Out of Africa: Review of “Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Say “African food” and most people visualize a cartoon with two missionaries boiling in a black iron pot in the middle of a jungle clearing. That’s the “Dark Continent” picture, deeply rooted in the West’s persistent attitude of colonialism toward Africa. Or, instead, they “see” stick-thin children sprawled out on their mothers’ laps, listless, flies swarming everywhere.

Africa is more than colonial stereotypes and haunting photographs of endless death.

Fran Osseo-Asare, an American sociologist married to a Ghanaian professor, aims to change how the West visualizes African food. She wants to move from “yuk” to “yum.” With her new book—Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa (Greenwood Press, Food Culture Around the World series)—now hitting the bookstores, the author of A Good Soup Attracts Chairs is well on her way to achieving her goal.

Aimed at a number of different readers—from school-age children to culinary professionals to humanitarian aid personnel to gourmet “foodies” and academics, Osseo-Asare’s book covers an enormous amount of ground in only 158 pages of text. But Africa’s a big place and so is Osseo-Asare’s passion.

“I had several goals in writing the book,” she wrote in a recent e-mail message. One goal is simply to celebrate African food, “to get people excited about African food.” Another is to dispel stereotypes and misinformation about Africa in general and African food in particular.

Much as an African market vendor lays out her wares on the ground for her customers , Osseo-Asare organizes her book into four chapters, each devoted to a specific region of Sub-Saharan Africa.* She lays out detailed information about history, cultural practices, basic ingredients and cooking methods, representative recipes, special holidays, and health-diet interactions. Vivid word pictures dance across the pages, getting her points across as she guides the reader by the hand through each region. For example, of West Africa, she says, “One sees food vendors in the cities or along travel routes selling bread, oranges, bananas, pineapple, coconuts, kola nuts, boiled yams, or steamed cornmeal balls with hot pepper sauce, fried fish, plantain cubes or chips, tiger nuts, bean fritters, deep-fried cookies and doughnuts, meat turnovers, eggs, and chewing gum.”

Definitely a “yum” image.

After reading that last paragraph, I dropped everything and hightailed it to our local ethnic grocery to snap up some red palm oil and a couple of dried smoked herring to make beefy “Palaver Sauce” (p. 31). After marveling at the incredible combination of subtle flavors in this dish, I realized that dried, smoked fish essentially constitutes West Africa’s version of smoked bacon.

African cooking is regional in nature, just like Italian or Chinese cooking. But most people outside of Africa don’t realize that.

It’s going to take more than one book to crack Western indifference and disdain toward Africa and African food. Fran Osseo-Asare believes that African cooking stays on the back burner in the food media and in Western people’s minds for political and economic reasons. In explaining the difficulty of getting across her message about Africa, Osseo-Asare says, “There’s this giant negative media image and bias about things (black) African. The hugely negative image has permeated almost all areas: Africa is linked in the popular imagination with poverty, disease, malnutrition and starvation, corruption, natural disasters and barbaric leaders and tribal warfare, religious fanaticism, plus oppression of women. This image is closely linked with the lack of political and economic power of most African nations.”

And, as I read this, I realized that she’s right. Most people in the West view Africa as a place where nothing much happens food-wise other than starvation, AIDS, and drought. Her reply caused me to think for days afterwards about the subtle interplay of power and perceptions in food and cooking trends.

Many of the foods eaten happily in the guise of escargots (snails) in France get labeled instead by Westerners in Africa as disgusting. Or take raw fish, as the sushi craze cascades over the food scene. People pay hundreds of dollars for this delicacy, while kitfo (raw minced beef) from Ethiopia seems weird to people who think Italian carpaccio the absolute height of culinary delight. People acquire tastes for certain foods. African foods are no different. Take manioc, a tuber one of the basic staples of African cooking, at least West African cooking. I positively loathed manioc when I first lived in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. After several months, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Exposure, positive exposure, is key.

Osseo-Asare is not the first author who’s tried to put African cooking and food on the map. Laurens van der Post attempted to bring African cooking alive in Time-Life’s volume about African cooking (1971) and his book, First Catch Your Eland (1978). Then came The Africa News Cookbook in 1986, probably the best African cookbook still in print. I use it constantly in my own kitchen. Dorinda Hafner’s Taste of Africa, published in 1993, conjures up some great-tasting dishes and Jessica Harris, another academic with a taste for African cooking and its study, produced The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent in 1998. Numerous other authors have trotted out cookbooks on African food, but Osseo-Asare judges these works as either lacking authenticity because the author is a Westerner who spent some time in a small spot in Africa or the author hails from Africa with no other credibility other than being African.

In only two ways could this excellent book be improved. Adding color photographs, especially of the finished dishes made from the recipes included in the book, would help. And affixing a summary chapter would add a polishing touch, thereby elevating the book closer to perfection. (According to Osseo-Asare, the lack of a concluding chapter reflects the series format.)

“My book is the tip of the proverbial iceberg for work in this area,” says this woman whose infectious passion for her subject leaps off every page.

Read Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cook from it. And discover a whole new world.


*Another book in the series covers North Africa (Food Culture in the Near East, Middle East, and North Africa, by Peter Heine).

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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