Walk into Teranga inside Harlem’s Africa Center and you’ll enter a space filled with plants, African art and an assortment of books by prominent African and African American authors. Soothing sounds of jazz music fill the air, making it the perfect place to catch up with a friend over a cup of their single-origin Ethiopian cold brew or peruse reading selections from the cultural center.
Teranga landed in Harlem earlier this year. Executive chef Pierre Thiam and co-founder Noah Levine’s intent is to create a space that celebrates West Africa, not just by word but through thoughtful action. The food style at Teranga is considered fast casual but the energy of the eatery is different than what you find at chain restaurants like Chipotle or Sweetgreen. Here, you feel a connection to the environment and the culture. The pastel-colored Le Creuset cookware emphasizes the food is made from scratch. It’s almost as if instead of a restaurant, you’re waiting for a home-cooked plate from an auntie.
“For us, sourcing African-grown ingredients is at the heart of our business model. Not only do we want to be a platform for people to engage around traditional African food, but we also want to highlight healthy ingredients that are indigenous to the continent,” says co-founder Levine.
Teranga’s journey through West Africa takes its deepest dive with the menu. “We’ve made it a priority to use traditional names for our menu offerings. We want Teranga to be as educational as it is delicious,” says Levine. The menu features seasonal bowls like the jollof—a salmon fillet topped with spices like cumin and coriander that comes with fonio (a West African ancient grain), kelewele (spiced fried plantains) and black-eyed pea salad. Then there’s the Yassa Yassa—a tender grilled chicken thigh covered liberally with caramelized onions served with Liberian red rice, kelewele and black-eyed peas salad. Guests can also make their own dish by choosing a protein, base, main, two sides and a sauce.
Of all the menu items, the jollof fonio particularly stands out. The debate of who makes the best jollof rice between Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria is endless. Natives of each country will go to battle for their own; just see Jollof Wars for a clip of the passion surrounding the conversation.
Ironically, the jollof served on weekdays at Teranga doesn’t contain rice. Instead, they use the previously mentioned ancient grain called fonio known for its ability to grow in rough climates as well as its superfood qualities. In chef Pierre Thiam’s second book, Senegal, he describes fonio as “an ancient grain, small and couscous-like, that is gluten-free and highly nutritious—in other words, poised to take over quinoa as the next health ‘it’ food.”
The team at Teranga is using their restaurant’s supply chain as an act to promote sustainability and mitigate climate change. “We aspire to create win-win partnerships with our suppliers so we can create transformative supply chains that are built from the ground up,” says Levine. “Currently, we are sourcing our fonio from West Africa (Guinea and Mali), our moringa from Ghana and Togo, our red rice from Liberia, our baobab from Senegal, our attieke from Ivory Coast and our coffee from Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya. We are continuously looking for impact-driven partnerships with farmers across Africa to provide the highest quality ingredients for our customers.”
The inclusivity at Teranga has had an overall positive reaction from the community. “We’ve been really happy with the community’s reception of our menu thus far,” concludes Levine. “We anticipated a slight learning curve for some of our customers as they try new dishes and ingredients for the first time, but their curiosity and genuine excitement has been awesome.”
Teranga is open Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Food service starts around noon; coffee and snacks are available prior.
Photographs courtesy of Teranga