This is a question that is often asked by Australians who hear, often for the first time, that there is such a thing as African Cuisine. The next question people usually ask is, "Where does it come from?" That is, do the recipes originate from a country outside Africa, such as Asia (India), Middle East (Arabia), Europe, (from any of the European countries that colonized Africa) or South America? The food is assumed to have been influenced from somewhere outside the African continent. How could there be cuisine to talk about when people are starving over there?

Often customers in Afrik Cafe, the only restaurant in Sydney that offers authentic, exclusively African meals, are surprised by the exotic taste of the food and are tempted to make comments like, "I didn't know that African food was so tasty," or, "What kind of spices do you use?"

The good news is that Africa does have a myriad of foods indigenous to the continent, as do all other continents around the world. The food is as rich as the ancient cultures of Africa, having developed along with its history. When you realise that Africa is the birthplace of mankind, where cultivation and domestication of animals started, you begin to appreciate the tradition of its nutritious and tasty food.

Great civilizations that existed on the continent such as Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mali, Songhai; Ghana, Ashanti and Yoruba - to name a few - enhanced and diversified the African cuisine. In the movement and intermingling that occurs between peoples, other cultures have introduced some foods to parts of Africa, but it is good to remember that African food has been introduced to other continents too, including America, Asia and Europe.

The spin-off is that African food is highly nutritious and palatable. The old myth about Africans eating only staples such as yams, corn etc. is just as silly as saying Europeans eat just potatoes. However the relatively large amounts of starchy food eaten in Africa have been shown to be much healthier for the human body as opposed to the large amount of meat consumed, for example, in Australia. Certainly your bowels will perform better with fibre as roughage to work with. What better way to get it than from a variety of delicious staples rich in fibre and minerals.

There are a lot to choose from e.g. yams, cocoyam (taro), cassava (manioc), plantain, sweet potatoes, rice, corn and other starchy grains like millet and sorghum. Yams are root tubers with fleshy leaves that are highly nutritious and taste like spinach. Plantains are the starchy relatives of bananas, they come in different sizes, some five times the size of a banana. They have to be prepared before eating by boiling, roasting or frying. Cassava is used in various forms, two of which are the grated forms of 'gari' and 'couscous'.

The distinct feature of African cooking is the blending of meat, fish, vegetables, spices and natural flavourings into soup or stew which is then eaten with one or two starchy staples.

See recipes for Chicken Okra Soup (from Togo), and Fufu (from Ghana) in the Recipe section.

Tony Owusu-Ansah

DATE: January 1996

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