A couple weeks back, strolling through the mammoth Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, we realized we could see Africa from there. Well, not exactly see it, though the continent is even larger than our own. But we could definitely taste it.
After the show, that seemed the main thing most “survivors” (any Fancy Food Show involves a lot of eating) talked about – the number of new food products evoking the diverse scents, tastes and cultures of Africa. Many among us declared it a “hot new trend,” which is always worth noting. From where we work, however, that still means you have to develop the right product with the right packaging and the right marketing at the right price, hopefully to find the right audience among people who, in most cases, have never set foot in Africa.
We will share our adventures in the test kitchen as they happen. And if nothing else, the adventures should be interesting. Africa, after all, is not merely one very large continent. It is a collection of separate countries with different, often tribal ancient histories, different sagas of colonial overlords, different languages and religions, and simply different life experiences.
We can say “different countries with different cultures,” but we also need to remember how vast the food target is before we start aiming our arrows at some bullseye.
Not surprisingly, there was some effort in San Francisco to unify and simplify, plus a little bit of understandable coattail riding. There were labels proclaiming food products simply “African,” though the links between Arab Morocco, French Senegal, German Namibia, Portuguese Mozambique and Dutch-British South Africa are shaky at best, especially years after independence for each country logically began to underline its tribal “African” rather than its colonial roots.
There was also an effort – the most logical marketing move in the world – to emphasize the similarities of something unfamiliar to something more familiar. Building a comfort zone, we might call it. This means talking up similarities between (at least some) original African dishes and favorites enjoyed in the closer Caribbean. Not only do African roots form the foundation of every island nation today but each shares a similar past. African slavery is, after all, the defining characteristic of virtually every island, mostly thanks to the sugar crops that produced sweetness, human tragedy and lots of pirate rum.
In addition, the same empires that formed much of Africa’s politics throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch – collected islands the way Europe’s legendary “race for Africa” collected countries. Africa and the Caribbean also share a rich multi-generational immigrant overlay of merchants from the Middle East, China and India, who have no small impact on what gets into the pot.
Even more profound for Americans, ultimately, is the strong cultural memories in our own African-American communities, most explicitly across the Deep South (we call it “Southern cooking,” thus ignoring or even obscuring the whole story) and in American cities and neighborhoods with narratives of their own – Harlem, New Orleans, the South Side of Chicago.
It is likely that many first fans of African cuisine and African food products in our country will be African-Americans, who can gaze through centuries of conflict, conquest and colonialism and see their own delicious “soul food” in disguise.
EAST AFRICAN FISH STEW
We love this fish stew from Africa’s 2,500-mile east coast, a recipe that meanders upward through various cultures between South Africa and Kenya. It is awesome made with any firm, white-fleshed fish (grouper, halibut, cod, etc.), adding only at the very end so the fish doesn’t cook away. If you like, you can add shrimp at the same time you’re adding the fish, and/or sprinkle on crabmeat when the cooking is done, thus making it East African Seafood Stew.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or red palm oil)
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 green bell peppers, chopped
1 yellow squash, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon curry powder
Salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
6 cups seafood or vegetable broth
1 cup Mom’s brand Special Marinara
1 cup coconut milk
2 pounds fish, skinless and boneless, cut into 1-inch chunks
Steamed white rice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
In a large, heavy pot like a Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the onions, carrots, celery, bell pepper, yellow squash and zucchini until soft, but not browned. Stir in the potato, garlic and curry powder for about one minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the broth, Mom’s sauce and coconut milk and cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add the fish and cook only until done, 8-10 minutes. Serve with rice and garnish with cilantro. Serves 6.