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Serving Up Home Truths

Binyavanga Wainaina

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Binyavanga Wainaina
Photo of Binyavanga Wainaina.
WHEN I started to teach myself about African food, I found myself hitting a barrier: a lack of information.

There isn't even one comprehensive source of information for any of the individual countries in Africa, yet alone one covering the diverse foods of the continent.

Searching on the Net proved not much better. On the World Wide Web, where you can have a conversation with an alien or learn everything there is to know about the eating habits of cockroaches, there is hardly any information on African cuisine. All I ended up with were millions of web references to starvation in Sierra Leone and food riots in Somalia.

Then there were the travel stories about runny stomachs and icky food, with the occasional comment by an "Africa expert" like: "There is nothing for the gourmet, most Kenyan cuisine is 'stomach-filling fodder', mainly a gruelly substance called ugali."

Or: "Outside of the coast, most African food is bland and uninspired."

It is easy to take offence at such statements and, like many on this continent, I guess my reaction could have been, "Why bother?" It is safer to ignore the whole thing, and drink my coffee without caffeine. After all, like many of my generation, having never left this continent, I define myself as a follower of the popular culture of the western world before I am African. A sad state of affairs, but a truth. I blame "Dallas" and Tom Sawyer.

Our parents' generation had painfully to disassociate themselves from their cultural womb because it was so impossible to straddle the West and Africa and remain sane. The "progressives" of their generation had to be credible in their new world and to do so meant looking down upon what the Xhosa call the abakwetha, traditionalists.

My generation is not as burdened, but we have found that conforming still does not grant us respectability. That I know what fettucine is doesn't do very much for me.

Also, with the wisdom of emotional distance, we find ourselves philosophically bankrupt. We cannot even define ourselves in "the Western way" because that demands invention, innovation and discovery, and none of these are humanly possible without roots.

But I didn't want to seek knowledge of African food out of anger. That would only have turned me into one of those Africanist mouthpieces who don't really believe, and I couldn't see myself gulping okra with passion simply because it was a symbol of "Our Great and Demolished Past". I enjoy food too much to insult it that way.

But the knock-knock of the little knowledge that was in my head refused to stop. There were so many things I ate as a child, delicacies prepared lovingly and possessing texture, flavour and sophistication. So many things that stood out in my mental tastebuds even when I ate the best Italy had to offer.

Some of these dishes are traditional daily fare, like matoke (steamed plantain bananas with groundnut sauce). Others are ceremonial. Some are new urban dishes, like mandazis (vetkoek with coconut or overripe banana) or kyinkyinga (beef or liver kebabs with crushed nuts).

But it doesn't stop at the food. In most places in Africa, a meal is a celebration of togetherness and a guest hasn't "visited" until he or she has eaten. Food is served on a communal platter for all to share and enjoyment takes precedence over etiquette or small talk.

Yet in mainstream South Africa, and in many parts of Africa, the best cuisine that we have remains in rural villages and at town hall weddings and taxi ranks.

And so we find ourselves in the demeaning situation where our cuisine is possessed by African-Americans. If I was a Martian tourist to South Africa, I would believe that people here subsist on a million variations of butternut soup, kudu, crocodile and ostrich.

There are the places in Africa whose cuisine is called "great" but, commentators rush to add, Mozambican food has a lot of Portuguese influence, and Zanzibari and other cuisine is really Asian.

Really?

There's no mention of the fact that the same spices that influenced European food in the 1500s (when cloves were worth more than their weight in gold) influenced African food, or that Swahili cuisine has evolved over 1,000 years - when will it belong to us?

I even read an article in Fair Lady which implied that jambalaya is an offshoot of Spanish paella.

Really?

African spices.Jambalaya, which is an African word, is originally from West Africa. Eat jollof rice and try deny that. Cajun cuisine, and indeed modern American cuisine, is very strongly influenced by West African food, Peanuts were introduced to America by slaves, as was okra, while gumbo is a West African word meaning "food".

Such cuisine is as much ours as chop suey is Chinese.

Brazilian cuisine, with its use of okra, palm oil and seafood, is also eerily similar to that of West Africa.

A Cape Town hotelier recently tried to explain to me why he felt he could not put African dishes on his menu. He took pains to explain that he loves pap and was brought up eating it on a farm. "But," he said with a sad expression on his face, "our clients are very discerning and they prefer something upmarket."

Upmarket, he says. It's one of those Capetonian words that can mislead a foreigner. (Another is "stunning", which can mean anything from "absolutely fabulous" to "I really hate this but, being a Capetonian, I cannot dislike something unless it comes from Gauteng".)

"Upmarket" in this context meant "anything sold to me from somewhere really posh" (read "from outside this continent").

Surely what is uppest-market in South Africa, and on this continent, should be the delicacies we possess! Surely we should let the rest of the world ask us what all the excitement is about rather than waiting for it to be approved first by "overseas"!

It has been known for years that mursik, a Masai yoghurt, contains certain compounds, including saponins and several steroids, which research has shown decimates cholesterol. This is why the Masai, who traditionally eat mostly red meat, milk and blood, live without fear of cardiovascular disease. Mursik also happens to be delicious. Yet you cannot buy it in any Kenyan supermarket or shop.

Maembe NaPili Pili (Mango and peri-peri salad)

Serves 8-10

Ingredients
5 sweet mangoes
A handful of roasted red-skin nuts (with skin)
2 packets of baby spinach
A pinch of peri-peri

Dressing
A pinch of crushed fresh herbs (origanum, basil and rosemary)
1 teaspoonful of virgin palm oil (peanut oil makes a good replacement)
3 teaspoons of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of honey

To prepare:

Cut mango into bite-sized pieces (do not peel). Sprinkle the fleshy side with peri-peri. Arrange the baby spinach around the mango.

Mix all the ingredients for the dressing together in a container, and drizzle over the salad.

Sprinkle the peanuts on the salad..

So what's going to happen? Some American ex-peace corps worker will patent the recipe and market it as a wholesome, age-old addition to muesli, and middle-aged yuppies across the US will fall over themselves to "become a warrior". By the time it's sold to us (at dollar value), it will be "upmarket".

The way I see it, this African renaissance business simply means refusing to undervalue the resources we possess and bringing them into the mainstream, making them a part of our "Western way."

It means being able to buy morogo in every supermarket.

It means being able to find as many cookbooks about Ghanaian cuisine as Thai cuisine in our bookshops.

It means having at least one cooking programme on TV that shows us how to make food from this continent.

And it means having cooking schools that teach people to make samp and beans, jollof rice and mooi- mooi (bamboo stuffed with vegetables and grilled over coals).

Now it would be easy to pass the buck and say, "What can I do about it? It is the fault of slavery-colonialism-apartheid oppression." But my father once gave me life- changing advice: "If you blame somebody for your situation, you deprive yourself of the power to solve the problem."

The reason I love to cook African food and continue to teach myself about it is not really because of all of the above. I just love to create, and there is no better or more "undiscovered" material than on this continent.

Whether we be "Born in Africans", "Live in Africans", "Came to Africans" or "Left Africans", we ought to take possession of our culinary heritage. Let us stop calling it "ethnic" to disassociate it from ourselves. Let's make it part of our "Western" experience.


BINYAVANGA WAINAINA - I am a free-lance writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. I was born and brought up in Kenya. I write a weekly Interview for the Weekend Argus in Cape Town called "Encounters." I also write feature pieces about African cuisine, general food, leisure and travel stories of the Sunday Times "Lifestyle" magazine. (The Sunday Times is South Africa's largest Newspaper.)

I have also written for the Mail and Guardian, Y magazine, SL magazine, Pforward magazine, and the Cape Times' weekend Supplement, "The Top Of the Times."

I run a business in Cape Town (Amuka Investements cc)that specialises in African Cuisine. I have to date collected over 13,000 recipes, all from Africa. We are also caterers and food consultants. As a hobby I collect information about traditional and modern cuisines of Africa, and write extensively about them. It is my aim to start to find an afrocentric perceptual framework with which to commment about cuisines of the continent. I am widely regarded as the leading commentator on Africa Cuisine in South Africa. ... But I would much rather describe myself as a dedicated Food Slut.

This is Mr. Wainaina's first article for The World's Magazine. In his continuing series here at the G21 more African cuisine recipes will be featured.



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