You may have cooked brisket before, but chances are you’ve never made it quite like this. This recipe for West African-Style Brisket comes from the kitchen of my friend Michael Twitty, a culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene. His dish combines the Jewish holiday tradition of Passover brisket with a blend of African-inspired spices and ingredients. After a slow roast in a low oven, a tender, garlicky and flavorful brisket emerges with just the right amount of spice.
During Passover last year, I had the pleasure of hosting Michael Twitty in our home. He joined us for our seder and shared some of his recipes, traditions, and a wealth of food history knowledge. Michael is a a culinary historian, community scholar, and living history interpreter focusing on historic African American food and folk culture. He has found a unique culinary balance between his Southern roots, his African-American ancestry, and his Jewish faith. The results of this endeavor are a wealth of illuminating scholarly work and some very unique, tasty recipes.
The recipes Michael develops are often recognizably Jewish, but with spices and ingredients inspired by Africa and the American south. Some of his creations include matzo meal fried chicken, peach cobbler kugel, black eyed pea hummus, and schug made with heirloom African American peppers. It’s truly a pleasure to see how Michael connects all of these traditions in the kitchen.
Last Passover we served Michael’s West African-Style Brisket. His inspiration in creating this dish comes from the flavors of Nigeria, Senegal, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The dry spice mixture is Michael’s take on suya, a West African blend dating back to the days of the medieval salt and gold trade. It is spicy and delicious, with layers of unexpected flavor.
I adapted Michael’s recipe a bit, throwing in a few of my own tried-and-true brisket preparation techniques. This adaptation got Michael’s stamp of approval (no small thing!), and I am thrilled to have another delicious brisket recipe in our family repertoire.
As a season of spiritual rebirth, Passover is a time to honor our ancestors by telling their stories. There are parallels between the horrors of African American slavery and the plight of the Ancient Israelites. Connecting to our shared history allows us to see an ancient biblical story through new eyes. Together, at the seder table, we have an opportunity to absorb the important lessons in our history and carry them forward in our daily lives.
If you share this recipe at your own Seder table, be sure to let your guests know about Michael’s wonderful book The Cooking Gene. Michael and his book just won a major award from Barnes and Noble, among many other impressive accolades this past year. (Update – he also won the James Beard Award!) You can learn more about it here.
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Food Photography and Styling by Kelly Jaggers
West African-Style Brisket
- 5 pounds first cut brisket
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil , divided, or more if needed
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon chili powder,
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 whole white or yellow onions, peeled and diced
- 3 whole bell peppers - green, red and yellow, seeded and diced
- 14 oz can diced tomatoes - plain or fire roasted
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
- 2 cups low sodium chicken, beef or vegetable stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried thyme
- 2 whole large red onions, cut into rings
- 8 whole garlic cloves
- Fresh herbs for garnish, optional
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Rub the brisket with salt and pepper. On the stovetop, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven, heavy pot or roasting pan. Brown the brisket on both sides (about 5 minutes per side). Remove browned brisket from the pan and set aside. Note: If you don't have a roasting pan that will heat up on your stovetop, you can do these initial browning and sautéing steps in a large skillet, then transfer everything over to a large roasting pan or dish before putting in the oven.In a small bowl stir together the ground ginger, paprika, cinnamon, chili powder, and cayenne. Set aside.
- Add the white or yellow onions and bell peppers to the oil and fat in the pan (add additional oil if needed). Sauté for another 5-6 minutes until the onions are caramelized and the vegetables are fragrant.
- Add the diced tomatoes, mixed seasonings, brown sugar, horseradish, stock (broth), bay leaves and thyme to the pan. Stir together and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour the sauce mixture out into a separate large bowl and remove pan from heat.
- Pour 1 tbsp olive oil into the pan and coat evenly, then place the red onion rings at the bottom of the pan.
- Place the brisket on top of the red onions, then top the brisket with the whole garlic cloves. Cover with the cooked tomato sauce mixture.
- Cover the roasting pan with a lid, parchment paper or foil and place into the preheated oven. Let it roast for about 5 hours. It should take about 1 hour per pound of meat (leaner cuts of meat may take longer—test for doneness). Brisket is ready when it flakes tenderly when pierced with a fork. You can let it cook even longer for a soft, shredded texture if that’s what you prefer. When fully cooked, the brisket will have shrunk in size.I recommend making this brisket ahead; allowing it to sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 nights will improve the flavor. If you would like to do this, skip ahead to where it says “Make Ahead Directions.” If you are not making ahead, continue reading.Remove brisket from the pan and let it rest on the cutting board fat-side up for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the sauce and vegetables from the roasting pan into a smaller saucepan. Skim fat from the surface of the cooking sauce, then reheat the sauce until hot (not boiling).Cut fat cap off the brisket, then cut the brisket in thin slices against the grain. Serve topped with hot sauce and softened vegetables. Top with fresh green herbs for a pretty presentation, if desired.
Make Ahead Directions
- Let the brisket slowly return to room temperature. Transfer brisket to a ceramic or glass baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Let the brisket chill overnight, or up to two days. You can also freeze the brisket up to a week ahead if you prefer.1-2 hours before serving, remove the brisket from the refrigerator and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. The fat in the sauce will have risen to the top, turned white, and solidified. Use a spoon to scoop the fat bits out of the sauce and discard.Take the brisket out of the dish and brush any excess sauce back into the dish. Place brisket on a cutting board, fat-side up. Slice the meat cold—first cut the fat cap off the brisket, then cut the brisket in thin slices against the grain.Return the sliced meat to the dish and spoon sauce over it, making sure to spoon a little sauce between each slice. Cover the dish with foil and place it in the oven.Let the brisket roast for 45-60 minutes until heated through. You can cook it even longer to let it become more tender, if you wish. Serve with hot sauce and softened veggies.