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COLUMNISTS

How often do you eat food from home?
By Ato Bob

Tell me what you eat, I'll tell you who you are. - Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French Lawyer & Gastronome, 1755-1826

 

Introduction

 

When last did you have your corn-fufu, yam-fufu or water-fufu, your ugali, ndole, or pâte rouge, your chapatti, jollof rice, kelewele or dodo, your ampesi or pumpuka, with akara or pofpof by the side? Did you savour your irio, wali na nazi, or pilau with kachumbari salad just last week? Are you planning to cook sukuma wiki or even injera with doro wat with sharp berbere and dabo kolo by the side or are you thinking of some kitfo? You may even have your bachelors’ meal, drinking garri with sugar while reading this article! But then there is also sese plantains or sese coco, bitterleaf or palaver soup and what to think of ogbono or okra with dried stock fish?  That’s not all of course, don’t forget about kenkey or the ‘one-finger-food’ the famous achu from Cameroon’s North-West province, waakye, the beans and rice from Ghana, banga soup from palmnuts, omo tuo, the rice balls, egusi soup, Nigerian afang soup, last but not least the various tsom or fasting food dishes from Ethiopia.

 

Yes these strange names are all dishes or delicacies from both West and East Africa, which are regularly prepared and eaten by African Diasporan families in Europe and elsewhere outside their home continent.

 

How to get it

 

The ingredients or foodstuff mentioned above to prepare those foreign sounding dishes does come from our great African continent, as many of the plants, shrubs, tubers or the like are not grown in the climate of the ‘Western hemishpere’. Some could be grown here, but it would not be commercially viable because of volume or artificial temperature of the greenhouse or hothouse. I know of a Surinam entrepreneur, who grows tropical vegetables in Ghana and ships them back to Holland, just because of this last factor.

 

Custom officers checking passengers from flights from Africa must be used to the bulging suitcases or bags, with all those strange smells from the packages of leaves, dried or smoked fish, flour and all sorts of ingredients. My container of Ghanaian frozen shito, showing up like a dark mass on the scanner, was probed with a small long stick for solid substances.

 

Bringing foodstuffs or food from home brings joy to those receiving you, eager for their share, but is a short time solution to satisfy the craving for African food.

 

For a more regular supply you have to go to the open markets of cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague etc, or look for an African shop or go to the nearest ‘toko’.  Toko means shop in Malaysian and stands in Holland for the shops driven mostly by Chinese, Vietnamese or Surinam, selling mostly foodstuff and articles from Asia and South America but nowadays from Africa too.

 

You may go to Afrifood, Aisha Investment or McFlora (Nigerian) in Amsterdam Zuidoost, to Marché Camair (Cameroonian) or Toko Sodiro in Rotterdam, to the African-Congolese Shop in Ede, or True Market at Hoefkade den Haag. You can also visit the Patosas Afrikaanse Shop & Toko in Nijmegen, the Afroshop Drachten, or Toko Melati in Groningen.  Then what about Afrikoko, Blessed Afroshop  Foreign shop or Kissi International Afroshop all in Gent, Belgium? These are just a few outlets for African foodstuffs.

 

For markets in Holland I am sure you are familiar with the Afrikaanderplein or Blaak markets in Rotterdam, the Dappermarkt, Albert Cuyp or Ganzenhoef markets in Amsterdam.

 

You could go to African Restaurants too, like the Axum, Abyssinia, Genet or Meskerem, all Ethiopian Restaurants in Amsterdam. There is the Kenyan Three Stones restaurant in The Hague, Djebena in Leiden and Roffel-Roffel in Lelystad. There also is Asmara Kunst, Kilimanjaro, Rendez Vous and Tjing Tjing in Amsterdam.

 

There are also quite few African catering companies, like Gold Coast from Almere, Ancha at Amsterdam Tandy in Den Hoorn, while most African restaurants can do catering as well.

 

How to prepare it

 

Most rural African kitchens still use firewood, charcoal or even dried cow dung, which makes regulating temperature for cooking a true art, obtained by experience and the heat resistant hands our African females seem to have. This also means that cooking, frying or baking time cannot be set in exactitudes like minutes. It reminds me of the eager to learn Dutch volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa asking my Cameroonian wife how long the fufu (ugali in Swahili) needed to be cooked. The simple answer ‘till it is done’ startled the volunteer, as she had to realize that its experience that makes the best cooks!

 

This may also be the reason why most packed African foodstuffs sold here do only have rudimentary instructions on it or none at all. On the other hand it is also a matter of lack of state of the art commercialisation. As it is still a matter of scarcity and lack of choice, imported packed African foodstuff hardly have attractive packages.

 

CBI, the Centre for the promotion of import from developing countries at Rotterdam assists African exporters to get their produce on the European market. They supply information about import regulations and train exporters to improve their sales, packaging and other techniques. See their page on food ingredients: http://www.cbi.eu/?pag=126&sector=9. There are some sites on the internet where recipes can be found featuring various dishes, like http://www.africanfoods.co.uk/african-food-recipes.html 

 

However I guess that most readers will cook at home and keep enjoying after eating the food as the smell often lingers. Moreover there will be more for the next or a later day as African cooking it not measured for those at the dinner table, but takes unexpected guests into account!

 

How to eat it

 

Now does that need mentioning? Isn’t it not hand to mouth, well just exactly as many African foods are eaten with your (right) hand, scooping up the sauce or soup with a piece of fufu, garri, kenkey, cassava, millet dough or injera. Using a spoon or worse, knife and fork, is in my opinion almost an insult to the food. Besides that you are cheating yourself as mashing the dough in your hand before dipping it in the sauce improves the taste!

 

Conclusion

 

It is said that African food is healthier, as it is less subjected to fertilizers chemicals, insecticides etc, but certainly also not entirely free from it. Some products are fumigated or otherwise treated to avoid tropical insects and the like trying to settle in Europe. Cassava mostly imported from South America is waxed to prevent it from drying out.

 

Now please don’t think that I am an expert in preparing African dishes from the more than half a dozen African countries I lived in for some years or travelled through frequently. Yes I am an expert, but then in enjoying the eating, savouring and tasting all those wonderful, delicious and mouth watering, African foods and delicacies. I have tasted all those foods and dishes or bites mentioned above and am looking forward to doing so as often as I can! I hope you will do so too!

 

*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on atobobhensen@hotmail.com































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