Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Question 5; Why should I be interested in African cuisines?

This could also be called the "Who cares?" or "So what?" question. Here we get to the crux of the matter. Where to begin to answer it?

First, consider a U.S. automaker analogy. Today's U.S. auto industry is in so much trouble partly because it didn't understand the world was changing. That the needs and interests of car buyers were changing. The same is true in the culinary world. Global culinary rules are shifting. There was a thoughtful article in our local newspaper recently by food writer Ann Quinn Corr, who began her article: by saying that ". . .there are questions that haven't been discussed on any of the talk shows: Will the food served in the White House reflect the multicultural background of our president? Will African dishes be on the table in the White House?" In the U.S. we have a president whose father was from one of "those places"--Kenya in East Africa, with its Swahili coastal influences. Look at President Obama's cabinet members and at the changes taking place in our communities, in our universities, in other words, everywhere. So, we should care because the world is changing. Our neighbors and our neighborhoods are changing.

There are now sizable numbers of immigrants from all parts of Africa. They are introducing their foods into our culture, just as Italian and Irish and Polish and Chinese and Jewish, etc., people of earlier generations did. The annual African cultural Ghanafest in Chicago, for example, is entering its 20th year and attracts many thousands of people every July. Other African cultural festivals are held in Texas, California, Maryland, Georgia, Massachusetts, etc. Many large urban cities now sport mobile West African food trucks, and small family-style restaurants are emerging as well., both in cities and university towns. Today's blog features a few pictures I took in New York, Chicago, and Berkeley. Plus there's one from a local store, The African Market, in State College, Pennsylvania. There are reportedly over a million African immigrants in the U.S., and most of them entered between 1990 and 2000. This is probably undercounted by hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants as well. The phenomenon of emerging African churches and mosques in the U.S., and African missionaries, is another sign of the changing times. These are basically demographic, sociocultural kinds of reasons.

There are good culinary reasons, too. For example, discovering fresh ideas for cooking: new ways of using familiar ingredients, like peanuts or black-eyed peas (e.g., groundnut stews/soups or steamed bean puddings or fritters), as well as using new ingredients in familiar ways (ripe plantain pancakes or green plantain chips), along with finding new ingredients and new processing techniques (e.g., using things like cassava, taro, fresh coconut, millet), that can enrich and energize our diets.

Some other attractive reasons: the growing "slow-foods" movement that savors fresh, local ingredients slowly simmered is a good fit for many African one-pot dishes that can be cooked in a crock pot and/or frozen and taste even better when the flavors have had a chance to meld. They're also fast to reheat in the microwave.

The creative one-pot dishes of many African cuisines are great budget-stretching ways to include vegetables with protein sources like meat or fish or poultry adding flavor without taking over the entire stage. They're a lot easier to serve and clean up, too. Also, they introduce us to the possibilities of pureed vegetables or beans or nuts to thicken our soups or stews instead of cream, or invite us to use smoked or dried meat and fish and poultry to infuse hearty, comforting flavors to our dishes.

Africans can introduce us to new, interesting seasonings and spices, like "tiger nuts" (chufa) or tamarind or "grains of paradise" or lemongrass or dried hibiscus flowers. . . Plus, we are just beginning to really appreciate some of the health benefits of chili peppers.

Westerners are already beginning to embrace some of the flavors of African plants, such as the soothing and healthful rooibos (redbush) or honeybush tea leaves of South Africa. Ethiopia is reputed to be where coffee originated and it has a long and impressive history associated with it there.

Many Africans get their calcium from other sources than milk, and a Ghanaian diet, for example, is ideal for people who are lactose intolerant. The same is true for those who are allergic to wheat, which is an imported ingredients in the diets of most West Africans, and where flours are made of many other grains from rice to cassava.

In other words, we are enriched by the diversity that comes from learning from other people's creativity. As Alan Dundes (my college anthropology professor) also said, at least I think it was him "To see is to adjust the vision." Or as a Ghanaian proverb puts it, "The stranger's eyes are big with looking, but he/she doesn't see anything." Actually, while it's true that the person who doesn't know where to look will miss many things, it's also true that we see what we expect to see. If we look for boring, insipid food from Africa, that's what we'll see. If we expect wonderful, interesting, flavorful, exciting food, it's right
there waiting for us.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Eating African: interdisciplinary perspectives panel

Several of you have requested information about the annual conference this May, 2009 held jointly by the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society, May 28-31 (AFHVS/ASFS) at Penn State.

Here are details about the panel I've organized and will be moderating, called

"Eating African: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on African Cuisines" (Sat., May 30)"

The 5 panelists and their topics and abstracts include:

"The cassava (manioc) saga in Africa: farofa to gari" by Fran Osseo-Asare, food sociologist and culinary historian, BETUMI: The African Culinary Network

This presentation briefly describes the migration of manihot esculenta from the Amazon Basin to Africa and the processing techniques that emerged to remove toxins, but focuses primarily on the contemporary, ongoing transformation of cassava from a marginalized "orphan" crop to a crucial player in the future of agriculture in tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa. Specifically, it examines the important shift from rural to urban West African markets for the processed manioc meal known as gari.

"A Yoruba woman brought that soup: Ethnic-based West African cuisines and the birth of southern cooking in historic Virginia" by Michael W. Twitty, culinary historian, founder of AfroFoodways.com.

It is often glossed over in food history that the hands of enslaved West and Central African men and women helped shape the development of Southern cooking. However few writers dare to tell exactly what specific African dishes came across the Atlantic and how they were morphed into American foodways. “African” is often described as a singular culture rather than the expression of many ethnic groups often broken into distinctive linguistic and sub-cultural elements each of which had their own effect on the food traditions and food knowledge that came to the early American South. Despite the constrictions of enslaved life, food preferences, cooking methods, flavor principles and dietary supplements tied to distinct ethnic traditions were maintained and even passed on to Euro-Virginians in the form of cherished heirloom “receipts.” Enslaved Africans not only contributed agrarian knowledge related to crops and domesticated animals brought in the course of the slave trade and commerce with the West Indies, they also reassessed the ecology of Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia according to their own understanding of what was edible and gastronomically pleasing. They extended the culinary geography of Africa, transforming the Virginia into a edible outpost of Onitsha, Kumasi, Futa Djallon and Luanda. This paper uses documentary material from historic Virginia (1720-1880) including Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, the narratives of formerly enslaved men and women and first-hand accounts of and from indigenous West Africans to decipher the origins of recipes, ingredients, and taste preferences mentioned by both Blacks and Whites of the period and their ultimate origins among the ethnic groups of historic West and Central Africa.

"Smoked Fish and Fermented Locust Beans: Flavor Principles Associated with the Diversity in African Cooking" by Cynthia D. Bertelsen, nutritionist and culinary historian, founder of “Gherkins & Tomatoes: Food History and Culture

There is no such thing as “African cuisine.” Africans—coming from over 50 diverse countries—do not all cook the same way. A wide range of regional ingredients, cooking techniques, and food-processing practices exists. This paper first briefly examines the flavor principles that guide food preparation in the regions of West, North, East, Central, and Southern Africa, and why those principles exist. It then focuses on two ancient food-preparation processes used worldwide: smoke-drying of meat or fish and fermentation, examining how Africans developed and adapted these methods to suit their situations and flavor their foods. Finally, the trade and production implications of smoke-dried fish for the global African diaspora market present interesting possibilities for future aquaculture. Recipes, firsthand accounts, examples of culinary material culture, photographs, a glossary, and bibliographies enhance the presentation.

"The African giant land snail (archachatina marginata): An indispensable source of nutrition and medication in the Southwest Region of Cameroon from early to recent times" by Forka Leypey Mathew Fomine, History Department, University of Younde, Cameroon

Both marine and terrestrial species of snails are consumed in most countries worldwide, including in southwest Cameroon where it is an age-old practice among certain groups. However, few production and consumption statistics are available, and these are mostly for countries like France and Italy with highly developed snail farming practices. In Africa, particularly southwest Cameroon, snail farming is practiced on a relatively low scale, and most of the production is for local consumption. Before the introduction of snail farming in the southwest region of Cameroon in the 1990s, all the residents acquired snails via gathering.
There is significant internal variation in the history of land snail consumption among 4 ethnic groups (Banyang, Mbo, Balung and Bakweri) of the Southwest Region of Cameroon. The long history of land snail consumption among the Banyang and Mbo can be attributed to their geographical proximity to the eastern region of Nigeria, where the consumption of land snail has been widespread since ancient times. In contrast, until recently land snails were perceived by the Bakweri and Balung as filty pests that crawled and ate dirt, especially excrement, and thus were unhealthy and/or taboo for human consumption. This paper intends to demonstrate how land snails were persistently marginalized by certain ethnic groups in pre-colonial times and during foreign rule in Cameroon (1884-1960), and how that changed so that they currently occupy a pivotal position in their diets due to the snails’ multifarious importance as both a source of food and medicine.

"Cuisines in Africa: A vital ingredient of national cultures?" by Igor Cusack, University of Birmingham, Department of Hispanic Studies, School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music, UK

Some countries in Africa, such as Angola, Cape Verde or Senegal have well-recognized national cuisines. These cuisines are the product of various cultural and political ideologies, associated with imperialism, class and gender and are nurtured by a complex group of actors including the national ruling elites. Such cuisines are proclaimed on national websites and have attached to them a corpus of “national dishes” which are assembled in cookbooks in the “West” and in Africa. Elsewhere, such as in Equatorial Guinea, the process of building a national cuisine is in its infancy and the resulting concoction may not reflect what most Equatoguineans eat in their daily lives. This paper will explore to what extent national cuisines contribute to the broader set of discourses which help define a particular African national identity.

There's still time to register, even if only for the Saturday of the panel! Hope to see you there as we continue to focus attention on African's various cuisines and foodways.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Question 4: Isn't African food too . . . .?

Here are some thoughts on Question #4: Isn't African food too. . . ? insert preferred negative term (e.g., hot/bland/primitive/boring/tough/oily/, etc.)

There's a profound yet simple proverb about ethnocentrism in many African societies (e.g., the Baganda, Akamba, Kikuyu, Bemba, Haya, Igbo, and Yoruba). Translated, it means "The one who has not traveled widely thinks his/her mother is the best cook."

This proverb often comes to mind when I hear Americans talking about African food, especially Sub-Saharan African food, in a patronizing, superior way, and also lumping a whole continent together in a way they would never dream of doing for other global locations. A missionary in Ghana once sniffed and said to me disparagingly "They eat grass," when referring to the greens cooked in stews. In Pennsylvania we carefully distinguish among varieties of apples (Rome, Gala, Granny Smith, Red or Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Pink Lady, Ginger Gold, Braeburn, Crispin, Cameo, etc., etc.). In Ghana that discrimination applies to greens, of which it's documented that people savor 47 different kinds. Just because our palates haven't been trained to detect the textures, degrees of bitterness, saltiness, etc. doesn't mean that the food is inferior.

Similarly, people often say that Africans eat some kind of starch, but they lump them all together, without detecting the differences among, say, types of yams, rice, plantains, millets, sorghum, corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes, cassava, taro (cocoyams), even wheat, along with very different methods of preparation (fermented, unfermented, pounded, dried, fresh, boiled, fried, roasted, steamed, stirred, etc.).

Also, some tastes are acquired, as I found living in Japan and learning to eat bean paste, raw seafood, and miso soup--but once acquired these foods are treasured. And just because, as Marcus Samuelsson (celebrity chef/author and owner of 3 New York restaurants) laments, people don't know what piri piri, thieboudienne, or mafé are, doesn't mean the food is somehow unpalatable, just that our culinary literacy needs upgrading.

It is true that some African food is spicy hot from a variety of (originally New World) chili peppers. So is some Chinese food, or some Mexican food, but that does not mean it's somehow "bad." In fact, many people prize the foods for that very quality. Also, many African foods have nonspicy options (e.g., Ethiopian alichas [alechas] mild stews, rather than wats [watts, we'ts], which are spicy stews). Some people in Ghana "cannot take pepper" and so always have their food prepared without it. In other parts of the continent, such as inland in some East African countries, the foods are much blander, but it may be that people there savor the pure flavor of vegetables and oils used in cooking.

Cindy Bertelsen from the delightful food history blog Gherkins & Tomatoes just sent me the link to a NY Times article ("In Epicurian New York, the Challenge of Africa") from July 2008 on African cuisine's cool reception in New York City. (NOTE: you may need to have a free account to access this article.) The article reminds me of assumptions many people make about the continent's cuisine. First, that "You think of sub-Saharan Africa stereotypically as the continent of scarcity," says Prof. Ray of NYU. Let's also add to the list of negative things about "African food" the words "tough, tough meat." “One of the things that may put American diners off West African restaurants is that Africans vastly prefer tough, tough meat,” said Robert Sietsema, restaurant critic for The Village Voice. Yeah, that'll get you excited about trying sub-Saharan African food. I again remembered the words of Alan Dundes, my college anthropology professor that "We fail to see the lens through which we look." In France, a snail (escargot) is haute cuisine, but in Africa they are likely "so tough you would have difficulty distinguishing (them) from a section of rubber tire" (Sietsema). The spongy, crepe-like pancake made of teff in Ethiopia is simply described (in the same article) as "rubbery." Grains of paradise or melegueta pepper, a spice once a fashionable substitute for black pepper in the 1300 and 1500s in Europe, and related to cardamom and ginger, is called "pungent," not a particularly flattering description.

Sietsema also suggests that “For them (my bolding) eating something for dinner is not an appreciation of tenderness. It is an appreciation of toughness, and they want to really chew on the meat and enjoy it because meat is so rare.” I'm not sure where he got that explanation, and the article says nothing about the fish and seafood and poultry and vegetables that many people consume far more often than meat. Certainly, free range chickens are tougher (and more flavorful) than the fryers in our supermarkets. My nephews from Ghana refuse to eat American fryer chickens because they're so soft and mushy. I agree with them. As for "tough, tough" meat--no upscale African restaurant in the U.S. is likely to give something like that to Americans.

The quote I mentioned in my last posting mentioned Rozin's dismissal of Sub-Saharan Africa's cuisines as "neither rich nor complex" (Ethnic Cuisine, 1983). She includes a cursory consideration of only 2 recipes for the almost 50 countries that make up the area. The disparity in her book with representation of other cuisines is quite conspicuous and consistent with my findings when I looked at "Sub-Saharan African Cuisine and Western Perceptions" (see slides at link at betumi.com). I was dismayed when I read Jack Goody's book years ago Cooking, Cuisine and Class to see that his whole book was written to answer the question "Why are traditional African cultures largely lacking a differentiated cuisine?" He came up with an impressive argument, basically the reasons that societies in China and the West had very different hierarchies and specialization related to food, concluding essentially that there was a "high" cuisine for those, and a "low" cuisine for African societies (never mind that he also also warns at the beginning of the book against "placing societies in simplistic binary categories.") I found it difficult to articulate what exactly bothered me about the book, except that I sensed he had a superior attitude (at one point I seem to remember him saying that if a chief needed more help in his kitchen, he simply married another wife, and my thinking that not all women are equal in the kitchen, and maybe he married a skilled chef). Finally, I wonder at the preference for the elaborate over simplicity.

Let me briefly mention oil. It is true that many West Africans (especially Nigerians!) love to have a lot of oil in the soups/stews, especially red palm oil. This is something that really goes against the grain of Westerners, and we are quick to note that the "big man" or woman in many West African countries is indeed just that. We also forget that bigness is often a prized stature in these countries. Only the wealthy and powerful can get fat! It is important to remember that historically most people in Africa were not able to afford lots of oil in the food, except on special occasions. Oil (like being "fat") is often seen to be a symbol of prosperity and generosity and hospitality and respect and nurturing. Also, oil is a highly concentrated form of energy, useful in societies where farmers and others do hard physical labor. We've been taught to believe that "palm oil" (shudder, shudder) is very unhealthy and saturated. It's true that a little goes a long way (as is true of butter or cream, but we seem to ignore that), but as I mention in my article in Gastronomica "We Eat First With Our Eyes: On Ghanaian Cuisine"
we often confuse palm kernel oil with palm fruit oil, neglect to consider palm oil may be refined or unrefined, and that there are multiple qualities, just as there are with olive oils.

Health issues and African cuisine will be covered in Question #7, but if one considers obese Americans stuffing down hamburgers and French fries and chips and drinking super-sized soft drinks, or the pastries and mega-size sugared drinks being consumed in coffee shops, one has to wonder about the claims of superiority of our very differentiated "high cuisine" Western diet.
Is a society that may prefer fresh fruit to sugared cakes, cookies, and pastries really that "low"?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Question 3: How can there be cuisine where there is so much chaos: starvation, wars, corruption, malnutrition, AIDS?

The media image of African society in the U.S., including its food, has been almost uniformly negative. Africa's Media Image, a book published in 1992 and edited by Beverly Hawk examined why this consistently superficial, stereotypic and negative image has come to be. It includes commercial criteria (e.g., the under-representation of media resources on the continent [in 1986, 31% of newspaper correspondents were stationed in Europe compared to 8% in Africa], p. 17, presumably because Africa does not "generate attractive revenues") and the focus on the sensational such as war, famine, and AIDS; political criteria (this has to do with "power" issues, and traditionally African countries have been viewed as largely insignificant), perhaps excluding the immediate independence years of the late 1950s and early 1960s coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., when Africa was briefly fashionable, or in the 1990s when Nelson Mandela was elected President in South Africa; sociolcultural criteria, where American news correspondents have been largely insensitive to cultural nuances in African countries (there are exceptions, such as Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times). In 2005, The Africa Channel was created to counteract the superficial and negative-biased coverage available in the U.S. On the radio, a similar effort is being made via "Africa and the World." In addition, there has been the emergence of a number of African bloggers, both male and female, (including, notably Emeka Okafor whose influential Africa Unchained and Timbuku Chronicles and the links on his sites aim to showcase the faces of Africa that are too often invisible in U.S. media.

Many parts of Africa are going through struggles with poverty and social upheaval. We should not ignore the reality of these challenges, and must try to understand corruption and greed and respond to problems in Darfur or the Nigerian Delta or Ethiopia. However, that is, once again, only a piece of the story.

When I was a student at the University of California in Berkeley during the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s my parents saw news stories and were sure my life was in danger because Patty Hearst had been abducted near when I lived, or the campus had been shut down during a protest over the Vietnam War or a conflict over "People's Park." The sensatonal media portrayal was completely divorced from the reality of day-to-day life.

In addition, though India, China, or Ireland have all suffered times of famine, we do not assume they have no great culinary traditions. Throughout Africa, people still celebrate births with outdoorings and naming ceremonies, along with marriages, engagements, holidays, initiations, festivals and funerals. People like to eat the food they consider good when they have the resources to eat what they want. Why should Africans somehow be different? The claims that Sub-Saharan African cuisines are "neither rich nor complex" (Elisabeth Rozin), or are "low" (as opposed to "high") (Jack Goody), will be tackled in the next posting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

African and African-American Cuisines

One difficulty in researching African cuisine is that African and African-American cookbooks are mixed together in collections, and often people think the two are basically inter-changeable. That's a problem. The obvious linkage of Southern regional cuisine, or "soul food," or "Creole" cooking to the perception of "African cooking" is part of the confusion (black-eyed peas, cooked greens, corn, deepfrying, peanuts, spicy seasoning, barbeque, etc.) Also blurring the line is the American African-inspired holiday of "Kwanzaa," a blend of African traditional values mixed with Pan-African influences, but celebrated largely by people who were not raised in Africa. (In time, this will likely change, since all festivals have to have a beginning, but when I was in Ghana, Ghanaians generally felt like Kwanzaa wasn't a "real" festival, in the same way as those they'd grown up celebrating historically.)

Finally, about half a million people, mostly West Africans, came to the United States as slaves. Between the early 1500s and 1888,when slavery was abolished in Brazil, as many as 12 million slaves were transported throughout the "New World," many of them to the Caribbean Islands. Those islands have been more accessible to people from the U.S. than has Africa itself, and because many flavors and cooking techniques overlap, people assume that "African" cooking is pretty much the same as "Caribbean" cooking. For one thing, West Africa is only one region of the whole continent, and it is a mistake to assume that other African regional influences have made their way into the U.S. to the same extent. Also, some of the ingredients available in the U.S., particularly sugar cane and dairy products, were not widely available to earlier generations of West Africans. Sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese would be unrecognizable to them. Some techniques popular in Africa, such as fermentation and steaming, are also not widely part of the repertoire in what is commonly referred to as "African-American" cooking.

I recently rewatched the PBS documentary "The Meaning of Food," introduced and narrated by Marcus Samuelson, and was struck with an episode in Part 2 where Verta Mae Grosvenor, Nicki Finney, Julie Dash, and Julie's uncle talk about growing up Geechee (Gula), as descendants of enslaved Africans who skillfully grew the famous "Carolina gold" rice. She was in the kitchen with her family members and friends, talking about the central role of rice in their diet: how a meal wasn't a meal without rice. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them share their kitchen conversation and insights (and the "trick" of covering the rice with paper and covering the pot with a lid and NEVER lifting until the rice finished cooking was a technique I was also taught in Ghana). But I remember, too, differences between the people of the Sene-gambia, the rice-growing areas of West Africa, and the people of the yam-growing areas there. I also remember the 1986 book by Nigerian poet Flora Nwapa who in her "Cassava Song" praises the New World crop cassava as a mother and nurturer, and in "Rice Song" curses the politics that led to dependence on an expensive imported product that poor people could not afford. Something like rice is not even the main staple for many people throughout the continent: sorghum and millet, plantains, yams, corn, sweet potatoes and cassava are all found to be the "staff of life" in various parts of Africa.

In the Smithsonian's 1991 book Seeds of Change celebrating the 500 years since Columbus arrived in the "New World," there's a picture at the beginning of the chapter "Savoring Africa in the New World" of an African-American couple eating at Bob the Chef's soul food restaurant in Boston: the table has what looks like a Coke (the cola nut used in Coca Cola originally came from Africa), corn bread, blackeyed peas, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and a bottle of "RedHot" hot sauce, and the opening paragraph pays homage to the influence of gumbo (an African word for okra), peanuts (or goobers, from another African word), rice, and banana pudding or yam pie sweetened with sorghum molasses as African products eaten regularly in the U.S. They don't mention that the "yam" pie sweetened with molasses is a thoroughly Western interpretation of those ingredients.) It seems like they missed cooked greens as another West African influence, along with watermelon and sesame.

The short answer to the question "Isn't African cuisine the same thing as 'African-American' or 'Soul food?'" is: no, while there are similarities between "African-American" cooking and some West African cooking, there are many more differences: the first time my sister-in-law Afua saw a package of spaghetti in Nungua, Ghana, she burst out laughing, and the only thing she could think to do with it was break it up and cook it in some rice. She never even tasted cheese. When my 2 teenage nephews from Ghana came to live with me in Pennsylvania, they could hardly eat the food here, everything had so much sugar in it. Forget cookies and cakes and pies and ice cream--give them fresh papaya, pineapple, or sweet oranges and mangos. They still cannot drink coffee.

It is well established that many of the cooks in the Southern kitchens were slave women who were gifted in preparing wonderful meals, drawing on their own experiences and cooking techniques and mixing them with the foods available to them in the U.S. They have definitely stamped an African influence on the food. But that is only a small part of the story. Africa has many more stories to tell, not only of West African cuisine, but of that of North, South, Central and East as well.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Questions 1: Is there an "African" cuisine?

The word cuisine is often used to imply a cooking style that is somehow sophisticated and skilled and elaborate, as in haute cuisine. It seems everything sounds fancier to English speakers when said in French, even though the word literally means "kitchen." Technically, cuisine just refers to the way food is prepared and/or the food itself. Somehow the question above sounds a lot less profound when phrased as "Is there such a thing as 'African cooking' ?"

It is said that when the renowned South African food writer Laurens van der Post was approached in the 1960s to write the Russian volume of the ambitious Time-Life "Foods of the World" series, he was suffering from a medical condition that prevented him from using his hands to write. Instead, he offered the editors an alternate suggestion: that he travel the continent and do the one on Africa (dictating his notes, I believe). Apparently the editors of the series were stunned: they had no idea there was such a thing as "cuisine" in Africa, and had no plans for such a book in their "comprehensive" series. Van der Post assured them it existed, convinced them, and set out to write the landmark
African Cooking, the first book I've seen published in the U.S. that takes African gastronomy seriously (another French word!). While it is has some flaws, van der Post's book includes carefully researched recipes and fabulous photography. Its chapters highlight history, culture and geography of: "The Ancient World of Ethiopia," "New Cuisines for New Nations" (i.e., West Africa), "In the Highlands of East Africa," "The World of Portuguese Africa" (i.e., Angola and Mozambique), and, not surprisingly given his roots, three chapters on South Africa--actually, four, if you include the introductory chapter "My Continent: A Personal View," "East and West Meet at the Cape," "Great Cooking from Rich Farms," and "On the Track of the Voortrekkers".

As this suggests, there is no single "cuisine," but rather rather multiple cuisines throughout the continent. As Europe is not a single country with but one cuisine, so Africa has many flavors and ingredients and cooking techniques. While North Americans would generally not merge Italian, Swedish, Spanish, English, German, French and Portuguese flavor palates to a single "European cuisine," it is often considered that "Africa" has only one "kitchen." There are many kitchens, given the 53 countries of the continent. While each country has its own regional and ethnic variations, geography and history, it is possible to divide the continent into 5 general geographic regions: north, south, west, central and east. Eastern Africa is often subdivided into the countries of "The Horn of Africa" (the northeast countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia), and the rest of East Africa. Another approach is that of van der Post to consider countries speaking the same language of their former colonizers, as he did for Angola and Mozambique. Also, people usually make distinctions between the food and culture of countries north or south of the Sahara Desert.

Africa has made numerous global culinary contributions already, and still has an immense repertoire to offer the rest of the world. Its cuisines have, in turn, been heavily influenced by other religions and people from other countries, including, for example, Malaysians, Indians, French, British, Portuguese, or people from the Arabian peninsula.

In addition, food tastes are constantly evolving and changing. For example, in the U.S. there is fusion and "California" cuisine. When Laurens van der Post went to the newly independent countries of West Africa in the 1960s, he rejoiced that he found "a rapidly expanding middle class," whose experimentation and exploration in the kitchen he described as having "a kind of morning freshness" a "taste. . .exhilarating and exploratory" and marked by a "lively" inventiveness, with meals ". . . that stimulate not only the palate but the mind." (African Cooking, p. 62)

In summary, the answer to the question is "no," there is no African cuisine. But, yes, there are numerous exciting and flavorful African cuisines to discover. As Lydia Polgreen wrote in an article in the New York Times on February 1, 2006, "People travel to Africa for history and for scenery but never the food. I don't get it . . . Africa, with thousands of languages and cultures, each with its own cuisine, always rewards an adventurous eater." I heartily second her opinion.

Tomorrow's question: Is there really much of a difference between "African" and "African-American" cuisines?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

10 Questions about African Cuisine

I was thinking today about some of the spoken or unspoken questions that people ask me when they first hear about the whole subject of African food and culture. I'll list them in no particular order here and begin sharing my answers a little every day for the next couple of weeks. Let me know of other questions you'd like answered, or add your comments.

1. Huh? Is there even such a thing as African "cuisine"? Never heard of it.

2. Isn't it just the same thing as African-American cuisine? "Soul food"?

3. Aren't most Africans starving or fighting or dying from AIDS and living at a subsistence level?

4. Isn't the food too hot/bland/boring/primitive?

5. Why should I be interested?

6. What makes you the expert, white American lady?

7. Isn't African food really unhealthy?

8. Why aren't there African restaurants like there are Italian or Indian or Chinese or Thai restaurants?

9. Doesn't it require too many weird ingredients or kinds of cooking equipment?

10. Where can I go to learn more about (or taste) African cuisine?