Digging into African Cuisine from “Stirring the Pot” by James McCann
James McCann is a well-known scholar and history professor who specializes in the history of African cuisine, ecology, and agriculture. Last week we talked about McCann’s history of African cuisine and the women behind it: the African women who put food on the table and the women who researched and published writings on these African women. We learned African food isn’t just one thing. It was and remains many things. Today, we are getting into the real “meat and potatoes” of African food. Starches and grains in Africa, like in many countries, provides the backbone of the meal onto which meat, sauce, and spices are poured.
African food is in a constant state of change, like in other continents. Without adapting ingredients from trade with other lands, it is possible there wouldn’t have been enough food for the inhabitants, especially during dry seasons. This blog post, along with last week’s, will serve as a good introduction into African cuisine and how food has the power to reflect changes in social status, power, and the environment.
Influence of trade with other lands
We learned that African food developed through trade with lands like Portugal, Germany, France, Britain, India, Asia, and the New World, to name a few. From the Mediterranean came citrus, wheat, onions, garlic, and shallots. From the Nile came livestock like cattle, sheep, and goats. Only the Nile Valley donkey is indigenous to Africa, McCann tells us. Trade with Asia brought coconuts, ginger, rice, mangoes, and bananas.
The texture of a starch matters
Starches are common in most cultures because they provide what McCann calls “the concept of fullness, what it feels like to have eaten” (33). In white, middle-class North America, the chosen starch is typically potatoes, whereas in parts of Asia, it is the stickiness of rice. In Europe, it is often wheat bread. Maize porridge, also known as polenta, is the main starch in northern Italy.
The preferential texture of a starch can differentiate the Ghananians from the Nigerians. Fufu is made of a boiled and pounded starch that is rolled into a ball and often eaten with a soup or stew. In Ghana they prefer fufu to be made of yam. Whereas in Nigeria, fufu is made from cassava, plantain, or rice. In West and Central Africa, yams are preferred when roasted, boiled, fried, or pounded. As another starch option in Nigeria, yams are mixed with fish and tomatoes to make asaro.
The move from millet to maize
Millet, sorghum, and teff were historically critical to feeding African people before the arrival of cassava and maize. Millet and sorghum are small grains indigenous to Africa that were domesticated from wild grasses and were often consumed as porridge. Teff is a grain milled into flour that is used to make the Ethiopian spongy unleavened bread called injera. The African preference for soft porridge-like starches was already built into their food system and made the adoption of maize and cassava easier.
Maize, brought from the New World, eventually became the preferred cultivated grain in Africa by the later half of the twentieth century, partly due to its high yield, in comparison to native grains like millet and sorghum. Made into a porridge, reminiscent of polenta, this dish is called mealie pap in South Africa, ugali in Kenya, gunfo in Ethiopia, and nsima in Malawi (45). Half of all calories in Malawi come from maize consumption (139).
How capsicum peppers led to a cuisine
Before capsicum peppers entered the culinary scene from the New World (or North America), Africans preserved their food with certain pepper seeds and dried pods. McCann supposes some foods in Africa were already spiced using black pepper from India, malagueta peppers from West Africa, and ginger (60). This preference for spice helped when New World capsicum peppers (chilli, berbere, harissa, red pepper, tabasco) in the 15th century. Because these peppers could be easily grown, spices were no longer reserved for the elite classes who could afford them. The taste for spice spread throughout Africa.
The magic of peanuts and palm oil
In most countries in West Africa, groundnuts (peanuts) are often made into stew with chicken or fish, tomatoes, ginger, and onion. This stew is called peanut butter stew in Liberia, mafé in Senegal, and taushe in northern Nigeria, to name a few countries. Groundnuts were first brought from the New World and became a mainstay in the savanna. It was a crop rotated with grains that helped keep the soil fertile.
Instead of cooking with butter like the Spanish and Arabic peoples, some parts of Africa rejected that to cook with oil instead. They didn’t adopt every ingredient they came across during trading. In the forest regions of West Africa, they often cook and color their food with palm oil, while in the savanna they use peanut oil. However, in drier areas where groundnuts don’t grow as easily, butter is used.
Insects: from the necessary to the exotic
What happened to the diets of the inhabitants during the dry season? They scraped by on stored meat, grains, and starches. When stored foods dwindled and their diet became monotonous, they turned to insects, much like the native peoples of Mexico. Adding fried insects to the top of their starchy porridges and stews added a crunchy texture to an otherwise soft stew and added a bit of protein into their diet. We don’t merely eat for survival but also for pleasure.
The Bemba people ate locusts and grasshoppers by removing the wings, boiling them for 5 minutes, and then drying them in the sun. Then they were fried in a pan with a bit of salt and fat and served as a relish on top of a porridge or stew. Most insects were cooked in this manner, either with or without fat, and almost invariably served as a relish. Although eating insects was once considered a necessity to keep starvation at bay for the poor, it is now a delicacy for the upper classes.
I hope you enjoyed this look into the particulars of African cuisine and have been inspired to dig a little deeper into Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine by James C. McCann. Did you learn anything new? Share it with me in the comments or over on Instagram!