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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
It's a sad fact that in many Western minds, Africa is more associated with famine than it is with food. Or, as Jessica B. Harris writes in The Africa Cookbook, with images of "National Geographic's bare-breasted maidens, Ubangis, and cannibal cooking pots." She suggests that we banish such misconceptions and inaccuracies and look for the reality, which is, of course, infinitely more complex. Part of that reality is a continent that is vastly diverse in every way, from geography to ethnicity to language and, not surprisingly, cuisine. Harris, author of such highly regarded cookbooks as The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking and A Kwanzaa Keepsake, has now taken on the potentially monumental task of exploring Africa's traditional foods. In The Africa Cookbook, she does not attempt to provide an exhaustive survey of the continent's many cuisines; instead she offers enticing glimpses of a wide variety of them through recipes, anecdotes from her own travels, and historical notes. She includes both dishes that fall into the category of simple home cooking and special-occasion feasts; in either case, this is highly appealing food.
Harris begins with a chapter of small dishes drawn mostly from street food, food that satisfies what she calls "a continent of nibblers." From Egyptian fried cheese to Nigerian bean fritters, South African roasted pumpkin seeds to Ghanian plantain crisps, they would make excellent hors d'oeuvres and appetizers. Later chapters cover salads and soups, including classics like Moroccan spiced carrot salad andlesswell-known but equally appealing dishes like Kenyan Avocado and Papaya Salad; vegetables from Ethiopian collard greens to complex Tunisian stews; and all kinds of meat and seafood, from spicy chicken skewers that originate in Nigeria to Moroccan lamb couscous. One of the most fascinating chapters focuses on condiments; these range from fiery Algerian harissa to a cooling cucumber sambal from South Africa to spice mixtures used to flavor peppery soups or to rub on grilled meat. The chapter on starches contains perhaps the most unfamiliar ingredients, drawing on African yams (light colored and starchy, unrelated to the orange tuber we more commonly think of as yams), plantains, cassava meal, and millet, although potatoes, rice, and couscous also make appearances. This is a fascinating cookbook that opens a window onto a poorly understood world — one that can perhaps be realized a bit more clearly by bringing its tastes into our own kitchens on the other side of the globe.