There Is No Such Thing As One African Cuisine

By Michele Herrmann

African food is as diverse as its sovereign countries and communities. Yet during the weekend of August 13 and 14, the Brooklyn Navy Yard will bring dishes from different regions of the continent to one setting during the inaugural NYC African Food Festival.

At this two-day event chefs, restaurant owners and food personalities from Africa will host cooking demos and special dinners featuring traditional regional meals and contemporary takes on these servings. One of them is Senegalese born chef and cookbook author Pierre Thiam, who will be preparing an eight-course African dining experience for the festival on August 13.

We caught up with Thiam, who shared his insights on African food and its place on the world culinary stage.

Interested in Chef Pierre Thiam’s cookbooks? Check out Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the BowlYolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal and The Ghana Cookbook.

 

African Food

Senegalese-born chef Pierre Thiam, right, will be participating in the NYC African Food Festival. Photos by Evan Sung

1) In your opinion, what makes African cuisines stand out from other international cuisines?

There is no such thing as one African cuisine. Each region has its particularities, and this immensely rich diversity makes African cuisines unique from region to region.

In West Africa, [for example], flavors tend to be bold and fresh. We use fermented beans, dried fish and shrimp, which all add layers of umami goodness when combined with fresh ingredients in our sauces and stews.

Our traditional diet… is recognized as [being one of the very] nutritious diets in the world. It’s because our meals are well balanced and often include greens, grains, beans and vegetables to accompany meat and fish. When it comes to greens, from sweet potato greens, to black-eyed peas, to cassava, nothing is wasted.

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African Food

Salmon Yucca Croquettes

2) How does African cuisine differ from one country to another?

The cuisine differs even within countries. Nigeria, for instance, has 200 plus languages. Each of these different cultures has a distinct cuisine. However, when it comes to the broader regions of Africa there are still lots of commonalities, due to the environment and cultural influences. Northern regions like Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria tend to have couscous-based dishes and use spices like cumin or cinnamon. Eastern regions like Ethiopia would use grains like teff and spice blends like berbere, among others.

In countries like Kenya or Tanzania locals tend to consume maize dumplings (called ugali) or spiced, tender grilled goat meats (called nyama choma or mshikaki). Southern regions of Africa have their versions of dumplings – also mostly corn-based – but sometimes they’re prepared with a grain called millet. Going up the Southern coast, countries like Mozambique or Angola have more seafood in their diets and [locals] tend to use spices like piri piri to add heat to marinades and sauces.

In West Africa, food will also vary from country to country. In Nigeria dishes are often served with yam or cassava dumplings (called fufu). Ghanaians would use fermented corn patties (known as kenkey). In Cote D’Ivoire, what would be used is fermented cassava couscous and plantain dumplings for a traditional dish called foutou. In Senegal, they would prefer broken rice or millet couscous. While in Guinea or Mali, the fonio grain is king.

African Food

3) How have African cuisines evolved over time?

African cuisines have been developing from home cooking — where food is the medium that brings family and friends around a bowl — to a 21st-century approach by young chefs who’ve worked in fine dining restaurants in cities like Paris or New York. This new generation of chefs is bringing in new techniques and design elements that are adapted to traditional fares.

However, this evolution is not entirely new. It’s a continuing process that has spanned over the course of hundreds of years. For instance, during Colonialism many regions of the continent had been exposed to European cultures — mostly French, English or Portuguese – that has resulted in culinary exchanges. Other cultures have also migrated to Africa and brought their cuisine: Lebanese and Indian in West and East Africa, and even Vietnamese in some parts of Senegal. Often we embraced their cuisines and gave them ours in return.

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4) What public misconceptions about African cuisines are you finding?

African cuisines – particularly West African – have influenced the food of the Americas since the Slave Trade. Traces of African food can be found in Southern cuisine, particularly Lowcountry, and in most of South America like Mexico, Brazil, and Ecuador. Today, some chefs are looking into the origins of these different cuisines as a source of inspiration.

Spain is another country with African influences in its cuisine. The Moors, who occupied Spain for centuries, brought rice to Spain in the 16th century. Spain’s national dish, a rice-based paella, has similarities to thiebou djenne, a Senegalese rich dish with fish.

5)  For those who are new to African cuisines, what do you recommend they try?

I may sound biased because I’m from the region where this particular dish originated, but I think yassa is a perfectly good introduction to African food. It’s a simple grilled chicken or fish served with a slow-cooked onion and lime confit over jasmine rice. It’s amazing how such a simple dish can taste so complex. The sweetness of the onions compliments the acidic fruitiness of the lime and the subtle smoke hints coming from the charcoal grilling.

Have you tried African food? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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YogaDownload Yoga On The Go [Travel Health]

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Michele Herrmann splits her time between New England and New York City, and has gotten much better at packing light with her back and forth trips. She has jaunted across Europe and up, down and across the United States and even as far as the South Pacific. She's grateful for being able to dispense travel stories and advice through media outlets and companies (as well as putting her BA in English to good use). Her blog She Is Going Places serves as her way to encourage others to get out and exploring!

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