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Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent

Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent

by Jessica B. Harris

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This one-of-a-kind culinary and cultural tour through the cuisines of Africa features more than 200 traditional and contemporary recipes collected from home kitchens across the continent.


This one-of-a-kind culinary and cultural tour through the cuisines of Africa features more than 200 traditional and contemporary recipes collected from home kitchens across the continent.

Editorial Reviews

The 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.

From the Publisher
"I like the way Jessica Harris thinks, I very much like the way she writes, and I am a great admirer of the way she cooks. This book is valuable to all thinking, writing cooks."
—Maya Angelou

"Ms. Harris dares the reader to confront preconceptions about the continent...the clearly written recipes...are extremely user-friendly."
—The New York Times

"Harris is an entertaining and informative writer who has traveled throughout Africa for three decades, and this book is worth the price for her narrative alone." --The Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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Read an Excerpt

African Attitudes: An Introduction

Africa! The mother country, that was my destination. I had traveled before -- Europe had seen my black face several times, in fact -- but this trip was something quite different: I was going home. I cannot claim to have thought of Africa that way all my life. In fact, I was a recent convert to nationalism and pan-Africanism. My new identification was something of which I was doubly proud. I wore it like a flag. This trip was a confirmation of all that I looked for.

The excitement of the trip was by far overshadowed by the knowledge that I was going to a home that I had never seen and to relatives who had never seen me. We didn't even know of each other's existence. Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal -- all were places that were as familiar to me as dreams, yet far and forbidding in reality. The towns on the itinerary that I had chosen unfurled like a banner that held all my history: Accra, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Cotonou, Bamako. I was going home, home, home, home.

So I wrote in the summer of 1972 with all the enthusiasm of the twenty-four-year-old that I was. I have been returning to Africa with the same wonder and excitement for almost three decades. It is a place like no other. While I can look back now at the musings of my youth and smile at the naïveté that I displayed about the continent and myself, I also marvel at the accuracy of my observations. Africa is, was, and will always be home to me.

My African home is a continent made up of hundreds of ethnic groups. It is a continent of such vast geographical diversity that no one can claim to truly understand the whole. Despite allthat, we all labor under a burden of misconceptions, trite inaccuracies, fanciful inventions, and just plain lies about the continent where man was born. Africa is dark indeed, not from any malevolence of its own but rather from our own ignorance. No continent has a longer record of continual unflattering images in the history of the modern world. So let's begin our culinary journey by ridding our minds of the negative elements that today's headlines and yesterday's news broadcasts have imprinted on our collective memory banks.

Banish the photographic images of babies with begging bowls and Bokassas crowning themselves. Delete the pictures of warring nations and despots with their diamonds. Eliminate the dissension and contention left in the wake of colonialism. Forget about National Geographic's bare-breasted maidens, Ubangis, and cannibal cooking pots. While we're at it, eradicate the concept of the "noble savage" and the idea of the slave trade being an issue that can be defined in black and white. Remove all notion of the legendary kingdom of Punt, where the Egyptians traded for spices, and while we're at it, let's also leave out King Solomon's Mines, The African Queen, the Marx Brothers' Dr. Spaulding, The African Explorer, Tarzan, Sheena, and yes...George of the Jungle.

Too many of us still tend to regard Africa as a country. It may come as a brutal shock to realize that the African landmass is three times the size of Europe and four times that of the United States. Madagascar, which is a part of Africa, is the fourth-largest island in the world. Too many folk still talk about people speaking African, ignoring the fact that over 1,000 different languages are spoken on this continent that comprises many worlds.

Much like the story of the blind man and the elephant, those who visit different areas of Africa return home with different tales of the "part" that they have touched. It is a continent with many doors, many different points of entry into a world that is wondrous and strange.

Travelers who visit capital cities like Nairobi, Capetown, Abidjan, and Dar es Salaam return home with tales of an Africa where the sophisticated badinage of the drawing rooms of the mondaine is larded with discussions of art shows in London's Chelsea, Paris's Rive Gauche, or New York's SoHo and interspersed with references to stock markets in London and Tokyo. If they head to Lagos, Nigeria, or Cotonou, Benin, they return with tales of traffic jams and go-slows, of people wearing designer agbadas that match the car being driven that day, of weddings where the bride makes three or four complete changes, from dress to jewels -- white with diamonds, pink with rubies, and blue with sapphires -- where the best dancers at the reception are rewarded with Niara or CFA or Cedis plastered to their sweating brows.

Others travel to game parks and return with tales of an Africa that looks as though it might have appeared the day after God rested. They tell of a vast and unspoiled land whose beauty is so staggering as to be truly indescribable. Some will talk of the ancient marvel of pyramids, the haunting silence of the stone ruins at Greater Zimbabwe, the thatched great palace gate at Ketou in Benin, or the Roman ruins at Volubilis in Morocco. Still others describe vast dunes and profound lagoons, dense rain forests and sun-dappled vineyards. Some will not be able to see beyond the poverty and the problems, while others will discover a continent of myriad opportunities for growth and betterment.

Africa is a continent that can leave no one indifferent and where everyone will find at least one thing to his or her taste. It is where the exotic meets the ordinary, a place that is at the same time strange and familiar. Africa, with all its conflicting images, is a continent of diversity, and nowhere is this diversity better expressed than in the Africa that is a continent of cuisines.

Over the years, I've explored these cuisines, unconsciously (as a traveler who loves to eat) and consciously (as a food historian and cookbook writer). My sojourns on the continent have taken me from north to south, east to west. I've ridden on the back of a motorbike from the Hilton hotel deep into the souks of the Chellah in Rabat in search of spices and eaten blood sausage in the open market in Kenya on a dare. I've sipped champagne served by white-gloved servants in the homes of high government officials in C&244;te d'Ivoire, been served cool water in a chipped enamel basin by tattooed co-wives in Benin. I've danced to high-life music under the stars in Accra and sipped innumerable Flag, and Stork, Star, and Tusker beers. In Kenya, I saw the Indian Ocean for the first time with an old man who had never been there and ate biryanis and curries and marveled at the cultural mix that is Mombasa. I've had dinner with the Virgin Mary, as you will see later, eaten in a tent, and placed my hand in the communal bowl in too many countries to note. I've slept in fancy hotels and dined under the stars in the bush.

I cannot claim to know Africa, but I can claim to have eaten in all of its cardinal points. I cannot claim expertise, but I admit, indeed crow, about my extended African circle of friends who have become the matrix of my overseas family. Berber and Bantu, Fon and Falasha, Afrikaner and Akan all sit down at my African table, along with the descendants of Europeans, Indians, Malaysians, Lebanese, and those who share ancestral blood with the enslaved sons and daughters of the continent who have returned home from Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States. In short, in the more than a quarter of a century that I have been visiting Africa since I first wrote of going home in 1972, I have become a part of this continent that fascinates and attracts me as much now as it did then. My Africa is a continent of ancient history and profound spirituality: a continent of madness and marvels, where the past walks side by side with the present and both show the way to the future. It is a continent of history and culture, of music and science, of art and imagination, and yes, of cuisine.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris

Out of the Dark: Traditional African Diets and Modern Health

The African continent has long been dubbed the Dark Continent. Needless to say, this appellation is incorrect. More appropriately, the landmass where man originated should be baptized the "Continent About Which We Are in the Dark." Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of food. I recently taught a master's-level course on international cuisine at a major university. On the first day of class, I asked my students what they knew about the food of the African continent. They dithered at first, arguing that they didn't know anything about the continent's food. I gently challenged them, and finally they came up with "Very hot," "Really spicy," "Soupy stuff." That was it. No more from these food and nutrition scholars. Finally, one bright student added, "Couscous." There was no more, not even from the student whose parents were Egyptian. She thought I meant only sub-Saharan Africa and didn't realize that her Sephardic Jewish cuisine was also a part of the diverse culinary heritage of the continent.

Nothing could have brought Africa's place in the culinary world more startlingly home. It's easy to see that African food has gotten a bad rap. With the awareness of the food of the continent at such a low level, it's only natural that there is no thought at all to the healthful aspects of the diet. When African food is brought up, people's minds turn more to palm oil and hot chiles, mucilaginous soupy stews, and mystery meats than to appetizing healthful dishes. Certainly, all those things can be found in the diet of the continent, but along with them, there's more, so very, very much more. There's spit-roasted lamb and an infinite number of couscous dishes prepared from hard wheat and millet. The bounty of the vast coastline is served baked, stewed, and fried and can range from grilled sardines to fish curries. The continent's touch with spicing and the spices that inspired this talent were legendary before Columbus sailed westward. If that's not enough, the hands in hues ranging from saffron through cinnamon to deep, dark chocolate that have stirred the continent's pots for millennia are acknowledged virtually worldwide as gifted in the art of food preparation. Think of the enslaved cooks of the so-called New World. From the south of France to South Brooklyn, much of what we eat daily has been inspired by the food of Africa.

The diet of the continent is arguably at the origin of the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet; after all, the Mediterranean, after it was the mare nostrum of the Romans, was a Moorish sea for several centuries. Think of the paradigms. As in the Mediterranean diet, meat is not the centerpiece of the plate but rather a taste-enhancing addition to the vegetable-rich main courses. Think of the couscous of Morocco or the thiebou dienn of Senegal. Grains are consumed in abundance. Think of the millet couscous of Mali or the rice that goes under the main dish in much of Sierra Leone. Think of all the starchy mashes prepared from corn and millet in many parts of the continent. Corn from the Americas has pre-eminence in South Africa as mealie, but it also turns up in the fermented starches of West Africa. The continent can even boast grains of its own, like Ethiopia's teff. In other areas of the continent, mashes prepared from tubers replace grains and provide a starch base for the meal. And the paradigm of a soupy stew over a mash applies to dishes north, central, and south, ranging from the tajines of Morocco to the groundnut stews of Ghana to the curries of the east and south.

The ingredients of the continent's cooking themselves are not only rich in taste but also rich in nutrition. Garlic, which flavors many pots and was used extensively by the ancient Egyptians, may lower blood cholesterol. The leafy greens that go into pots from Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire are rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C. They are also a good source of fiber and of minerals like iron and calcium. Legumes like black-eyed peas and the fava beans that are the basis of Egypt's ful are some of the best plant sources of protein and some of the oldest agricultural crops in the world. When they are mixed with rice or other grains, as they are in many dishes, the result is almost perfect in terms of nutrition. Millet, one of the world's oldest grains, has been used on the continent for millennia. The rice that turns up on many American tables actually arrived in South Carolina from Madagascar and was cultivated with African know-how.

The okra that flavors much of the cooking of the continent is rich in vitamin C as well as in folic acid and other B vitamins and is a good source of dietary fiber. Chiles have been found to aid digestion and act as a natural thermostat in the torrid zones by making individuals sweat, thereby lowering their body temperatures. They are also rich in vitamin C and some are good sources of beta-carotene. Beyond the temperate zones of the northern and southern ends of the continent, sugar is used sparingly, and the taste for things sweet is satisfied with fresh fruits. Watermelon not only provides a good source of potassium and vitamin C but offers liquid as well. Salt is not the villain that it is in many other parts of the world, because it is traditionally used sparingly as the precious substance it once was.

The sidebars of the Mediterranean diet pyramid are two notations indicating that exercise and wine in moderation may also form part of this much-vaunted diet. For those who live traditional lives on the continent, exercise of the pumping-iron, aerobic type is laughable. Exercise is gained simply in the daily going about the business of living -- pounding grain in mortars and carrying water, and more.

But with increasing Westernization, the traditional diet is being changed, as it is throughout the world. Animal protein is becoming a large part of the meal, along with the empty calories of foods that are packaged and prepared when compared with those that are caringly cultivated. Nutritionists, though, are looking at ways to adapt traditional tastes and ingredients to modern lifestyles. One thing that needs no adaptation is the incalculable role played by the commensality of food. The sharing of meals and the communing with friends and family across bloodlines and generations that takes place at the tables of the continent every day is perhaps the healthiest aspect of the African diet and indeed the easiest to duplicate on this side of the Atlantic in our own homes.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris



Although the brik seems to have originated in Tunisia, where it is one of the classic appetizers, it has migrated to parts of eastern Algeria on the Tunisian border. There, the dough used is not the semolina-based ouarka (warka) of the Tunisian brik and Moroccan bastilla, but rather one that is similar to the filo or phyllo dough that I use here.


Vegetable oil for deep frying

1/2 mushrooms, sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 small onion, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 teaspoons flour

12 sheets of filo

Heat the vegetable oil for deep frying in a heavy Dutch oven or deep fryer to 375 degrees. While the vegetable oil is heating, sauté the mushrooms, garlic, and onion in the olive oil in a heavy skillet for 15 minutes. When the mushroom mixture is cooked, add the parsley and seasonings, place the mixture in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until puréed. Stir the flour into the purée to thicken it, being sure that it is well mixed. Separate the filo into sheets, place a tablespoon of the brik mixture on a sheet, and fold it into a packet 4 by 5 inches. Fry the packets for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown, in the vegetable oil. Drain on absorbent paper and serve warm as an appetizer.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris



This tajine is reserved for special occasions like breaking the fast during Ramadan. It brings together the richness of lamb, the sweetness of prunes, and the tastes of cinnamon, saffron, and rosewater in a dense stew.


1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, minced

2 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon saffron

1 cup water

1 pound pitted prunes

1/2 cup dark raisins

3 tablespoons sugar

1 3-inch piece cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon rosewater

1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds

1/2 cup toasted almonds

Heat the butter and oil in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion, lamb, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and saffron. Cook for 5 minutes over medium beat, stirring so that the lamb is browned. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat, and cook for 1 hour, or until the lamb is tender.

While the lamb is cooking, soak the prunes and raisins in water to cover for 20 minutes. Transfer them with the soaking water to a small saucepan, add the sugar and cinnamon, and simmer for 10 minutes.

When the meat is done, remove the cinnamon stick and add the prunes and raisins to the cooked lamb. Mound the dish in a tajine or on a serving platter, drizzle the rosewater on top, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and toasted almonds. Serve hot.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris



Couscous is the quintessential North African starch. It is not a grain but a pasta, traditionally made by rolling it into small pellets of differing size and drying it in the sun. Today, couscous is made in factories. But artisanal couscous is still made in many places and is much prized by connoisseurs. There are many brands of couscous. Some can be prepared by simply adding water. The taste of these brands as opposed to that of a true steamed couscous is indescribable. Learn how to prepare this simple North African staple; it requires very little special equipment. Later you may find that you want a couscoussière, but you can make do with a sieve, some cheesecloth or a clean dish towel, and a saucepan that will fit under the sieve.

2 pounds couscous

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups water

1 tablespoon butter

2 branches fresh thyme

1/2 cup dark raisins, plumped

Pour the couscous into a large plate. Rub your hands with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and rub the couscous through your hands so that each pellet is covered with the oil. Drizzle on 2 cups of the water, continuing to roll the couscous, separating the grains to aerate them and remove any clumps. Allow the couscous to rest for 15 minutes, then repeat the process with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. After the couscous has rested for the second time, place it in a sieve on top of a saucepan, or in the top part of a couscoussière. Wrap the join with a clean dish towel and steam the couscous, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Usually the couscous is cooked atop the bubbling stew that will be served over it. This impregnates the couscous with its flavors. If there is no stew, fill the saucepan with water and cook the couscous. When it is cooked, spread the couscous on a platter and allow it to cool. Sprinkle it with the remaining 1 cup of water and fluff the pellets with a fork. Replace the couscous in the sieve and steam for an additional 10 minutes.

When ready to serve, melt the butter with the thyme, skim off the milk solids, and pour the butter over the couscous. Add the raisins, fluff with a fork, and serve mounded on a heated platter.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris



While dates are eaten either whole or pitted, folk often fancy them up a bit. They may appear on dessert tables stuffed with almond paste, like these dates from the pied noir of Algeria.


2 dozen medjool dates

2/3 cup marzipan

1 or 2 drops green food coloring

Select 2 dozen of the fattest, firmest medjool dates you can find. Slit them down one side and remove the pit. Mix the marzipan with the food coloring in a small bowl; the color should be a dark, not a pastel, green. Stuff each date with the marzipan, allowing some to show through the slit. Arrange the dates on a platter and serve.

Copyright © 1998 by Jessica B. Harris

Meet the Author

Jessica B. Harris is one of a handful of African Americans who have achieved prominence in the culinary world. She holds a PhD from NYU, teaches English at Queens College, and lectures internationally. The author of the memoir My Soul Looks Back as well as twelve cookbooks, her articles have appeared in Vogue, Food & Wine, Essence, and The New Yorker, among other publications; she has made numerous television and radio appearances and has been profiled in The New York Times. Considered one of the preeminent scholars of the food of the African Diaspora, Harris has been inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America, received an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University, holds awards from sources too numerous to note, and recently helped the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture to conceptualize its cafeteria.

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