heathrow to both JFK and Newark. Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) flies from Heathrow to JFK; American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com) from Heathrow and Manchester to JFK; and United (0845 607 6760; united.com) from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester to Newark.

Staying there

Mont Morris Bed & Breakfast (001 212 369 8845; montmorris.com) offers double rooms from $95 (£59) per night.

Visiting there

Taste Harlem (001 212 866 7427; tasteharlem.com) offers tours from $55 (£34)pp.

More information

nycgo.com

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable