The Power of African Food

The one common ingredient throughout African cooking? A sense of community and generous hospitality.

There’s a well in the Kalahari, up by the Namibian border, that the Bushmen visit seasonally. The archaeological record indicates that they have been coming here for more than 20,000 years. It was already ancient when the Pyramids were being built. The Bushmen come for the same reason every year: the availability of fruit and roots and migrating animals. To hunt with the Bushmen is to take part in the oldest continually practiced human occupation. We in the brick-and-tarmac bush forget—or have little reason to remember—that when we wander the well-worn trails of supermarket aisles, we are repeating a pattern that connects us to our most distant ancestors, digging in the sand with fire-hardened sticks for tubers. The Kalahari is the most marginal and self-protectively hard land. It doesn’t take to strangers. It isn’t generous or hospitable. It’s not twinned with Provence or Tuscany. Every mouthful of every meal is gained with rigor, patience and experience; a newcomer would starve here. A lifetime is too short to learn the combination to its larder, and the untrained quickly become lunch for something else.

The gathering bit of hunting and gathering is done by women and looks like a convivial but aimless wander by a group of ladies who are lost. It isn’t, and they aren’t. They know where they’re going. They will head for a particular tree on a particular day for a particular fruit before the giraffes or the bats get it. But as they wander, they are alert for the serendipity of a passing lizard, a medicinal leaf or a stick that would make a toothbrush. The women paint their faces with red minerals to protect from the sun and insects. Men do the hunting bit, with snares and bows and poison-tipped arrows. To the uninitiated they look like a group of mates going out to play golf. They chat and tease and stop to smoke. But they see a world of signs and tracks that are invisible to outsiders. The first time I went hunting with them, we were looking for springhares, unfeasibly cute little critters that were invented by Disney rather than God—half kangaroo, half chipmunk. A Bushman pulled one out of the ground, looked into its brimming, wide, dark eyes and snapped both its slender back legs. I asked why he’d done it. He laughed, toothless, and replied in a series of clicks, “The first rule of hunting is, never catch anything twice.” There is no sentiment here; sentimentality about nature comes with distance and disengagement. It is the indulgence of the occasional visitor.

Eating is a communal pleasure, a necessity. Everyone in the extended family clan eats together to make sure that food is fairly and evenly distributed for need, ability and status. Right across rural Africa, you’ll find this is still true. The hospitality to strangers is constant. A proud obligation. But the preparation of food is also a communal occupation. Women rarely cook on their own. There will always be daughters and cousins and aunts and in-laws and neighbors to prepare food with, to make the cornmeal for porridge, to peel and chop, the endless round of making food from scratch, with the addition of a few canned goods. The key to African cuisine is its collective nature; it is made for everyone by everyone. In all my travels through the continent, I have never been excluded from breakfast, lunch or dinner. Even if there was nothing more than a bowl of mielie-meal and some dirty water.

In hotels and cities—especially Cape Town and Nairobi—you can find the same international cuisine of pastas and pizza and fried chicken that you find everywhere else, but African food is often made by circumstances that are not in the control of the cook. The continent is a construct of colonialism. Apart from leaving contentious borders and combining antipathetic tribes, Europeans also left a basket of groceries that were imported to be cash crops or cheap feed, and these have radically altered the subsistence farming, husbandry and foraging that sustained most sub-Saharan Africans till the 19th century. From the chocolate of Côte d’Ivoire to the vines of the Cape, much of what Africans grow and eat is the heritage of colonialism. The staple carbohydrate for much of the continent is maize: mielie-meal, putu pap, ugali. Usually made as a porridge, it comes, of course, from America, as do the chiles and tomatoes that are the base paste of much African food.

From the mountains of Sudan to the high plateau of Madagascar, it is cattle that are not just the culinary center of nations but their social, fiscal and cultural heart. Some of the finest beef I have ever eaten was raised in Botswana, where the cows live in the Kalahari, competing with the antelope, zebras and giraffes for grazing, and are protected at night, in thorn stockades, by lonely cowboys. In West Africa, the combination of tomato, chile and onion finds its way into any number of dishes, like the ubiquitous jollof rice, which originated with the Wolof people. Because of the early trade with Arabia, farmers here cultivate spices for export, as well as plantains, pineapples and coffee and the yams that make fufu. Ghanaian food is particularly aromatic and loud. I especially enjoy the curried stew, made with flattened, salted cane rats. All over Africa, you will find termites that you eat like peanuts, and peanuts that colonists encouraged locals to grow, which, in Sierra Leone, they have turned into fantastic stews and sauces. Made with chiles, such a sauce is delicious on barbecued fish baked in banana leaves.

West Africans eat more vegetables and less red meat than their brothers in the east. The most singular cuisine in Africa comes from Ethiopia, the only country I’ve ever come across that has an indigenous staple carbohydrate almost entirely to itself: teff, small millet-like seeds that are soaked, semi-fermented, then baked into large, spongy circles that are a cross between a nappy and a crumpet. These are used as plates for intensely hot curries and sauces that are spectacularly good. You can find Ethiopian food all over East Africa but especially in Nairobi, where the profits of piracy set a very good table.

Ethiopia is the home of coffee. It has a coffee ceremony that begins with roasting the beans and ends with infusing the cup with incense. The Cape, in South Africa, has Cape Malay food, brought to Africa by Indonesian slaves from the Dutch East India Company. It is mixed with Boer dishes and indigenous ingredients and uses a great deal of spice. There’s bobotie, a sort of exotic shepherd’s pie; and bredie, a mutton stew; and the koeksister, a sort of fried doughnut flavored with spices and ginger.

Rural African food is both varied and familiar. You can eat nearly the same thing week after week, and much of it is the subsistence of the very poorest. It is usually made from a lot of canned, smoked and salted goods, because there is little refrigeration. But the greatest ingredient is not farmed or caught; it is family. Food is always shared, always eaten in noisy company. It’s what binds the deep, mystical sense of community and hospitality. No one in Africa cooks for one. To eat on your own would be to be starved of far more than food.

A.A. Gill is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of To America with Love, published by Simon & Schuster last July.