Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Question #8: Why so few African restaurants?

At a local community business event in central Pennsylvania recently I asked fellow business owners whether or not they'd eaten any African food. I got no positive responses. Zero. That included not having tasted the most popular and visible sub-Saharan African cuisine, Ethiopian. None of the people I spoke to had ever heard of injera (see my last few postings). I shared that information with Ethiopianist Harry Kloman in June, and he responded "There are about 250 Ethio/Eritrean restaurants in the U.S. There are more than 1,000 Chinese restaurants in New York City alone. Simple math!" (It's hard for me to believe the number can be that low for Ethiopian restaurants. Does anyone else have any information?)

People often ask me why there are so few African restaurants. An obvious reason is that they are non Euro-American cuisines, and not places where many North Americans have visited/done business/been stationed during a war/have family members, etc. The tourism industries that exist tend to favor safaris (Kenya or Tanzania) or wineries (South Africa), not culinary and cultural heritage. Thus there has been little exposure to and consequently, little hankering for, the foods of these places. The only exception might be small numbers of diplomatic, academic, religious or Peace Corps people.

Several West African restaurant owners have told me they had to include "Caribbean" in their restaurant names in order to attract customers (e.g., "Caribbean and West African Restaurant," or "Afro-Carib foods"). I've also been told that they need to include bar service and music groups to attract customers. Perhaps "Afro Pop" and "World Music" have an appeal that is better recognized than cuisine.

Another possibility is that there just have not been that many African immigrants into the U.S. Looking at recent
immigration figures and trends shows that in 1967 there were reported to be about 35,355 African immigrants in the U.S., but by 2007 that figure had jumped to 1.4 million, most arriving after 1990. The countries with the highest number of immigrants in the U.S. are Nigeria (13.1 percent, or 185,787), Egypt (9.6 percent, or 136,648), Ethiopia (9.5 percent, or 134,547), Ghana (7.4 percent, or 104,842), and Kenya (5.7 percent, or 80,595). The 2007 figures further show half of all African immigrants residing in 7 states, in the following order: New York (10.7%), California (10.2%) , Texas (8.4%), Maryland (7.9%), Virginia (5.6%), New Jersey (5.2%), and Massachusetts (4.9%). I'm hopeful that the rapidly growing number of immigrants may create a larger market for African restaurants.

However, I also realize that in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa there is not a tradition of restaurant-going equivalent to that
I've seen in Japan or Europe or Brazil. West African immigrants here say to me "Why would I go to a restaurant when I can make my own food, better, at home?" For weddings they may well hire an African caterer to provide quantity cooking, but they're not likely to go to a Nigerian or Ivorian or Ghanaian or Senegalese restaurant for a meal out.

Over half of the immigrants are from West Africa. So why are Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants the most popular of sub-Saharan African restaurants? Perhaps it has to do with war and immigration. Perhaps because Ethiopians are seen as somehow less "black" than other sub-Saharan Africans, and hence more acceptable.

Some people claim that West African food is less accessible to Western palates than other "exotic" cuisines. That is nonsense. (I've already stated my opinion of such things as the claim that Africans prefer "rubber tire" toughness to their protein sources (see my April 22, 2009 posting). Perhaps a goodly part of the blame falls to mistaken racist ideas that are linked to negative media images of Africa, and, by implication, the belief that African food is primitive, boring, "poor" in all senses: nutritionally, level of sophistication, variety, quality, etc. On the other hand, some of the family-style African restaurants (such as those favored by African taxi drivers) do pay scant attention to the presentation of the food and the surroundings in which it is served, and instead emphasize huge serving sizes. That seems to be changing as there are increasingly more places like Teranga, featured in my last blog, with increased emphasis on creativity, ambiance, and quality over quantity.

That is surely going to accelerate as more and more African restaurants emerge, especially in large cities. Oh, another thing I've learned about African restaurants--they're often undercapitalized, and it's hard for potential entrepreneurs to get loans and other community support.

I look forward to the day that we organize a voice for African restaurants, markets, farmers, processors, etc.--a professional African culinary association, to promote industry visibility and provide a public face that showcases Africa's fascinating culinary richness and diversity.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Historic African Cuisine Panel at the ASFS/AFHVS Conference

I'm back from 2 weeks of graduations, being with family and friends, tasting Jamaica, and generally being treated like a queen. There is much to catch up on, beginning with a few words about the panel on "Interdisciplinary Perspectives on African Cuisines" held on May 30th at Penn State and the small dinner party afterwards. The panel went well (despite being scheduled for 8 a.m.
Saturday morning): we started off with Cindy Bertelsen's overview of African flavor principles (see her Gherkins and Tomatoes website for more information: principles-out-of-africa/ (the basics); principles-out-of-africa-a-fish-tale/; principles-out-of-africa-its-the-beans/ (fermentation and oilseeds); http://gherkinstomatoes.com/2009/06/06/10572/ (pumpkins). Igor

Cusack followed up with a discussion of cookbooks and national identity in Africa. Through what seemed incredible indifference and inefficiency on the part of the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde, Forka Leypey Mathew Fomine was unable to receive a visa in time to attend the conference, so I (Fran Osseo-Asare)
summarized his original research on the evolving role of the African giant land snail in the diet in parts of Cameroon. Please contact me if you wish to obtain an electronic copy of his fascinating paper. I then made some observations of my own about the cassava "saga" in Africa, and the transformation of cassava from an orphan crop to a nurturing "mother," and an important emerging cash crop in West Africa. Culinary historian Michael Twitty rounded out the session with a look at ethnic culinary variation in West African links and contributions to American Southern cooking. There was some lively discussion, and the general consensus was that there is a huge need for more of these kinds of opportunities to focus on African cuisines. I would
personally love to see sessions on African cuisine in literature and art, or on African cuisines and culinary tourism. Our biggest frustration that Saturday morning was "so much to say, so little time!"

For more pictures, go to BETUMI on flickr (ASFS/AFHVS May 30, 2009).

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Question #6: What makes YOU the expert, white American lady?

When my book A Good Soup Attracts Chairs came out in 1993 I made a conscious decision not to put my photo on the book jacket. A few months after the cookbook's publication I was speaking to the African-American book buyer for our local university and she looked at me dismissively and said (more or less) "If I'd known you were white, I'd never have gotten the book." Not everyone feels that way, but some, especially African Americans, resent white people telling them how to cook the foods that are part of their heritage. They want to write (and read) their own cookbooks, such as those by Jessica Harris. I can accept that, and understand it. That's why when I do presentations before large groups, if possible I try to be with a (black) African co-presenter.

On the other hand, I don't believe people today think Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was somehow inadequate because she wasn't French. I would never presume to call myself the Julia Child of Ghanaian cuisine, but there are a couple of parallels, particularly in her ability to make French cooking accessible to ordinary people in the U.S.

Since the 1970s I've been eating and learning in the kitchens of family, friends, and colleagues how to prepare Ghanaian food. As a sociologist, a writer, and a "foodie," I've also looked for the stories behind the food. Since marrying my Ghanaian husband in the 1970s I've spent decades looking at his culture from the inside out, and/or the outside in, at a different level than most foreigners will ever have the opportunity to do. I've lived and studied and worked in Ghana. Finally, as a doctoral student in rural sociology during the late 1980s and early 1990s doing ethnographic and survey research, my field work took me around Ghana talking to women and men about the food they eat and grow and purchase.

Did I mention I truly love Ghanaian cuisine? We cook and eat it in our home every week, so in that sense I know what I'm talking about (of course, we also eat Mexican, Brazilian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Korean, Mediterranean, Eritrean, Moroccan, French, Chinese, regional American, etc. food, too!) Learning to cook Ghanaian dishes, to adjust them for Western palates and substituting for or locating unusual ingredients has taken me years. My first attempts at fufu, for example, were disastrous, as were my early efforts at fermenting cornmeal to make kenkey or banku dough. I remember with pride, though, the stunned look years ago on one Ghanaian university student's face when a group was over at our house chowing down from a huge pot of palmnut soup (along with fufu and omo tuo, or rice balls. He kept looking around, disbelieving that I was the cook. He couldn't even look at me. "But, but, but," he stammered, "she's white. How could she?" I'll always treasure that memory.

Though Ghanaian cooking is basically an oral tradition, I possess an unsurpassed collection of West African and Ghanaian cookbooks as part of the African Cookbook project. I have spent months shadowing master cooks at Flair Catering in Ghana and received a travel grant to travel throughout the country to study cooking in all 10 regions, including the unfamiliar northern regions of Ghana. That makes me able to fill in the many blanks in other's books and experiences, frequently written or explained by Ghanaians who do not quite understand how much North Americans don't know about their country and culture or that Ghanaians modify (unnecessarily) to please the imagined foreign palate. Other culinary writing by short-term Western visitors to Ghana frequently suffers from "stranger's eyes" who miss a lot and make lots of amusing (and incorrect) assumptions. I have finally recognized my place at the intersection of two worlds is a strength.

As I've said before, I got fed up (pun intended) hearing the negative and distorted nonsense people said about West African cooking, so started writing about it from my perspective (see link under features to the article "We eat first with our eyes: on Ghanaian cuisine." ) I also ended up doing a lot of cooking demonstrations for schools, 4-H, scouting and other community, church, etc., groups, including the African and nonAfrican community (faculty, staff, and students) at Penn State where my husband teaches and where I earned my doctorate.

After the 1993 book I insisted I'd never write another cookbook. It was a very time-consuming and detail-oriented project (undertaken while I was completing my doctoral dissertation and raising 3 children), I had to learn to be a food photographer, and the multiple recipe testings part was a hassle, too. Nevertheless, that book catapulted into the world of culinary professionals, and I joined a group Julia Child helped found, the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). My career has shifted dramatically since that time, and in 1997 I founded the African Culinary Network. In the mid-1990s I was approached several times about writing the sub-Saharan Africa volume for an upcoming Greenwood Press series on Food Culture Around the World, including several persuasive emails from series editor Ken Albala. The first few times I brushed the idea off because I was no expert on sub-Saharan African food: I only knew a bit about Ghanaian and Anglophone West African cooking.

Finally, I recognized that if I didn't write it, it might not get written at all, or else someone who didn't care as much as I did might do it and not get it right. I began immersing myself as much as possible into sub-Saharan African culture (travel, books, films, restaurants, internet research, interviewing people, etc.) Several years and trips to Africa later, by the time the book came out in 2005, I realized that I do in fact know more about African cuisines that most people in North America. Also that most people I know in Ghana and other parts of Africa do not have the luxury of studying and writing about their cuisines, and appreciate my efforts. I also realize that people outside of Africa (or in other parts of Africa) ARE interested, and curious, and that is another reason behind this blog.

Finally, I've been fortunate to live in different parts of the U.S., from Berkeley, CA to Cambridge, MA; from Golden, Colorado to central Pennsylvania; beyond the U.S., from Ghana to Japan to the U.K. to Brazil. Plus I've been able to travel extensively: Hawaii, Louisiana, Texas, Nigeria, China, South Africa, France, Tanzania. . . You get the idea. Mix all these experiences together and you understand that I have quite an international perspective. When that is blended with my specific set of personal experiences: my writing career, my community organizing and sociology backgrounds, raising my own 3 children and 2 adopted nephews from Ghana, my teaching and instructional design experiences, my love of good food, etc., they have created in me a passion (I use that overworked cliché warily, but it is at heart a wonderful word) to share what I know.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

More on Malagasy Cuisine

My daughter Abena, a (an) historian of science at the University of California in Berkeley, is currently in Madagascar doing research. She sent me a link to an interesting page (in English) on Virtual Tourist about Malagasy cuisine by Norali, who lives in Antananarivo, where Abena is staying. Check it out!

Abena is having trouble finding good food (as usual the hotels seem to favor pizza and other Western food). I'm hoping she'll connect with Friedrich Randriamiakatra, who also stays in that city. I look forward to the day I make it to Madagascar myself . . .

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Africa in Rio (at Yorùbá again)

Not only did I discover Brazil in Ghana (see my previous blog posting), I once again discovered Africa in Brazil, and not only in Bahia. In October, 2006, my husband and I made a trip to Rio, and ate at a delightful restaurant called Yorùbá, with a charming atmosphere. I was happy to find not only the ubiquitous Afro-Brazilian dishes (like acarajé the descendant of West Africa's akla [a.k.a. akara, accara, kosai, koose, and kose], or carne de sol and various moquecas, but actual African specialties as well (like ewa, fried fish with yam, okra and dried shrimp, and shrimp piri piri. The staff kindly let me carry home one of their menus. When I returned to Rio during our 5-month stay in Brazil last winter, guess where my intrepid colleagues Theresa and Margarida (see my December 10, 2007 posting for more info about them) insisted on taking me? To a great little African restaurant. Right: Yorùbá again, but with new menus. This time I was accompanied by part of the culinary elite of Rio, we got royal treatment, and I had a chance to chat with chef/owner Neide Santor. I highly recommend stopping in there if you're in that part of Brazil.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Food in Popular Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa

Yesterday I received my copy of the just-published Sub-Saharan Africa volume of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of World Popular Culture, edited by Dennis Hickey, with Gary Hoppenstand the general editor of the series. I wrote the 30-page chapter on Food and Foodways, and am proud of a couple of things in it: a table (pp. 102-3) detailing well over 2 dozen carbohydrate/starch dishes by name, region, country, preparation techniques and ingredients--sadza, fufu, gari, injera, atapa, ugali, etc.--and the inclusion of some classic recipes, like mbanga soup and sukuma wiki. I am pleased they included two of my photos in the book (to the left). Unfortunately, the book is not sold individually, but if you are lucky enough to be near a school or library that buys the 6-book series (about $700 altogether), check it out! North Africa is covered in the volume North Africa and the Middle East.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

More African food videos

Here are links to several more free online videos related to African cuisine (what did we ever do before You Tube?)

Dona D’Cruz interviews Marcus Samuelsson, author of The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, which features some Senegalese food at the end of the interview (e.g., fried ripe plantain, couscous, yassa, and thiebou dienne.)

In a February 19, 2007 blog posting I shared some photos from Penn State University's Touch of Africa dinner and cultural show (more photos are available at Betumi's flickr account). The students at Oklahoma State University did me one better, and videotaped the food preparation action behind the scenes for their 2007 Africa Night.

In the February 13, 2007 blog posting I mentioned two cooking videos by Nigerian Ngozika on BlackTVonline.com. She has another one on preparing jollof rice, fried plantain (dodo), and fish stew. While I find her videos fun to watch, given time constraints she rushes through things. For example, she has already prepared the gravy for the stew and the jollof rice, and even peeled and sliced the plantain ahead of time. Though she mentions ingredients, she does not give quantities or explain preparation techniques enough for newcomers to the cuisine to successfully follow her directions. Still, having said that, I'm very glad she is out there popularizing Nigerian cuisine.

The North African cooking pot with a conical lid is called a tagine, which is also the name of a type of Moroccan stew cooked in it. Traditionally made from clay, modern versions are made with metal bottoms that can be placed directly on a stove top. Tagine: the Movie, illustrates how to use a modern tagine to make a typical Moroccan beef and vegetable stew. As in other YouTube videos, the lack of details frustrates the would-be cook. What WAS in that mysterious broth added to the tagine? Also, did they really eat it without any couscous in sight?

There is an intriguing demonstration of preparing Congolese satori, "a famous dish of the Lokele fishermen of Kisangani," made in the demo from tilapia fillets. Be sure to read the full description of the ingredients before watching the video.

Finally, there are several clips of people eating at African restaurants at the You Tube site. A typical one includes a send-off party for students at
Drelyse African Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio (USA) where the students give a little cultural advice to the Americans.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Recent sources of information about African cuisine

(these links are current as of 4 April 2007):

On the growing interest in African cuisine: "African food is conquering America! More and more of my friends and colleagues are starting to get interested in African cuisine. . ." http://foodcookingrecipes.com/african-food-is-full-of-flavor.html

An article in Cooking Light called "West African Hospitality" and featuring francophone cuisine (recipes from Benin, Senegal, and Cote D'Ivoire) by the well-known culinarian Jessica Harris:

(Word Press') Sociolingo's Africa has an archive of postings on African cuisine:

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