The best cookbooks for those who want to learn more about under-celebrated African cuisine

A few suggestions to dive into what The Groundnut Cookbook describes as “some of the best food on the planet”.

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I own several thousand cookbooks. They line the narrow hallway of my flat, which means that anyone who comes in or out has to tuck in their elbows to avoid triggering a papery avalanche. Yet during a recent reorganisation I realised I had more books on the food of Morocco than the rest of Africa put together. Cook and writer Zoe Adjonyoh describes it as “the last continent of relatively unexplored food in the mainstream domain” in her book, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.

Despite the diversity of our hospitality workforce, African (and indeed Caribbean) cuisine is still too often dismissed as of only “niche” interest in the UK. Melissa Thompson, founder of food and recipe project Fowl Mouths, points out the scarcity of reviews of African or Caribbean restaurants in the British press, and notes that in one of the few, of Stamford Hill’s Roti Stop, the Times’s Giles Coren included a joke about stabbing.

It’s a chicken and egg situation, as the British-Nigerian chef Lopè Ariyo observes. Though African ingredients are increasingly available “they’re not bought as much as they might be because there’s little understanding of how to use [them]” – and too many editors see this as an excuse to steer clear. Here are a few suggestions for those interested in diving into what The Groundnut Cookbook describes as “some of the best food on the planet”.

Let’s start with that book, named for the supper club set up by three young Londoners, Duval Timothy, Jacob Fodio Todd and Folayemi Brown, to share the food of their childhoods. Between them they have family in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Sudan, all cuisines represented in the nine menus.

Ariyo’s Hibiscus, meanwhile, concentrates on the cuisine of Nigeria, and starts with a helpful glossary of ingredients. Longthroat Memoirs, Yemisi Aribisala’s glorious collection of essays, offers more context on Nigeria’s rich food culture.

The chef Yohanis Gebreyesus travelled all over his native country for the TV show Ethiopia, and his book of the same name celebrates its culinary diversity. “Learning from one another,” he writes hopefully in the introduction, “can provide a healthier, globally abundant and tastier world for us all.” Though all of these books make much use of grains and vegetables, Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan reworks recipes from the African diaspora for a plant-based diet, as does Rachel Ama’s Vegan Eats.

Caribbean cooking may feel more familiar to many – but if all you know of it is what Trinidadian-born Shivi Ramoutar calls “stereotypical jerk chicken, rice and peas”, you need to educate yourself. As well as the familiar face of Ainsley Harriott in his Caribbean Kitchen, there’s Ramoutar’s Caribbean Modern, Craig and Shaun McAnuff’s Original Flava and Vanessa Bolosier’s Creole Kitchen, which explores the distinctive flavours of the French Caribbean.

Authors with African and Caribbean heritage shouldn’t be pigeonholed into writing about it (Ramoutar’s latest book, The Ice Kitchen, is on getting the most out of your freezer), yet they’re under-represented in every area of food media. Jimi Famurewa, named restaurant writer of the year by the Guild of Food Writers, is also Britain’s first and only black newspaper food critic. There’s a long way to go. But sharing food seems a good place to start. 

Update: An earlier version of this article contained inaccurate information about restaurant reviews in the British press, including the claim that Giles Coren opened his review of Roti Stop with a joke about stabbing. This has been amended.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football

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