by Yvonne Short
Yvonne Short's circumnavigation of Africa in 1998 commenced in West Africa—Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Senegal, and then on to Morocco. After a visit to Cairo, she travelled through Eritrea and Ethiopia, then to Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar before returning to South Africa. Here are her notes from that journey.
For countless centuries the tables of West Africans—from the great gold-trading Ashanti kings to the humble artisans—have groaned with tamarind, coconut, giant crab, swordfish and hibiscus nectar. Like the tapestry of colour that typifies their markets, West African food is zesty, exciting and spontaneous. It is a celebration of precious bounty—huge bowls overflowing with deep-fried plantain chips or fufu (grated maize meal, manioc or cassava and very aptly named as it has a glue-like consistency that sticks to your fingers) wrapped in banana leaves, young coconuts, barbecued corn and newly peeled pineapples. The West African culture surrounding food springs from an abundance of fresh produce in a steamy 'promised land' of plenty, pressed up against the vast, thirsty Sahara Desert.
The cuisine is characterised by a curious blend of carefree enjoyment and frugal use of the produce at hand—every hollowed- out pumpkin shell is turned into a bowl, or carved and studded in the elaborate West African style and crafted into a musical instrument. Banana and Elephant Ear leaves are used in place of foil to wrap and steam maize and millet and then unfolded to become a plate.
In Cote d'Ivoire, one of the treasured dishes is palmnut soup with fufu. This substantial soup, based on the pulp of palmnuts, also includes lamb shanks, onions, tomatoes, chillies, giant crabs and sundried fish, with the fufu mounded in the middle of the dish like a large mountain. Kejenou is another favourite, invariably made with chicken and vegetables and traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot. This dish can also combine chicken, prawns, paprika, peanut oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chillies, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and rice.
Senegalese specialities include Poulet or Poisson Yassa—marinated and grilled chicken or fish blanketed in onions caramelised in lemon juice; Mafe which is a peanut-based stew; and Tieboudienne—cabbage and fish stuffed with chilli, chunks of yam, whole okra and whole baby brinjal, served with very hot roasted baby red peppers on a pile of dirty rice. Steeped in the fundamental discipline of and quintessential reverence for Islam, Morocco is a completely different culinary experience in Africa. Just as every wall is tiled and carved in intricate Arabian patterns, Moroccan food is a lavish yet painstaking and deferential affair. Great respect and ceremony surrounds a fantasia of tastes and aromas with a backdrop of voluptuous orange trees bowing beneath cobalt-blue skies and the towering Atlas Mountains.
The ancient proverb goes 'In Marrakesh you will eat with your eyes' and this holds true for the markets to this day. Moroccan cuisine has its roots in nomadic reverence for food and the wealth of the Saharan titans, and is characterised by exotic spices and laborious cooking methods. The market is an indulgence in pure visual excitement—picture the myriad heaped piles of aromatic spices, grains, legumes and fruits, including ruby red pomegranates, preserved lemons, jujbes (like a very small apple), prickly pears, glistening olives in every colour imaginable, and everywhere the hallowed Moroccan staple—the round flat bread.
Like all Africans, Moroccans are renowned for their hospitality—each guest is treated like royalty and their comfort and enjoyment is paramount. In the case of a diffa, or banquet, the host's hospitality is measured by course after course of sumptuous dishes in lavish quantities. Before the feast begins, a simple word from the host, Bismillah, invokes Allah's blessing. Hunks of warm bread are passed to the guests gathered around the opulent table as the first course begins—usually an assortment of exquisitely seasoned exotic salads.
Next comes the presentation of the bastilla—a dish of shredded fowl (pigeon or chicken) set in a custard infused with ginger, saffron, garlic and fresh coriander and wrapped in delicate layers of ouarka (similar to phyllo pastry). In between the petal-thin layers nestle sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. A savoury tagine course follows—a luscious combination of meat, poultry, vegetables or fruit, simmered in sauces redolent with cumin, saffron and preserved lemon or honey. After the tagine is cleared away a mountain of steaming couscous, crowned with vegetables and baptised with broth, is set in the centre of the table and, once again, served with ceremony. Dessert would normally consist of fresh fruit pastries and mint tea made from Chinese gunpowder green tea and Moroccan mint.
From North Africa, the food served in our lodges drew from Mediterranean influences—olives, oilseeds, chickpeas, dates, figs and pomegranates. The dishes reflect a dramatic history of centuries of diverse peoples and their civilisations. It is the place where Arabia, Africa and Europe merge, and the people, culture and cuisine are a heady and exotic blend. A lamb casserole with fresh dates cooked in sesame oil and infused with honey is reminiscent of Morocco. Early morning rusks made with honey, flavoured with cinnamon and drenched in sweet wine are served with fresh ice cold fruit and Turkish coffee, or a French-inspired omelette with freshly sauteed garlic and chopped fresh mint with an Arabian drink of chilled milk infused with almonds and orange makes for an exotic breakfast.
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tanzania and Kenya were our next stops, where we discovered strong Arabic, English and German influences in East African cooking. The region produces coconuts, cashews, rice, maize, vegetables and an aromatic array of Zanzibar spices. From these regions in Africa we use pawpaws, peanut soups and deep-fried breads, sweet potato and pumpkin dumplings with goat's cheese and roasted macadamia nuts, spinach with coconut milk and peanut sauce, pumpkin tendrils and flowers in cream with banana chips—all adding deliciously different layers to our cuisine.
South Africa was the final inspiration for the creation of Pan-African cuisine. The country represents unusual combinations of ethnic cuisines: African (Venda, Xhosa, San, Sotho, Ndebele, Zulu, Shangaan, Pedi) Portuguese, French, English, Dutch, German, Greek, Afrikaner, Indian (Hindu and Muslim), Malay, Italian, Jewish and Chinese. One of the most complex and exciting contributions to the art of cooking in Africa evolved in South Africa. The Dutch are historically very fond of their food, and founded the colony as a pantry for ships on the long route from Europe to the East. The Dutch also introduced slaves from Java, Sumatra, India, Indonesia and Madagascar—each bringing to South Africa their traditional ways of preparing food.
The fare that best typifies South African cooking is Cape-Dutch Malay—shortened to Cape Cuisine—whose foundations nod to ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. The Malays introduced the art of pickling and preserving, and also created wonderfully original dishes. These include bobotie: minced beef baked in a rich custard of eggs, lemon and curry; bredies: beef or lamb cooked slowly and gently—with tomatoes, onions, garlic, green ginger, cardamom, coriander and fennel seeds and a touch of sugar—until the meat falls off the bone; sosaties: (kebabs) marinated meat on a skewer cooked over the open fire; and smoorvis (smothered fish): a centuries-old method using ingredients as diverse as lobster, crab, mussels or even hard-boiled penguin eggs. The fish is salted and air-dried for preserving, then flaked into spicy rice with ginger, chillies, tomatoes, sultanas, potatoes and onions—it's delicious with whole-wheat bread and atjar (pickles).
Lamb with wild lavender is a recipe dating back to when the 1820 British settlers introduced merino sheep to the Karoo—hardy livestock that feed on aromatic wild veld bushes and grow fat and tasty. A leg of lamb is cooked in buttermilk, lemon, garlic, cream, sherry and lavender. Unusual, completely delicious and another tormentor to the dieter.
Necessity, the canny mother of invention, guided early cooks and shaped their culinary skills. Food was foraged from the veld, or fished from sea and shore, and cooked over the embers of a fire. The art of potjiekos—the ultimate one-pot fare, developed in tandem with the open-grid braai (barbecue) which, with ice-cold beer characterises most sunny South African Sunday afternoons.
The most famous of all South African sweet treats are koeksisters and melktert. The worth of many a wife in the 1800s was measured by the quality of her melktert. In summer, pastry dough was made late at night then wrapped in a damp muslin cloth and hung in a draft to keep cool. For the lightest crust, the tart was baked before sunrise. The custard was flavoured with dried naartjie (tangerine) peel. Dusted with cinnamon, a melktert is an unusual taste sensation.
Indigenous food traditions live on, passed down from one generation to the next. Wild figs are eaten fresh or made into jam; wild Cape sorrel is simmered in soups and added to stews; pelargonium petals are used as herbs; various spinach-type plants (marog) are turned into pastes and pestos; kinkelbossie (twisted bush) are added to bredies; pumpkin leaves are cooked into a mush and eaten with pap; raw meat is salted, spiced and dried and eaten on bread, or added to vegetable stews.
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Excerpt: A Culinary Tour of Africa
This page created October 2007
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