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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own