- Moyosore Odunfa| IG: @moyo_rb
Decolonise your palate.
How do I know your palate is colonised you ask?
Maybe because you relish the smell of stinky cheese and turn your nose up at the fragrance of iru or dawadawa. Maybe because you see pounded yam as a heavy meal, but mashed potatoes are fine. Maybe because shortbread is golden in your eyes and chin chin is an everyday thing. Maybe because instant noodles are a go-to for you because of how quick they are to make, but ogi is too much stress. Maybe because you would relish a midday donut as a snack, but akara is too oily. Maybe because your view of food is inherently tainted by the inferiority complex instilled by colonisation.
Let’s embark on a short History lesson. With the transatlantic slave trade, colonisation, and the way the world currently works, African food has historically been viewed as less than, while it's on the continent. Let’s take rice, for example, the African variety of rice oryza glaberrima was initially used to feed slaves on ships headed for the Americas. But it made its way inland as the slaves tried to preserve their culture and food memories. When the plant was discovered as hearty and delicious, it became a cash crop called Carolina gold which made the USA a lot of money for many years. Yet, as Carolina gold rice grew in popularity as a product from the US, other forms of African rice were not given the same accolades and value in the world market. If Carolina gold was so delicious and valuable, why didn’t the world seek for more African rice? Why do most African countries, even those in the grain coast i.e. Senegambia still import Asian rice?
Let’s talk about the palm oil argument. I’m sure you’ve seen posts, videos, and adverts discussing how healthy or unhealthy palm oil is, there are many opinions. The palm fruit is native to West Africa and it can be made into a variety of products such as oil which is used in a variety of dishes, from soups and stews to beans and rice dishes and pulp which is used to make soaps, and chaff which is used to smoke food and light fires. During colonial times, palm oil was a commodity used in a variety of ways by the British empire, from production of soaps like palmolive to margarines and machine lubricants. They also exported it to their other colonies such as Malaysia. Malaysians did not like palm oil. For people who are used to clear and easily flowing oils, the bright red, viscous palm oil was a shock to say the least. To encourage consumption of palm oil, it was bleached and deodorised to produce a clear, free flowing oil. All's well that ends well, right? Nope. As palm oil became more ‘attractive’ to those raised outside of West Africa, the industry exploded. Due to its cheap nature, palm oil was substituted for vegetable oil in many recipes and production processes. Due to the rising demand for palm oil, forests and bushes were cut down to increase production which damaged the habitats of many endangered animals. Thus started the palm oil argument. Which has nothing to do with the intended and indigenous use of palm oil, but how it has been exploited. Yet, palm oil continues to be demonised for its part in deforestation and its proposedly high saturated fat content.
Let’s talk about ‘slimy’ food. Many cultures eat foods of different textures, some have noticeable mucilage, like okra for example. There are cooking methods that encourage and others that inhibit the slime, so the meal can be enjoyed according to the eater’s preference. In West African cuisine, mucilage is celebrated, from elastic seafood okra soup to golden brown ogbono (native mango seed) soup, to ewedu (jute leaves) soup, components like Kaun or cooking potash are added to increase the mucilage. Yet, this same mucilage is looked at with disdain by many, these soups and stews are viewed as messy and undesirable due to their ‘slime’. Even those to whom these dishes belong might view them as too much for certain occasions, too smelly for corporate events, or too messy for formal dinners. This further perpetuates an inferiority complex, that our foods should be enjoyed only in secret.
From my perspective, the truth is, culture is diverse and there will always be clashes in the tastes and preferences of different people. But, you can’t take from me and then pretend that what I have is bad and what you have is excellent. Preferences are fine, but systematic bias is not. Why can’t African food be treated like all other ethnic cuisines? I.e. innocent until proven guilty? Why do people assume it will be too spicy, too slimy, too starchy, laden with some sort of suffering. There is great bounty on the African continent, with 60% of the world’s arable land and a great variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, grains and tubers that most of the world is yet to explore. However, I want you to know that news headlines do not dictate the flavour of our food, and the unrest that exists today cannot unwrite many generations of closeness to the land and intuition of the hands to tend to and prepare delicious food, based on local cultures of celebration, enjoyment and migration. Slavery and colonisation cannot erase that. The food of the African continent is rich, diverse and deserves a place on your palate, without the preconceived notions of colonisation. So, decolonise your palate, approach authentic African food, maybe the kind that you’ve heard about and thought ‘eww’, the beauty of it might just surprise you.
“The enemies of Africa wish to persuade the world that five out of the six thousand years that the world has existed, Africa has always been sunk in barbarism, and that ignorance is essential to the nature of her inhabitants. Have they forgotten that Africa was the cradle of the arts and sciences? If they pretend to forget this, it becomes our duty to remind them of it.”
- Baron De Vastey, African Haitian, writer, 1817
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