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 28, 2009

Question 5; Why should I be interested in African cuisines?

This could also be called the "Who cares?" or "So what?" question. Here we get to the crux of the matter. Where to begin to answer it?

First, consider a U.S. automaker analogy. Today's U.S. auto industry is in so much trouble partly because it didn't understand the world was changing. That the needs and interests of car buyers were changing. The same is true in the culinary world. Global culinary rules are shifting. There was a thoughtful article in our local newspaper recently by food writer Ann Quinn Corr, who began her article: by saying that ". . .there are questions that haven't been discussed on any of the talk shows: Will the food served in the White House reflect the multicultural background of our president? Will African dishes be on the table in the White House?" In the U.S. we have a president whose father was from one of "those places"--Kenya in East Africa, with its Swahili coastal influences. Look at President Obama's cabinet members and at the changes taking place in our communities, in our universities, in other words, everywhere. So, we should care because the world is changing. Our neighbors and our neighborhoods are changing.

There are now sizable numbers of immigrants from all parts of Africa. They are introducing their foods into our culture, just as Italian and Irish and Polish and Chinese and Jewish, etc., people of earlier generations did. The annual African cultural Ghanafest in Chicago, for example, is entering its 20th year and attracts many thousands of people every July. Other African cultural festivals are held in Texas, California, Maryland, Georgia, Massachusetts, etc. Many large urban cities now sport mobile West African food trucks, and small family-style restaurants are emerging as well., both in cities and university towns. Today's blog features a few pictures I took in New York, Chicago, and Berkeley. Plus there's one from a local store, The African Market, in State College, Pennsylvania. There are reportedly over a million African immigrants in the U.S., and most of them entered between 1990 and 2000. This is probably undercounted by hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants as well. The phenomenon of emerging African churches and mosques in the U.S., and African missionaries, is another sign of the changing times. These are basically demographic, sociocultural kinds of reasons.

There are good culinary reasons, too. For example, discovering fresh ideas for cooking: new ways of using familiar ingredients, like peanuts or black-eyed peas (e.g., groundnut stews/soups or steamed bean puddings or fritters), as well as using new ingredients in familiar ways (ripe plantain pancakes or green plantain chips), along with finding new ingredients and new processing techniques (e.g., using things like cassava, taro, fresh coconut, millet), that can enrich and energize our diets.

Some other attractive reasons: the growing "slow-foods" movement that savors fresh, local ingredients slowly simmered is a good fit for many African one-pot dishes that can be cooked in a crock pot and/or frozen and taste even better when the flavors have had a chance to meld. They're also fast to reheat in the microwave.

The creative one-pot dishes of many African cuisines are great budget-stretching ways to include vegetables with protein sources like meat or fish or poultry adding flavor without taking over the entire stage. They're a lot easier to serve and clean up, too. Also, they introduce us to the possibilities of pureed vegetables or beans or nuts to thicken our soups or stews instead of cream, or invite us to use smoked or dried meat and fish and poultry to infuse hearty, comforting flavors to our dishes.

Africans can introduce us to new, interesting seasonings and spices, like "tiger nuts" (chufa) or tamarind or "grains of paradise" or lemongrass or dried hibiscus flowers. . . Plus, we are just beginning to really appreciate some of the health benefits of chili peppers.

Westerners are already beginning to embrace some of the flavors of African plants, such as the soothing and healthful rooibos (redbush) or honeybush tea leaves of South Africa. Ethiopia is reputed to be where coffee originated and it has a long and impressive history associated with it there.

Many Africans get their calcium from other sources than milk, and a Ghanaian diet, for example, is ideal for people who are lactose intolerant. The same is true for those who are allergic to wheat, which is an imported ingredients in the diets of most West Africans, and where flours are made of many other grains from rice to cassava.

In other words, we are enriched by the diversity that comes from learning from other people's creativity. As Alan Dundes (my college anthropology professor) also said, at least I think it was him "To see is to adjust the vision." Or as a Ghanaian proverb puts it, "The stranger's eyes are big with looking, but he/she doesn't see anything." Actually, while it's true that the person who doesn't know where to look will miss many things, it's also true that we see what we expect to see. If we look for boring, insipid food from Africa, that's what we'll see. If we expect wonderful, interesting, flavorful, exciting food, it's right
there waiting for us.

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