Flavor Principles Out of Africa: The Basics

Africa map 2

What Flavor Principles Exist in the Cooking Found in Africa?

Africa consists of 53 countries, all with their own culinary cultures. Certainly some similarities exist, but – for the most part – each country, and certainly each region, prepares its own trademark taste.

What defines the cuisines of Africa?[1] And what flavor principles highlight those cuisines?

Flavor principles signify more than just spicing a dish or adding herbs.

Africa women market 3
Photo credit: José Eduardo Silva

Flavor comes from things other than just seasonings. Cooking techniques also change the taste of dishes – think of roasting versus boiling, sautéing versus deep frying, etc. Cooking techniques also change the texture of foods as well as their taste. The size of the pieces of food can change the taste, too. Think thin eggplant slices versus thick, when fried. Fermentation of foods of various types – milk, meat, oil seeds, grains, vegetables – also adds to the flavors characteristic of various cuisines in Africa. And, of course, smoking or drying foods also alters flavor.

And one aspect that food anthropologist Elisabeth Rozin did not expound on enough in her flavor principle theory is the aforementioned effects of cooking methods. Rozin wrote three cookbooks – The Flavor Principle Cookbook, Ethnic Cuisine, and Crossroads Cooking – based on the premise that different cultures cook the way they do because of different flavor principles or “packages” that come with core ingredients. The idea behind the theory wasn’t really anything new; however, Rozin first codified it and thus the concept of flavor principles has become identified with her almost exclusively.

Except for some special ingredients peculiar to specific culinary cultures, many ingredients are interchangeable. Staples provide the base, the core of almost all cuisines. But the final taste of various dishes changed because of these flavor principles.

Africa CrossroadsUnfortunately, Rozin devoted very little space in her discussion to African flavor principles in her first book in 1973. She did a little better in her second book in 1983, with three pages of dismissive text, and by the third book, published in 1999, she focused thirteen pages on outside influences impacting West African cooking and the effect West African cooking had on the American South and the Caribbean. She might have added that Africans imparted a good deal of influence on the coastal areas of Central and South America, particularly Brazil.

Because of the migration of peoples across Africa, there is no set canon of recipes. In fact, because of the oral culture so predominant until very recently, cookbooks tended to be published mostly by white settlers, with recipes for the male African cooks of the white settlers.[2] Furthermore, among women in Africa, cooking is a skill so highly valued that young girls in some areas risk not being married if they can’t cook. Recipe books are foreign to them, and these ARE foreign for the most part! Mothers traditionally taught their daughters to cook via the side-by-side method. An anecdote relayed by Luce Giard from the Jura mountains of France is especially appropriate here: A group of peasant women, when asked about food customs handed down replied, “[O]ur grandmothers did not have culinary customs, we were too poor; they mixed everything in a big pot that cooked slowly … above the fire, and it was imperative not to waste anything.”[3]

Photo credit: Jenny Downing
The Jura: A Farmhouse (Photo credit: Jenny Downing)

Technologically, women in Africa cook the same way as the women of Jura (and I say women, because unless men cooked for the colonizers, men generally did not cook and they especially did not cook women’s dishes). However, because women in Africa have greater access to more ingredients because of the climate than did the women of the Jura, what they cook tends to be – ironically in spite of the Western media’s persistent fascination with French and Italian cuisines – African women ‘s cooking embodies great creativity.

Cooking methods act as imparters of flavor. In Africa, the three-rock stove, used traditionally and where money can’t buy a propane gas tank and “stove,” produces quite an array of foods, actually similar to the cooking methods found in China: Boiling, steaming with leaves, frying, grilling, roasting or baking (in ashes). The major reason for the style of cooking found in much of Africa boils down to one thing: single braziers preclude cooking a large number of dishes all at once.

Texture also emanates from cooking methods: cutting vegetable in various thicknesses and shapes influences cooking time and hence doneness and texture differences.

Various thickening methods act as other imparters of flavor and texture – similar to the use of flour, cornstarch, and the butter finish in French cooking – appear in the cooking of Africa, use of ground seeds like egusi (or other similar melon seeds), groundnut or peanuts, and palm oil.

Photo credit: Myles Cloutier
Photo credit: Myles Cloutier

Salt, of course, plays a very important role in the diets of most Africans, especially those who live in the “torrid” tropics. Not only does it help in replenishing electrolytes lost in sweating, it adds a nuance of flavor to the vegetable and meat sauces served with the often bland starches.

Fish – fresh, dried, smoked, salted, and fermented – plays an extremely important part in the cooking of most of Africa, especially south of the Sahara. Fermentation of foods other than fish also affects the taste of the various dishes prized in the diverse regions of Africa. Most commonly fermented foods include grains, but a number of other foods undergo fermentation and thus contribute to the flavor palate of the continent.

For the purposes of this discussion, which deconstructs the cuisines of Africa à la Derrida*, we will divide African up into several regions: North Africa, with its more Arab flavor; West Africa, probably the most familiar to Westerners; Central Africa; East Africa, with its heavy Indian influence; and Southern Africa, with its pronounced European and Malay culinary tendencies.

In other words, flavor comes from several sources:

  • Cooking techniques
  • Texture (size of food pieces, pounding)
  • Fermentation
  • Smoking
  • Drying
  • Spices and herbs
Photo credit: Eirik Newth
Photo credit: Eirik Newth

And so categories of ingredients providing flavoring, no matter what cuisine we’re looking at, include:

  • Aromatics
  • Fats
  • Pastes
  • Acids
  • Sweeteners
  • Compound Seasonings
  • Herbs and Spices

(To be continued …)


[1] Referring to the food of Africa as ”African food” is like lumping French, Italian, and German food into the generic term of “European food.”

[2]African Cooking and Food Bibliography,” compiled by Cynthia D. Bertelsen.

[3] Luce Giard, “Doing Cooking.” In: De Certeau, Michel, Giard, Luce, and Mayol, Pierre, The Practice of Everyday Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p. 171.

* Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher born in Africa, Algeria to be exact, developed the school of deconstructionism, which overtook the jargon of many social scientists in the late 1980s and 1990s. Post-modernism … texts relay more than one meaning …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


4 Comments Add yours

  1. cbertel says:

    Thank you. The topic of flavor no matter what the cuisine intrigues me no end.


  2. kingbiscuitpants says:

    Another wonderful post worth many a reread. Always a pleasure.


  3. Excellent, Cindy. Couldn’t agree more that Rozin underestimates cooking techniques in her flavor work.


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