Food & Drink: Africa's kitchens show their range: Joanna Blythman explores the cuisine of the continent and is impressed by the wide variety of flavours in its healthy foods

If all you know of African food is groundnut stew and famine, A Taste of Africa, a television series starting next month, will be a revelation. 'All that most people see of what Africans eat is images of starving masses. These are real, but Africa is not just about that,' says the programme's Ghanaian presenter, Dorinda Hafner. 'There are 52 countries in Africa, but we usually hear about only 10 of them.'

Ms Hafner bubbles over with enthusiasm for her subject. 'Ninety per cent of the programmes you see on Africa are presented by Caucasians,' she says. 'I thought that it was time for Africa to be represented by an African. I wanted to show the very positive Africa that I know, in contrast to all the depressing, disabling images.

'I'm passionate about African food. We have been made to feel that our food is primitive. But when you look at the continent's variety of foods and cooking styles - the contrast of east and west, through Arab- influenced north Africa to the totally different sub-Sahara - you appreciate that African cuisine is as skilled and sophisticated as any in the world.'

It is a convincing message that comes over vividly in the course of six programmes. Ms Hafner visits Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, Mali, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. She takes us to see mint tea being prepared in stately, Arabian Nights style in a Berber tent on the edge of the Sahara, and to eat the ubiquitous black-eyed-beans soul food at a fast-food restaurant in Accra.

We go out at night with the fishermen on Lake Kariba, who harvest the tiny silver kapenta which, smoked and dried, provide the protein in many a Zimbabwean meal. We see the matriarchal Ashanti women preparing aromatic spinach dip to garnish boiled root vegetables in a traditional shared kitchen; and the women of Moroccan oasis villages preparing airy flat breads in clay ovens. From the street hawkers at Harare bus station to a plate of pommes frites and freshly pressed orange juice in the Djemaa el Fna market in Marrakesh, it amounts to a series of fascinating snapshots of complex cooking and food production about which most non-Africans know nothing. It is all pounding, picking, cleaning, preparing, cooking on sunken fires and rough-and-ready barbecues, in mud ovens and battered aluminium pots.

Some of the food combinations are so different from anything we in Britain know that one cannot even begin to imagine how they taste. None the less, it makes you hungry. 'You can't generalise about African food,' Ms Hafner explains. 'It is very diverse. The only thing that is common all over - from couscous in Morocco through sorghum and millet in Mali to sadza (a thick porridge made from maize-like 'mealies') in Zimbabwe - is that it is high-fibre, and meat is always a small proportion of the whole, used more as a flavouring.

'All Africans insist on eating greens and fibre, but when we leave Africa, we become indoctrinated. We think that, to be civilised, we have to eat like Westerners. The irony is that most Africans have a better handle on healthy, nourishing eating than most Westerners. And we seem to get more pleasure from it.

'There is a sensuality in the way Africans relate to food. We love to smell food, to see what the smells evoke; we revel in texture. Most of all, we adore sharing it. And once we have eaten it, the aromas haunt us.'

The pleasure Africans get from the cultivation, selection, preparation and consumption of their food is brought home strikingly. Few British people would have a clue how to turn vegetables into a carbohydrate dish such as the West African fufu, which are starchy dumplings made from pounded and ground cassava, plantain, yams and fermented corn. This pounding and grinding is involved in many staple dishes. 'You have to work at food if it is to taste good,' sums up the attitude.

This basic filler will often be accompanied by a stew, such as the classic west African glutinous okra version. 'This is the kind of food you win wars with,' Ms Hafner jokes. 'It reminds me of the Organisation of African Unity: just about every nation represented in the form of vegetables.'

It is not everybody's idea of a safe dinner party dish. Chopped onions, small white eggplants and specific varieties of west African aromatic peppers are fried in palm oil. In go some fresh tomatoes, followed by ground ginger, powdered dried shrimp and herring, some animal skin (on the pork- rind principle), some halved soft-shell crabs, smoked tuna chunks (no bones) and finely sliced okra. And the whole caboodle is stewed in a gigantic aluminium soup pot.

'To taste authentic, it should thicken and form almost glutinous threads,' says Ms Hafner. A typical Ghanaian meal would comprise such a stew, fufu, some fried plantain and a seasoning of manioc (dry-roasted cassava).

African food preparation is a refreshing antidote to the dinner-party programmes that dominate our screens. Ms Hafner's locations include markets, farms, gardens, lakes, modest local restaurants and, best of all, African homes. Everywhere she goes, she picks out the local tastes and reflects on tribal influences.

In Zimbabwe, such vegetables as pumpkin, squash and rape dominate the diet of the Shona people - and every bit of the vegetables is considered edible. Farther south, among the Matabeles, meat - lightly seasoned then boiled, dry-roasted or just dried - forms a more important part of what is basically a hunter-gatherer diet; these days, however, goats and cattle have taken the place of big game.

Such food is still the order of the day throughout rural Africa, although Ms Hafner worries about the impact of Western food on the urban areas. 'All the big cities have their Wimpy bars and Chicken Inns. Go to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and you'll see young people drinking cans of Coke and eating Scotch eggs, because it is Western and therefore smart.' In Zimbabwe, she shows us the crocodile farms, aimed at tourists, where you can eat CrocCreole (deep- fried crocodile meat), and the steamboats on the Zambesi where white visitors seem to live on a diet of beef and more beef.

The series shows how Africa's food cultures blend with, or adapt to, alien influences. Malian cooking, for example, synthesises the north and west Sahara in strange dishes such as facoi: dates and spices of Arab tagines garnishing salt-fish. And this dialogue is overlaid by the French colonial baguette, mineral water and red wine. Tanzania offers the delights of the Indian-influenced spice island cooking in Zanzibar; and the cuisine of Chagga people on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, who can serve up a four-course meal based on bananas - washed down with banana wine.

One thread thoughout the series is the sustainability of indigenous food production. An obvious example is the staple west African palm tree, source of the rich, red oil that underpins most west African cuisine.

'It's an ecologist's dream,' says Ms Hafner. 'When the oil is extracted, we use the inner trunk to germinate mushrooms, the bark to make soap; we produce palm sugar, and palm sap that is made into gin or drunk fresh as wine; and we use the leaves for plates and to wrap up take-away food. Absolutely nothing is wasted.'

This economical and ecological approach to natural resources is something Africans seem to appreciate almost instinctively, and it expresses itself in the idea of food as medicine. Africans know that okra keeps you regular, ginger stops you farting, garlic is a natural antibiotic, pawpaw helps the digestion, and so on. 'My old mum used to tell me all this - it was part of our folklore, but people said it was old wives' tales,' says Ms Hafner. 'Now scientists are proving it was all correct.'

A Taste of Africa advocates that agricultural development should work within this traditional model, rather than blindly adopt 'advanced' technologies. Ms Hafner makes this point in relation to chicken. 'It is the caviar of Africa. We prefer older, free-range birds because we think they have more flavour. We call them 'professor chickens' because they are smart enough to have lasted that long. Battery farming is being introduced, but mercifully it is making slow progress.'

Without lecturing or hectoring, Ms Hafner challenges the crude cultural imperialism and implicit racism of the West's view of African food. For those of us whose progress expresses itself in a rising toll of diet-related diseases of affluence, a succession of agricultural scandals and environmental catastrophes, these programmes provide food for thought.

'A Taste of Africa', on six Wednesday evenings from 16 February, Channel 4.

(Photographs omitted)

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