Friday, November 30, 2012

Plating Africa's cuisines

Was delighted to open my mailbox today to find the November/December issue of plate magazine there. Each issue of this award-winning industry magazine is devoted to shining a spotlight on a single topic. For the current issue, that means "undiscovered AFRICA." I was pleased to have been able to contribute, and to be included with such luminaries as Pierre Thiam and Marcus Samuelsson (as well as being introduced to several others). I was even more thrilled about the attention focused on the continent's cuisines, and the encouragement to U.S. chefs to embrace them. 

Even if you cannot obtain a copy of this beautiful magazine, you can at least sign up at their online site to view recipes, including one of mine for groundnut soup.

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Among other things, I was happy that the article in plate recognizes Penn State's pioneering course on African food culture.The course is swiftly drawing to a close: just 2 more weeks, and the students are preparing their final presentations: on food themes in selected West African novels, on kola nuts, injera, indigenous red rice, fermentation, and the social and culinary challenges facing pastoral peoples . . . It has been a privilege to teach these young people, and we're all looking forward to the end of course pot-luck celebration where everyone selects an African recipe to research and prepare (with promises that the quality of the cooking is not going to compromise anyone's grade in the course). Commensality and hospitality are important components of sub-Saharan African food cultures, and it seems only fitting to end on that note. I am very proud of the students who've followed me on this journey of discovery.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Field Trip: West and East Africa in Washington DC

Our food culture in sub-Saharan Africa class is in the home stretch. We've completed units on western, eastern, and southern African cuisine, and are now in central Africa. After weeks coordinating schedules, we managed a field trip day in Washington, DC. on Saturday.

At 6:30 a.m. we piled into a Penn State van in State College, PA and drove to Washington DC. It was a good choice, not only because are there many West Africans in the area,  but there are also over 200,000 Ethiopians living there, reportedly the largest concentration in the U.S.

When we arrived at our destination, it was also a "farmers market" day, and extremely congested. Several of us felt like we were back in a crowded West African market. After driving around several times, we finally found a parking space, and entered a West African wholeseller's store. Wendi, from Ghana, felt right at home and took advantage of the trip to stock up, as did I. We stopped at "Divine Unity Foods" first, then went over to nearby Obeng International Wholesale & Retail." Both of these had the same address online, but were actually separate shops near each other.

 Ethel, the cashier at Divine Unity, was cheerful and typically helpful as she rang up our many purchases.

A colleague had requested me to pick up some cassava leaves. We tend to eat cocoyam leaves, nkontomire, in Ghana, so I asked a Liberian woman in front of me in the checkout line for advice on the cassava leaves I had in my basket. She immediately said, "no," plucked them out of my hands and returned with a bag of frozen ground cassava leaves. "These are best." Turns out, she was right.

After stopping at another market next door (where we continued looking in vain for any kola nuts), we headed over to Dukem restaurant for some fine Ethiopian food. Prof. Zieglar, who graciously drove us, brought along a visiting Ethiopian colleague, Ashagrie, who had been in the U.S. for only a week, and was ecstatic to finally have a "proper" meal. He ordered the largest combination plate on the menu (with injera, of course), and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He also repeatedly helped us out with information on Ethiopia's food culture.

The students found there was something for everyone, including our vegetarians, and unhesitatingly dived in with their (right) hands. I was proud of them! 

After lunch, we wandered down the street to Habesha market and restaurant) to look at some Ethiopian spices and ingredients, then headed over to Etete for a traditional coffee ceremony. We stopped after the second cup, instead of the traditional three. Everyone was stuffed. Or, as we might say, well "fed up."

[Of course, Eastern African cuisine also includes the foods of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but there seem to no longer be any easily identifiable restaurants serving ugali and associated recipes like sukuma wiki or irio, or something like Ugandan matoke in the area. Please correct me if I'm wrong.] 

Any of you Penn State (University Park) undergraduat students out there, the course will be offered again in the fall of 2013. Hope you'll join us.