Learning about African Cuisine from Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine
My first introduction to African cuisine was at an Ethiopian restaurant called World Marathon a few years back. I shared a plate of what seemed to be meat and vegetables in a reduced sauce on top of a spongy pancake-like bread called injera. The meal was richly spiced, delicate, meant to be shared, and eaten with the hands. On first bite, I was astounded and impressed by how flavourful and delicious it was. I hadn’t had such a beautifully spiced meal in my life. I picked up Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine by James C. McCann, Associate Director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, to learn more about the history of African cuisine and how it looks today.
This book is written to appeal to a broad audience, not merely an academic one. McCann not only writes directly and succinctly, he includes plenty of maps, images from his own travels in Africa, and historical charts to develop his argument about African cuisine and its development. Before each part and subsequent chapter, he outlines themes, connects areas of African cuisine, and reminds the reader how each part functions within the whole in a few scant sentences.
In this week’s blog post, we will dive into African cuisine by learning about the women, the forces, and the traditions that helped make it. A true picture of a region’s cuisine can only be understood through the lens of history, weather, geography, and social structures.
What is African cuisine and how did it develop?
African cuisine isn’t just one thing. It is the world’s second largest continent, made up of 54 countries. It has a mixture of different climates, split most generally into a rainy season or a dry season, including desert, Mediterranean, tropical (forest), and semi-arid. This range led to different patterns of eating based on the seasons, availability of food, and location within the continent.
At its heart African cuisine is, in the words of McCann, “the adaptation and indigenization of staples and ingredients collected from encounters with other world ecologies and oceanic networks that contributed spices, herbs, and fruits” (8). It is one that evolved through necessity, trade with other lands, and foods brought by their colonizers and missionaries from countries like Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the New World, and Asia. Like most countries, the basis of an African meal is a starch, with vegetables or meat accompanying it. Which preferred starch has changed through the centuries and regions.
Women are the backbone
McCann frequently notes the role of women in African food culture, production, and meaning. Women didn’t have access to political or economic power, but could demonstrate significant power in the domestic, private sphere. Without these women, who threshed, pounded, and grinded a variety of starches for the daily meal, and orally passed on their cooking skills to their daughters, there would be no “African cuisine.” The men who came to Africa, like Wilhelm Bosman in 1700, to trade, conquer, and enslave, barely made note of the food, much less how it was prepared. What we know of African food culture, we owe first to these women and Empress Tatyu, who orchestrated a feast in 1887 for political, religious, and social reasons.
This feast, held in Ethiopia’s newly established modern capital of Addis Ababa, consecrated a new church, established her and her husband’s political might and ideals, and proved her cookery skills, which were the mark of a powerful woman. Her husband, Menilek, wanted to modernize the kingdom by “creating a large, multiethnic empire”, expressed in the feast as various regional foods and drinks like rivers of honey wine served together, expensive spices and peppers, and cookware produced within the kingdom.
The power of oral tradition
Africa’s peoples had highly developed oral traditions, languages, and social structures that weren’t focused on written material. When colonizers arrived, they viewed the societies as barbaric or uncultured because of the lack of a written language. Some of these male colonizers chose to write recipes of the food being prepared, something we don’t think about enough in modern times. What happens when an oral recipe with all its teachings is distilled into a written one? Let’s look at the difference, shown by McCann in Stirring the Pot.
On page 83, he shares a recipe for Shiro wet (Ethiopian Powdered Split-Pea Sauce) that explains the ingredients, preparation time, and texture, exactly like a modern recipe would be structured. In the oral recipe, provided by Derebworq Gabra Hiwot, the focus is on personal preference of texture, amount of spice and onions, and sensory indications (tuk tuk) that it is finished cooking. For measurements, she uses her hands (cupped together) before reaching for a cup or soup spoon. This emphasis on tactile measurement and feel underlies the skill needed to cook without “strict” measurements and supports cooking according to personal preference, often lacking in modern recipes.
Important women in development of written African cuisine
Audrey Richards, a British anthropologist, recorded what the Bemba people of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia, in Central Africa) ate and how they cooked in 1930. This work was seminal to our later knowledge of African cuisine, as the men who had been going to Africa since the 1400s hadn’t recorded the cooking processes of food in Africa. She found what the women cooked and ate throughout the year changed with the amount of rainfall, livestock, and the change of the seasons from wet to dry.
Margaret Field, an anthropologist and physician, published a “General Survey of Gold Coast Food” in 1931 detailing–from a nutritional aspect (unusual for its time)–what the women of the Gold Coast in West Africa ate and cooked. McCann notes her contribution and the contribution of the African women by saying “…obviously it drew on a long-standing and deep body of oral knowledge among women of common households as well as royal courts in West Africa” (120).
Historian Claire Robertson published a study of Ghanaian market women in 1978 that adds to the emerging food culture for sale by women in Ghana that “probably predated the modern fast food phenomenon in America, Europe, and parts of Africa” (129). In Ghana, unlike other areas of Africa, it became common for women to sell prepared foods in markets, mixing the private and public spheres.
These three women have greatly added to our knowledge of African cuisine in the twentieth century through two regions of Africa, West Africa and Central Africa. Before their writings, we didn’t have a clear record of how food was prepared, used, and developed.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look into African cuisine and food history! Next week, we will dive into the starches, spices, vegetables, and grains of African cuisine from Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. This book isn’t meant as the be-all-end-all of our research into African cuisine. It provides a good starting point for us to think about different aspects of food culture and how these forces pull and push a cuisine and people towards change.
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