The world is ready to appreciate African cuisine. It's time we do so too
There was a time when we read about African cuisine from food publications and glossy travel magazines, it was about food from North Africa.
They would wax lyrical about the tagines of Morocco, the falafel and shawarma that Egypt is famous for. The flat bread and cous cous of Libya and the Lablabi and even shakshuka that is enjoyed in Tunisia.
Rarely has there been attention paid to other parts of the continent, until recent years.
We have seen food writers, chefs and cooks highlight cuisine from West, East and Southern Africa. Yewande Komolafe, had a major spread on the New York Times, where she spoke and shared West African recipes.
For the past two years, West African cuisine has been touted as the region the food world will be focusing on in various trend reports. We have seen an explosion of African chefs on social media, readily sharing African cuisine, even more so during the lockdown.
We have extensively reported on how restaurants around the world are already capitalising on this trend by including more African-inspired dishes alongside their fine dining European-style offerings. Our cuisine is finally being given the spotlight it deserves.
Film maker, Tuleka Prah, is also at the forefront of documenting African cuisine for her website, My African Food Map. She goes to different countries on the continent, speaking to chefs and most importantly, taking pictures of African cuisine and making it aesthetically pleasing. She told AP that she hoped to show the care and skill that goes into African dishes.
"The idea, at its most basic, is to present the food how people who love it would prepare it. It's like a database or a digital vault where people can open the drawer, see recipes, see some ingredients.”
Watching the second episode of Netflix's Cooked with Cannabis, one of the chefs chooses to cook West African inspired food during the challenge. The episode was highlighting the cuisines of the world and the chefs competing chefs could choose which country they were going to highlight. Harold Sims chose West Africa and cooked food inspired by the region and infused with cannabis. He won the challenge.
Interestingly, Thabo Phake, a South African chef based in Abuja, Nigeria, says it was bound to happen, thanks to the world looking at Africa for inspiration in music, beauty and fashion.
“With musicians and fashion designers getting more attention and so forth, the African culinary space was then privileged enough to benefit from it. I think it has to do with the trickling down effect.”
The 21 year old, who worked at Joburg’s Urbanologi before moving to Abuja, says it also has to do with Africans being more willing to sample food from other parts of the continent. Even chefs.
“More and more chefs are now prone to appreciating their culture and past rather than before when the majority of African chefs were less receptive of it. There are ingredients that have taught me on how broad African Food is. For instance there's an ingredient made from tiger nut milk called "Kunu "and it's more or less like what we have back home as Mageo."
Award winning writer and cookbook author, Ishay Govender-Ypma, says that there has increasingly been conversations about the absence of Africa cuisine from parts of Western media for a few years.
"It’s important to note that African food has always been here, prepared and consumed by Africans, written, spoken about and celebrated locally. With the recent recognition of chefs and food writers of African heritage in the U.S , such as Kwame Onwuachi, Michael W. Twitty, Selassie Atadika and Nneka Okona, there has been a corresponding growing mainstream interest in the food they write about and prepare. We’ve seen a greater interest in West African cuisine whereas in the past Africa has been viewed either as a continent, or as a purveyor of North African food and all else was a mystery to Western media."
Selassie Atadika is also one of the champions of African cuisine. Last year she was named a Basque Culinary World Prize Finalist and was also listed as one of the Top 50 Plant-Forward chefs by EAT Foundation and Culinary Institute of America.
She was one of the speakers at Design Indaba this year, where she spoke in detail about what she calls New African Cuisine. Attendees were taken on a tasting journey, where they were presented with various flavours and taste profiles that can be used to flavour dishes. She used sugar cane (sweet), smoked water (smoked), dune spinach (salt) and injera (sour).
The chef founded Midunu, which is a nomadic restaurant in Dakar, Senegal and is the first of its kind. She is also a chocolatier. With New African Cuisine she aims to encourage the use of using native ingredients and to bring African cuisine to the wider market, making it more accessible to more people.
"I think the number of outspoken African advocates for African cuisine, from Ghanian-born Atadika to Dieuvel Malonga from Rawanda and South Africa’s Nompumelelo Mqwebu have been given more space of late - I emphasise this because we have always had passionate ambassadors like Cass Abrahams and Dorah Sitole whose efforts are still appreciated," says Govender-Ypma.
What is positive to see, is the number of social media accounts dedicated to showing the beauty of African cuisine. Instagram is filled with such accounts and if you were truly interested in trying recipes from different parts of the continent, they are readily available.
Besides, as Thabo says, there are many similarities than differences in the way we cook. “What I've learned about African Food is that the flavour palates are more or less the same , and there's certain techniques such as braising and grilling over open fires that resonate with every African culture.”