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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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

African and African-American Cuisines

One difficulty in researching African cuisine is that African and African-American cookbooks are mixed together in collections, and often people think the two are basically inter-changeable. That's a problem. The obvious linkage of Southern regional cuisine, or "soul food," or "Creole" cooking to the perception of "African cooking" is part of the confusion (black-eyed peas, cooked greens, corn, deepfrying, peanuts, spicy seasoning, barbeque, etc.) Also blurring the line is the American African-inspired holiday of "Kwanzaa," a blend of African traditional values mixed with Pan-African influences, but celebrated largely by people who were not raised in Africa. (In time, this will likely change, since all festivals have to have a beginning, but when I was in Ghana, Ghanaians generally felt like Kwanzaa wasn't a "real" festival, in the same way as those they'd grown up celebrating historically.)

Finally, about half a million people, mostly West Africans, came to the United States as slaves. Between the early 1500s and 1888,when slavery was abolished in Brazil, as many as 12 million slaves were transported throughout the "New World," many of them to the Caribbean Islands. Those islands have been more accessible to people from the U.S. than has Africa itself, and because many flavors and cooking techniques overlap, people assume that "African" cooking is pretty much the same as "Caribbean" cooking. For one thing, West Africa is only one region of the whole continent, and it is a mistake to assume that other African regional influences have made their way into the U.S. to the same extent. Also, some of the ingredients available in the U.S., particularly sugar cane and dairy products, were not widely available to earlier generations of West Africans. Sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese would be unrecognizable to them. Some techniques popular in Africa, such as fermentation and steaming, are also not widely part of the repertoire in what is commonly referred to as "African-American" cooking.

I recently rewatched the PBS documentary "The Meaning of Food," introduced and narrated by Marcus Samuelson, and was struck with an episode in Part 2 where Verta Mae Grosvenor, Nicki Finney, Julie Dash, and Julie's uncle talk about growing up Geechee (Gula), as descendants of enslaved Africans who skillfully grew the famous "Carolina gold" rice. She was in the kitchen with her family members and friends, talking about the central role of rice in their diet: how a meal wasn't a meal without rice. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them share their kitchen conversation and insights (and the "trick" of covering the rice with paper and covering the pot with a lid and NEVER lifting until the rice finished cooking was a technique I was also taught in Ghana). But I remember, too, differences between the people of the Sene-gambia, the rice-growing areas of West Africa, and the people of the yam-growing areas there. I also remember the 1986 book by Nigerian poet Flora Nwapa who in her "Cassava Song" praises the New World crop cassava as a mother and nurturer, and in "Rice Song" curses the politics that led to dependence on an expensive imported product that poor people could not afford. Something like rice is not even the main staple for many people throughout the continent: sorghum and millet, plantains, yams, corn, sweet potatoes and cassava are all found to be the "staff of life" in various parts of Africa.

In the Smithsonian's 1991 book Seeds of Change celebrating the 500 years since Columbus arrived in the "New World," there's a picture at the beginning of the chapter "Savoring Africa in the New World" of an African-American couple eating at Bob the Chef's soul food restaurant in Boston: the table has what looks like a Coke (the cola nut used in Coca Cola originally came from Africa), corn bread, blackeyed peas, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and a bottle of "RedHot" hot sauce, and the opening paragraph pays homage to the influence of gumbo (an African word for okra), peanuts (or goobers, from another African word), rice, and banana pudding or yam pie sweetened with sorghum molasses as African products eaten regularly in the U.S. They don't mention that the "yam" pie sweetened with molasses is a thoroughly Western interpretation of those ingredients.) It seems like they missed cooked greens as another West African influence, along with watermelon and sesame.

The short answer to the question "Isn't African cuisine the same thing as 'African-American' or 'Soul food?'" is: no, while there are similarities between "African-American" cooking and some West African cooking, there are many more differences: the first time my sister-in-law Afua saw a package of spaghetti in Nungua, Ghana, she burst out laughing, and the only thing she could think to do with it was break it up and cook it in some rice. She never even tasted cheese. When my 2 teenage nephews from Ghana came to live with me in Pennsylvania, they could hardly eat the food here, everything had so much sugar in it. Forget cookies and cakes and pies and ice cream--give them fresh papaya, pineapple, or sweet oranges and mangos. They still cannot drink coffee.

It is well established that many of the cooks in the Southern kitchens were slave women who were gifted in preparing wonderful meals, drawing on their own experiences and cooking techniques and mixing them with the foods available to them in the U.S. They have definitely stamped an African influence on the food. But that is only a small part of the story. Africa has many more stories to tell, not only of West African cuisine, but of that of North, South, Central and East as well.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Questions 1: Is there an "African" cuisine?

The word cuisine is often used to imply a cooking style that is somehow sophisticated and skilled and elaborate, as in haute cuisine. It seems everything sounds fancier to English speakers when said in French, even though the word literally means "kitchen." Technically, cuisine just refers to the way food is prepared and/or the food itself. Somehow the question above sounds a lot less profound when phrased as "Is there such a thing as 'African cooking' ?"

It is said that when the renowned South African food writer Laurens van der Post was approached in the 1960s to write the Russian volume of the ambitious Time-Life "Foods of the World" series, he was suffering from a medical condition that prevented him from using his hands to write. Instead, he offered the editors an alternate suggestion: that he travel the continent and do the one on Africa (dictating his notes, I believe). Apparently the editors of the series were stunned: they had no idea there was such a thing as "cuisine" in Africa, and had no plans for such a book in their "comprehensive" series. Van der Post assured them it existed, convinced them, and set out to write the landmark
African Cooking, the first book I've seen published in the U.S. that takes African gastronomy seriously (another French word!). While it is has some flaws, van der Post's book includes carefully researched recipes and fabulous photography. Its chapters highlight history, culture and geography of: "The Ancient World of Ethiopia," "New Cuisines for New Nations" (i.e., West Africa), "In the Highlands of East Africa," "The World of Portuguese Africa" (i.e., Angola and Mozambique), and, not surprisingly given his roots, three chapters on South Africa--actually, four, if you include the introductory chapter "My Continent: A Personal View," "East and West Meet at the Cape," "Great Cooking from Rich Farms," and "On the Track of the Voortrekkers".

As this suggests, there is no single "cuisine," but rather rather multiple cuisines throughout the continent. As Europe is not a single country with but one cuisine, so Africa has many flavors and ingredients and cooking techniques. While North Americans would generally not merge Italian, Swedish, Spanish, English, German, French and Portuguese flavor palates to a single "European cuisine," it is often considered that "Africa" has only one "kitchen." There are many kitchens, given the 53 countries of the continent. While each country has its own regional and ethnic variations, geography and history, it is possible to divide the continent into 5 general geographic regions: north, south, west, central and east. Eastern Africa is often subdivided into the countries of "The Horn of Africa" (the northeast countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia), and the rest of East Africa. Another approach is that of van der Post to consider countries speaking the same language of their former colonizers, as he did for Angola and Mozambique. Also, people usually make distinctions between the food and culture of countries north or south of the Sahara Desert.

Africa has made numerous global culinary contributions already, and still has an immense repertoire to offer the rest of the world. Its cuisines have, in turn, been heavily influenced by other religions and people from other countries, including, for example, Malaysians, Indians, French, British, Portuguese, or people from the Arabian peninsula.

In addition, food tastes are constantly evolving and changing. For example, in the U.S. there is fusion and "California" cuisine. When Laurens van der Post went to the newly independent countries of West Africa in the 1960s, he rejoiced that he found "a rapidly expanding middle class," whose experimentation and exploration in the kitchen he described as having "a kind of morning freshness" a "taste. . .exhilarating and exploratory" and marked by a "lively" inventiveness, with meals ". . . that stimulate not only the palate but the mind." (African Cooking, p. 62)

In summary, the answer to the question is "no," there is no African cuisine. But, yes, there are numerous exciting and flavorful African cuisines to discover. As Lydia Polgreen wrote in an article in the New York Times on February 1, 2006, "People travel to Africa for history and for scenery but never the food. I don't get it . . . Africa, with thousands of languages and cultures, each with its own cuisine, always rewards an adventurous eater." I heartily second her opinion.

Tomorrow's question: Is there really much of a difference between "African" and "African-American" cuisines?


Friday, February 27, 2009

Touch of Africa; Spring Class on African Food and Culture

It's been hectic for me lately. Last Saturday night was Penn State's annual Touch of Africa celebration sponsored by the African Students' Association. As usual, it was a sold-out event (500 tickets) and a cultural extravaganza that gave the students and the community an opportunity to taste unfamiliar foods and experience the music, fashion, story-telling and energy of Africa, largely normally unavailable to central Pennsylvanians. I was brought in late in the game to oversee the preparation of the food with the The Penn Stater's professional cooking staff and some student volunteers. I don't generally do quantity cooking, so it was a challenge, but the team managed to pull it off with help from The Penn Stater's chef Ken Stout and his staff. A few (very few--I was too busy to take pictures) photos from the event are up on my BETUMI account on flickr. The menu included several West African dishes, representing the heavily West African ASA membership (efo stew with greens and beef and smoked fish and smoked ground shrimp and palm oil), egusi (a.k.a agushi, a fabulous melon seed and one of the so-called "lost crops of Africa") soup, puff puff (a Nigerian doughnut), chicken jollof rice, fried ripe plantains, hot and mild versions of Ghanaian-style tomato gravy, and bissap (hibiscus chilled tea with lemon grass and pineapple juice), as well as North African-style couscous, East African coconut basmati rice and Somali sombosas, roasted chicken, tilapia with sauce, and all-Africa tropical fruit salad with flaked coconut.

Sore Shields of The African Market and I coordinated a silent auction to raise money for 2 charities in Africa, and Kunmi Oluleye of Flavors of Africa generously donated copies of her cooking dvd of Nigerian, Kenyan, and South African cooking (first in a series of 17 planned). Thank you to everyone who helped and bid on the items.

Now, I need to get ready to teach a five-week African cooking (and culture) course beginning March 18. . . Never a dull moment.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Africa Cookbook Project Update 3

I promised to let people know what's happening on the Africa Cookbook Project. First of all, I'm getting ready to move to Brazil in a week for 5 months, followed by 6 months in Ghana, which will slow me down with the database, but the project is moving forward. Devra Moehler has just e-mailed that she's sending a Ugandan cookbook, and Paola Roletta, the author of a Mozambican cookbook published by Europa-America in 2004 (Cozinha tradicional de Mozambique) wrote to let me know of her work. Actually, Europa-America has published cookbooks on cuisines of Angola, Cape Verde, and Morocco as well, all in Portuguese. I'd love to have them in the collection if someone would like to donate copies (remember, there is no budget for this project!) Also, people from around the globe are talking about the project, teaching me about their cuisines, even collecting recipes for me (maybe there's another book in all of this?) Though I'll be away, books can still be sent to the BETUMI mailbox: BETUMI/P. O. Box 222/State College, PA 16804 USA.

I'll soon post information about a few of the culinary entrepreneurs I met on my recent trip to Ghana, including a shito maker, a scientist, and a store owner.

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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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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

African Gastronomy Coming to the table at TEDGLOBAL

TEDGLOBAL "Africa: The Next Chapter"

The insightful and far-seeing organizers and supporters of the upcoming TEDGLOBAL conference
in Arusha, Tanzania recognize that Africa's culinary star is rising. "TED" stands for technology, entertainment, and design, and TED's annual conference in California is legendary as "an annual event where leading thinkers and doers gather for inspiration. " This June they're holding their first conference in Africa. Tami Hultman, now of allafrica.com, who in 1985 edited the fabulous Africa News Cookbook, nicely summarizes what the conference is all about.

Emeka Okafor, a UK-raised, New York-based entrepreneur of Nigerian origins, has been hired as the conference organizer. Well-known, among other things, for his fabulous, eclectic blog timbuktuchronicles, he realizes the importance of African entrepreneurs involved in the African-food industry.

100 of the invitees to the (pricey) conference are described as ". . . people actively involved in creating Africa’s future who could not afford to attend on their own. Four companies – AMD, GE, Google and Sun Microsystems – are providing fellowships to cover expenses, and admission fees will be waived." I am honored to have been selected to receive one of those fellowships, and hope to represent African culinary and other food industry professionals. I have some ideas to carry along with me (from a digital archive of African cookbooks to culinary teaching dvds to a television show), but please let me know your suggestions, observations, etc.

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