Cooking in Africa: Memories and Reflections During COVID-19 Isolation

During the week of May 11 – 15, Elatia Harris interviewed me about my latest book, Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil, available from both and IngramSpark. Read the whole interview below.

Day 1:

EH: This week I am conducting a live interview in this space with Cynthia Bertelsen, author of Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil, a new book about the foodways of Africa. A great read, if you want to cook or not. Richly informative and beguiling, this book addresses a big gap in what many of us know of world cuisines. If you want to comment, come right in!

Cynthia, we know you a little from social media. You are an award-winning writer, now living in Gainesville, Florida. As a child, you wrote numerous short stories. And loved the research that went into term papers. You earned graduate degrees in history, human nutrition, and library science. Last year, you published A Hastiness of Cooks, a culinary study of English and Spanish medieval foodways. You blog at Gherkins and Tomatoes ( But — what prepared you to write Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil?

CB: Thanks, Elatia. To answer your question about what prepared me to write Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil, I’ll start by telling a bit of a story. My maternal grandmother presented me with a copy of Walt Disney’s People and Places. And I fell in love with the idea of seeing the world, especially the Blue Men of Morocco. That led to discovering Africa as a whole. Along the way, I lived for nearly three years in Haiti, rich with the traditions of West Africa, where I conducted a food consumption study in Haut Cap Rouge, in the southern part of the country. After Haiti, I worked as a project manager for a consulting company named Tropical Research and Development, and one of the projects dealt with USAID’s Famine Early Warning System, aimed at predicting famine in parts of Africa.

So, when the time came to actually live in Africa, I was more than ready to go.

In Haiti, I traveled all over the country, ate the marvelous food, shopped in the markets, and cooked the food. I did the same thing in Morocco.

But when I walked through Ouagadougou’s central market for the first time in Burkina Faso, I saw ingredients completely unknown to me. I hired a young local woman, the wife of a doctor at the local medical school, and for months, she guided me through the markets and explained to me what the ingredients were for. She and two of her aunts taught me how to cook various dishes over a small wood fire set at the base of a large multi-layered pot on the ground. And from them, I learned what sorghum beer tasted like.

EH: You’re getting me going! Since the 1970s, if you followed Paula Wolfert, it was possible in the West to learn about the cooking of North Africa. But in 45 years, so little has emerged about the cooking of sub-Saharan Africa. I’m wondering — would you say the cooking of Morocco is basically Mediterranean, and the cooking of the rest of the continent something altogether different?

CB: Yes, Moroccan cooking is, in a small way, Mediterranean in its orientation. Its northern coast borders on the Mediterranean, after all. Paula Wolfert’s classic, The Food of Morocco, is very comprehensive, as are the books written by Kitty Morse, who grew up in Morocco, the daughter of a Moroccan mother and British father. You’ll find lots of fresh vegetable and fruits making up the Moroccan flavor palate. But that’s where the similarity with Mediterranean cuisine stops. There’s a uniqueness to the spicing of Moroccan food, and you don’t find that effect in quite the same way in the cooking of the Mediterranean or even in the Middle East – the spicing is just not as potent. Or overt. Whatever you want to call it. Actually, Claudia Roden, in A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, suggests there’s “a mysterious culinary bond between ancient Persia and modern Morocco.” She points to al-Baghdadi’s thirteenth-century cookbook as a sort of proof.

As for the rest of Africa, even in the rest of North Africa, you’ll generally find a style of spicing that’s blander. But, like the Ethiopian berbere or Egyptian Dukkah spice mixtures, in West Africa there’s Suya/Tsire, a peanut-based spice mixture used primarily on grilled meat. And in the cuisines along the coast of eastern Africa, influenced as they have been by the Indian subcontinent, curry spices play a large role. But overall, it’s possible to say that cuisine found in most of sub-Saharan Africa is very similar. Greens, tubers, squashes form the basis of the cooking, sauces meant to be eaten with some form of starch such as fufu and enlivened by the addition of smoked fish or bits of meat. Aside from salt and black pepper, red pepper, or cayenne, appears as the most prevalent spice in the rest of Africa.

EH: I want to hear more about spices and the climate. Generally, very spicy food helps the body to lose heat by sweating — I learned all this from my MIL who spent lots of time in India, and whose mother grew up there. And I want to learn about the reach of Arab cuisine into West Africa. TOMORROW!!!!!


Day 2:

CB: I arrived in Quagadougou in late October, just before the end of the rainy season, so I didn’t know what to expect just before the start of a rainy season. In late May of the following, I got my chance. For several weeks, the street vendors’ wares dwindled to almost nothing, just wrinkly carrots and cassava. We relied on canned food from the Embassy commissary and the stores of rice I’d kept in my freezer to keep weevils and other pests from propagating among the grains and flour. The winds started first, great gusts of sand-heavy air, strong enough to bend one of the skinny palms in front of my house to the ground. Over and over for days. Dark heavy clouds would appear, seemingly ready to let rain pour down. But they would pass, and the sun blazed on and on. Finally, one night, when the entire expat community attended a baseball game, it happened. One minute the wind behaved as usual, then CRACK! A bolt of thunder and the sky opened up, in torrents. Everyone raced to their cars and waited. Water overflowed the dusty streets, where people stood, basking in the cool wetness that’d finally come. That meant the food would, too. Eventually.

Although small western-style markets existed, most people couldn’t afford them, as most of the food for sale was imported.


EH: Cynthia, I have a friend who married into a big Ghanaian family. The family were Muslim, and the food had influences from Arab culture. They all spoke French. This argues for lots of influences I couldn’t account for. I began learning about this as musicians from Mali became celebrated all over the West. I got a deep, thrilling look at how much I didn’t know. Still trying to fix that! Let’s talk today about the Arab reach into West African foodways… .


CB: Yes, as I mention below, it’s hard, if not impossible, to tease out culinary influences from deep in the past. When it comes to the historical Arab influence on West Africa and its cuisine, the written record is spotty. According to Fatima Hal, a well-known Moroccan chef and cookbook author with a restaurant in Paris, Sudanese traders from Bilad al-Sudan brought black female cooks named “dadas” to Morocco. These women, in Hal’s opinion, were greatly responsible for the cuisine that is now known as Moroccan. Legends also provide evidence for the Arab presence in West Africa, such as the story about descendants of the King of Baghdad founding seven of the Hausa city-states. Then there’s the more probable story of nomadic Berbers, with their knowledge of caravan routes and their joining with Arab conquerors to crisscross the Sahara Desert and their subsequent arrival in West Africa. Kairouan – in Tunisia – became a central place for dispersion of Arab culture across North Africa, just a few decades after the birth of Islam. It would take a lot more time and space to give this topic full justice, but for those interested, I suggest a close reading of Tadeusz Lewicki’s West African Food in the Middle Ages.

So, what Arab influences can we see today in the cooking of West Africa? For one thing, many Lebanese immigrated to West Africa, bringing with them flatbreads topped with za’tar and fried pastries filled with meat or other ingredients (sambusas). Rice, whether because of the historically grown Oryza glaberrima or because of the Arab tradition of rice eating, plays a large role in the diets of people in many parts of West Africa. It’s interesting that the spicing so prevalent in Moroccan cooking and the cooking of Sudan is absent from most West African cooking, which consists primarily of flavor-filled stew-like sauces served with some form of grain or tuber. Grilled meat, like the Suya of Nigeria, resemble the brochettes of Morocco and grilled meat skewers sold on Middle Eastern streets.

By now, it’s important to remember many cuisines in Africa have been affected by the food of colonizers. Picking apart origins of dishes is a bit tricky, and futile, because of the constant mobility of people and the adopting/sharing of culinary ideas.


EH: Elsewhere you have mentioned that African food is less photogenic than the foods of other cultures. At least to the Western eye. That it was a demonstration of how something could be highly flavorful, yet not particularly look it to the camera’s eye. Do you think this keeps readers from approaching the subject?

CB: I think that’s one aspect of it, if a person expects glossy magazine or Instagram photography. Chicken Yassa photographs well and so do Ethiopian platters filled with injera and all the delightful small dishes placed on that circle of bread. But fufu with a sauce poured over the top doesn’t quite pass the “eat with your eyes” test. And that’s too bad, because the food is really good. One difference in the acceptance African versus Indian cuisines in mainstream Western culture might be due to cultural differences regarding cooking, and if men emigrate, and cooking is viewed as women’s work, taboo for men, well, that might be an explanation? I recall Pierre Thiam referring to something like this once.


EH: Should we learn how to look before we select what to eat? We are constantly doing that anyway. “Looks delicious!” “Looks safe.” Reading your book, I know I want to incorporate these foodways into what I do. Can you suggest a few steps?


CB:  the first thing to do is realize that most of the ingredients necessary for cooking the cuisines of Africa are right there in our supermarkets. Of course, a specialty store would be nice, but even if one is not within hailing distance, it’s still possible to cook quite nicely. Then experiment with difference sauces, meaning stew-like mixtures with various meats and vegetables. Branch out by country – try Doro Wat, an Ethiopian chicken dish that’s out of this world. Then try Mafé, a Senegalese Chicken Stew. Fritters would be next, as well as recipes using green leafy vegetables.


EH: My friend Cynthia Sam who moved to Ghana for her marriage said that how to physically eat the food she found there was not clear to a Westerner — that forks and spoons tended not to be first line utensils, any more than in China. A certain obviousness about how to eat the food in the photo can make a stronger case for eating it.


CB: yes, the roll the fufu trick, hard for Westerners to manage! Make a ball, press with thumb, and scoop up sauce.


EH: So we might be bringing a colonial process to the way we look at photos and can or cannot imaginatively sit at that table?


CB: probably, but maybe “colonial” is too strong a word. Many people tend be very wary of the foods of others, regardless of their culture or station in life. But certainly, the Colonial Gaze could play into this, the way advertising has manipulated thinking for eons.


Day 3:


EH: Who remembers the opening line? “Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.” Yes, we will talk about East Africa today. Gather up all you know about it, and get ready! One region of Africa that all of us can conjure up from reading is East Africa, even if we haven’t been. And we know it in a deeper sense, as the birthplace of modern humans. We can picture highland farms, mountains under perpetual snow, vast inland lakes, elephants… But do we know the foodways? I don’t! How much would be the food of all our ancestors? And of later-coming civilizations?


CB: Early humans did spring forth in East Africa. Consider the work of Louis Leakey, with “Lucy” and the concept of Mitochondrial Eve, Say East Africa and most people think of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, all former British colonies. Technically, East Africa consists of 20 countries, According to Fran Osseo-Asare, the first written account of East Africa can be found in a Greek document, “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century”,…/periplus/periplus.html. It’s an anonymous work from around the middle of the first century CE written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian merchant. Somewhat later, the famed traveler Ibn Battuta wrote about his travels in 1331 and described a meal he ate in what is now present-day Mogadishu, Somalia: rice with chicken, fish, meat, and vegetables, and green bananas probably cooked in coconut milk.

Beginning in 1471, with contact in what is now Ghana, the Portuguese influenced the cuisines of Africa considerably, including East Africa, namely in their introduction of cassava, corn, peanuts, chile peppers, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Along with the Portuguese, East Africa saw an influx of other peoples, including Arabs, Indians, and other Europeans.

You may be familiar with Ethiopia’s very distinctive cuisine, its fiery berbere seasoning, foods served on injera, a type of spongy flatbread made with teff, a grain indigenous to the Horn of Africa, which includes not just Ethiopia, but also Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, all with somewhat similar approaches in the kitchen.

And then there’s another part of East Africa, which is much associated with Kenya because of Barack Obama’s father’s origins. Thanks, too, are due in part to the film, “Out of Africa”, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, based on a book of the same title by Danish author Isak Dinesen, also known as Baroness von Blixen. She and her husband attempted to grow coffee near Nairobi, Kenya in the early 20th century British colony. What the film does not show was ugali or any other food eaten by locals. Instead, we’re treated to a discourse on English food, not surprising at all. For many Kenyans, the day-to-day diet consists of a few staples such as corn mush, ugali, a starchy grain-based thick polenta-like dish, forms the foundation of most meals. Ugali tastes very bland. Hence the need for the flavorful sauces/stews served with it. To eat Kenyan-style, you form a small ball of ugali with your right hand, press a deep indentation in the ball and use that as a spoon to scoop up the sauce.

Again, it’s impossible to delve deeply into the subject of East Africa in this Facebook interview format, but – as with all of Africa – there’s a wide variation in the terrain and resources available in East Africa. While there are similarities in cuisines all across Africa – toh/fufu/ugali aren’t too far apart in their basic nature – differences do exist, thanks to history and the people who populated each region and country.

As Tejal Rao wrote in 2012, Africa is more than hunger and danger.


Day 4:


EH: Today we will find out why, starting in Africa itself, the go-to African cookbook has been long in coming. No Fannie Farmer?? No Joy of Cooking? There is an excellent reason why no one there needed such a thing, and you are about to discover it. You write about hiring a young Burkinabe woman to food-shop with you and show you the moves. That sounds emotionally wonderful, but it also suggests the usual remedy — buying the book — was not applicable. Can you develop this for us?


CB: When I lived in Burkina Faso, and wanted to buy a cookbook, I was told by many people that there simply wasn’t one. Such a thing did not exist. As I have related elsewhere, and in my book, I turned to a young Burkinabe woman, Assetou, who taught me quite a bit about the Burkinabe kitchen. Another woman presented me with five pages of traditional recipes written in French, typed on lined paper. I began wondering about just why a country such as Burkina Faso wouldn’t have at least one cookbook available. The oral tradition still was preeminent.

After all, I’d found cookbooks in Honduras, Haiti, and Morocco, written by local women. Granted, there weren’t a lot of these books, but to not have even one, well, that really perplexed me. In fact, even where I did find cookbooks about the national cuisine for sale, women often chuckled and asked me, “Didn’t your mother teach you how to cook?”

EH: Ah! If you went back, would you find that book for novice cooks now? If only because the number of women working outside the home has grown?

CB: Actually, no, I have checked over and over again, and so far have not found a full-length cookbook about the food of Burkina Faso. More women do work outside the home in Africa as a whole, and of course many are working at something, mostly in the informal sector. And that’s always been the case. To enlarge the discussion, let’s look at this: early on in my engagement with food history and cookbooks, I chanced upon a classic article: Arjun Appadurai’s “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” His conclusion is that cookbooks appeared in many literate societies with an imperial or palace culture that demanded intricate cooking. Yet, he also concludes that although India certainly had palace-oriented cuisine, there wasn’t much happening in the way of cookbook production. With the rise of the Indian state and a new sense of nationalism, that changed.

EH: Really fascinating. We were going to talk a little today about foods — and cookbooks — for different strata of society. Ammini Ramachandran wrote something wonderful a while back about cooking in the royal palace at Kerala — for the Madapilli, or royal dining quarters. It surprised me to learn that the royals ate extremely simply compared to other highly placed families. They had a point to make about hewing to simple traditional foods and styles of eating. Would you find something similar in Africa?

CB: India is different than Africa, although you do find royal lineages and caste systems in Africa, but aside from the prohibition against pork, religious-based food taboos are not so apparent. I can only answer that question by referring to a meal I ate in a village where the chief was a brother of one of my husband’s colleague. I discuss this episode at length in my book, but suffice it to say that the meal was meat in a sauce flavored with fermented locust beans served over rice, with baguettes and a French-style lettuce salad with sliced tomatoes and onions. Sorghum beer brewed in a tall terracotta urns. Much of the food available in these sort of take-out places, huge vats of sauces bubbling away, represented food that people ate on a daily basis, people with money and status, like my husband’s colleague. Big formal dinners usually featured chicken yassa or other grilled meat.

EH: Ah! Most of our own cookbooks are for people who can afford good food, of course. It sounds like you went deeply into the ways food and cooking made it — or did not — into documents. Can you tell us more of what you found?

CB: I’d like to mention the work of Igor Cusack here. Igor is an English scholar with an interest in Africa, who began studying cooking and cookbooks in relationship to Africa, coming up with many insightful papers, including “African cuisines: Recipes for nationbuilding?” He concludes the drive for a recognizable cuisine comes in part from the West, saying in contrast to British and French nationals, “African-Americans have, however, generated interest in African-American cooking and hence African cooking and the large African populations in the West have provided a focus for this interest.” That gave me pause, but it makes some sense. Cusack and Fran Osseo-Asare have both attempted to catalog cookbooks published in relationship to African cuisines. I include a list of many of these cookbooks in “Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil” as well. Interestingly, Igor has looked at men as cooks, and that’s a very common practice across parts of Africa, where men work in wealthier homes as cooks, not women. Note that in many places, women also work as cooks, as in Morocco, the “dadas” tradition.

EH: Your book is a tremendous resource for readers who want to go deeper, as well as a wonderful thing in itself. I think readers will find there is a body of knowledge they missed. The All-American cookbook, if it existed in 2020, would have to treat the cooking of foregrounded cultures, not of every culture here. Similar difficulties in conceptualizing the All-African cookbook?

CB: it would have to be similar in nature to The Joy of Cooking, a little bit of everything, but actually the current Joy really falls down when it comes to African foods and recipes. Brief mentions of some ingredients – cassava, yams – but mostly in relationship to the Caribbean and Brazil. Actually, I suspect any cookbook that undertook the task of representing the whole continent of Africa would have to be similar to the classic Time-Life Foods of the World series, to be honest.

EH: Do you think, if it were produced, such a series would have the high impact of the original Time Life series all those years ago? So many of the best minds of the day worked on it. My mother, an artist, bought it for the pictures and she was not alone. Would justice finally, then, be done?

CB: who knows? That would be wonderful, if such a thing could be done. There certainly are enough talented and knowledgeable people in Africa and elsewhere who could do it.

EH: Now that there’s a taste of the richness there… Well, I want more. Where should I go?

CB: For those with an insatiable taste for the cuisines of Africa, a very comprehensive list, not entirely up-to-date though, of cookbooks related to Africa (not including South Africa) can be viewed here: It’s a .doc file and well worth your trouble.

CB: I’d like to end the discussion today with this: Another resource that might be of interest to readers of this interview is Naa Baako Ako-Adjei’s 2015 Gastronomica article, “How Not to Write About Africa: African Cuisines in Food Writing.” It IS five years later, and one would hope that things have changed a bit in terms of Africa’s place in the food world, but truthfully, there’s still not been much emphasis on the cuisines of Africa in the mainstream food media. That the print food media has diminished since Naa Baako Ako-Adjei wrote suggests that perhaps online media has picked up the slack. But, with a few exceptions, such as bloggers, that doesn’t seem to be as much the case as one would hope for.

Tomorrow, I’ll wind up this wonderful week of discussion with more detailed comments on why I wrote Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil.

Day 5:

EH: My mother-in-law used to say that she liked a book with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a point. Today we’ll talk about the point of this book — why write it, what did the writer hope to achieve? As a reader, I can say this book delivers beautifully. But around here we like to know what the writer had in mind in her own words. so much of our life experience never reaches book form. This material was a tremendous gift to you, which you enhanced with scholarship. Now it’s a book. As they say — what were you thinking?

CB: Naa Baako Ako-Adjei posits that food writers in the West assume that there’s no viable cuisine in Africa because of the persistent trope of starvation and hunger and war. She also points out that food writers tend to lump the cuisines of Africa together by persistently writing “African food.” I wrote “Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil” with those very things in mind, to dispel – as much as much as I could – erroneous beliefs and tropes about Africa. The title refers to a quote from Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart: “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Through words and speech and dialogue, understanding evolves.

EH: It’s not particularly memoiric, but your experience enriches the material.

CB: I wanted to share something of my own experience in Africa, but that’s not entirely what the book is about. It’s a collection of short pieces that I hope reflect many of the things about my sojourn in Africa, things that both intrigued me and puzzled me. One of those aspects of Africa that intrigued me was the colonial period, because the more I learned about it, the more the audacity of the colonizers became clear.

EH:  Early Zionists in Palestine ate German food. The daughter of one such family said nothing could have been worse in the climate. Did you see the same kind of uneasy graft going on in the colonial period in Africa?

CB: Africa consists of many countries, 54 according to the United Nations, many of whose boundaries were set by the European powers that colonized them in the mad dash for Africa in the 19th century. Thus, some of the chapters in “Wisdom Soaked in Palm Oil” discuss the colonial period either directly or indirectly. These chapters are there to emphasize that colonialism, as bad as it was, actually happened and the impact of that is still present in many ways, including gastronomically. Baguettes in former French colonies being only one example. Part of the reason that the cooking of Africa is a blind spot for Westerners, it seemed to me, was due to the colonial period and the writings that ensued, cookbooks – mostly written for a British audience by British women – and travel guides. Few of these works included recipes for local foods, reinforcing the idea that colonizers preferred their own foods, even though they hired locals to cook for them.

EH: Were there professionally written cookbooks with colonial tastes in mind?

CB: Try as I could, I found very few French cookbooks published with a colonial audience in mind. One author, though, did try. A French chef, Léon Isnard, thought highly of the local cuisines, and so he wrote several books – primarily about Algeria – incorporating recipes and bits and pieces about the culture, something very unusual at the time, because of French ideas about their own cuisine. By including chapters about specific ingredients, too, I emphasize the fact that contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing unusually exotic or inaccessible when it comes to cooking the cuisines of Africa.

EH: As a reader and a cook, I DO begin to understand. And what I love to do is to cook after coming to understand. Thanks so much for this interview!

CB: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you this week. And I hope, if nothing else, that you’re inspired to get in the kitchen and cook!