Does the "latitudinal theory" of culinary development explain why complex cuisine never really took off in sub-Saharan Africa? Plus, two new London restaurants to watchby Alex Renton / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Beef Wellington in the bush
Could African cuisine really be the next big thing in Britain? The London chef-proprietor Mourad Mazouz says so, but he made his reputation at Momo, a restaurant specialising in Moroccan cuisine, which is about as representative of Africa as New York deli food is of the Americas.
There are many theories as to why complex cookery did not take off in sub-Saharan Africa, away from the Arab-influenced coasts. None are entirely satisfactory. It used to be said that in pre-colonial African societies there was never a leisured class that could devote time, money or servants to the development of fine dining. But it seems unlikely that a civilisation that could build the slave trade-wealthy kingdoms of the Bight of Benin did not have the wherewithal to put together a fancy dinner.
A more plausible theory is based on the fact that cuisines seem to migrate along latitudes, or climatic belts. You can find, for example, some form of glutinous flour dried into strings or shapes—pasta or noodles—in most countries from the Mediterranean to the sea of Japan. But couscous, north Africa’s “pasta,” never made it even 200 miles south. It does seem that the food cultures of the more “vertical” continents are less complex: there are not many thrills in the native cuisines of the Americas, either.
In India and the far east, European colonists adapted and assimilated many local dishes. But not in Africa. Most Europeans never even sampled them: those who did generally said “yuk.” The African porridges based on maize, millet, yam, cassava and plantain were particularly scorned: a character in an Isak Dinesen novel describes the east African millet meal ugali as “fit only for Africans and pigs.” These carbohydrate stodges—fufu in west Africa; posho, nshima or mealie meal elsewhere—are the African staple. Their window-putty consistency makes them hard to take at first, but with a good stew and some piri-piri sauce, ugali goes down pretty well. And there are comparable staples in Europe—the Scots adventurers and missionaries who thrived in central Africa cannot have thought ugali so very alien.
I’ve only ever found one 19th-century explorer with anything positive to say about African porridges, and that was Richard Burton. In his Wanderings in West Africa (1863), he writes: “Fufu is composed of yam, plantain or cassava; it is peeled, boiled, pounded and made into…