When many people think of African cuisine, they associate it with images of starving children, and how on earth could such a hungry continent create anything of substance?
By Danai Nesta Kupemba
The greatest magic trick ever performed was colonialism, and the performance is still going on. Much of the world continues to be willing spectators, too lost in the illusion to understand that we are being conned, and Africa constantly and consistently gets the short end of the stick. This was evident on the Netflix cooking show Final Table which premiered in 2018 and consisted of 24 chefs from around the world who competed in teams of two. Each episode required the chefs to cook staple foods from countries around the world. The show covered Mexico, and the chefs battled it out to make the best taco dish. In one episode they did Italy, and they made their spin on the dish. In each episode, a different country came, and yet African cuisine remained ignored. No African country was represented on the show.
It is a glaring statement especially when the insinuation of Final Table is to find a world-class chef, who can prepare a variety of dishes, and yet not a single African country is represented. How can they be world-class when an entire continent is ignored? This speaks volumes. What this show is effectively saying is African cuisine isn’t as highly regarded as French, Japanese, or Brazilian food.
What colonialism did was convince people that Africa is barbaric, hungry, and backward. And so, if this discourse is perpetuated generation, after generation it becomes a “truth” in many minds. The magic trick continues. When many people think of food and Africa, they associate it with images of starving children, and how on earth could such a hungry continent create anything of substance? The constant propaganda regurgitated by Western media that Africa is a backward, starving, poverty-stricken nation has left little room for African cuisine to truly flourish in the way that other cuisines have.
The continent has always been plagued by ignorant assumptions from people who can hardly name five of its countries, or people who think all of Africa is a single country. Africa and Africans have borne the brunt of ridicule because of this for decades. The assumption that we are all poor, live in huts, or have lions for pets are all dangerous stereotypes people still claim as fact, in this day and age, even while Google is a click away. They have become comfortable in their lazy jokes, as the stereotypes give them a false sense of superiority.
Recently Aaliyah Jay, a popular make-up artist on YouTube, decided to participate in the “trying African food for the first-time challenge” which has been circulating on TikTok. The video consisted of Nigerian food; fufu, egusi, and okra. Aaliyah Jay went on to call the food “dog food.” Her boyfriend, who is in the video with her, spits out the fufu after eating it because he “can’t swallow it” they go so far as to say that the food will “stink up the crib.” The couple received immense backlash on Twitter and Aaliyah Jay has since apologized but the actions, attitude, and disrespect shown in the video she filmed, edited, and uploaded are a reflection of how the world and the mainstream food industry have regarded African cuisine.
For culinary schools situated in the West, it makes sense that they will want to uplift their own cuisine first. However, in South Africa, culinary schools still follow a colonial rule of thumb for their curriculum. Mpho Muleya, a 3rd year culinary student studying in Cape Town, says, “Our school doesn’t really teach African methods or techniques.” Mpho admitted that, although it was odd that a culinary school situated in Africa did not include African cuisine in the curriculum, she sees the bigger picture. “It’s useless to teach it because when I graduate, I can’t really do anything with it. It is easier to find work in the industry when you’ve studied French cuisine.”
This is the reality.
“I just don’t think African cuisine would be appreciated like the others. There is a huge generalization that African food is unruly and unrefined,” Mpho laments. However, they also feel like African cuisine is coming up. “All the chefs that are being produced in South Africa have the want and the need to bring African food to the mainstream…It is just going to take time.”
Some countries within Africa have succeeded in getting the spotlight from the mainstream, such as Nigeria due to having a large population of 206 million and a powerful diasporic presence in the world. They have managed to champion their dishes and have brought attention to many of their dishes, especially Jollof rice.
Lona Mngini, a qualified culinary chef, also attended culinary school in Cape Town. “Like it or not culinary schools will always pay homage or reference European cuisine,” they tell me. If culinary schools based in Africa are not taking action to address the colonial impacts on food, how will African cuisine flourish if we aren’t pushing our dishes and being proud of our culture?
“We do have chefs like Katlego Mlanmbo, Siba, and the late Dorah Sithole who are always pushing culinary to higher bounds and are constantly introducing African cuisine to the world,” she went on to say. “I think a little goes a long way and those chefs are always representing us and we definitely need more of them.”
If African cuisine is ever going to gain recognition, respect, and appreciation, it needs to start from within. We need to start pushing our own agenda on the continent. Africans need to recognize, respect, and appreciate our own food. There are Africans who look down on our staple foods in favor of western dishes, because of the deep-rooted unconscious bias caused by colonialism. It is going to be a long journey but we have to start from somewhere.
Danai Nesta Kupemba is a journalist and a storyteller. She believes in the power of words to bridge communities, and evoke compassion. Danai is passionate about contributing to post-colonial discourse, mental health, immigration and issues that affect sub-saharan Africa. She hopes that journalism will unite, heal and be a guiding light in creating spaces where people can meet at the intersection of understanding.
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