West African Cuisine
From the Cape to Cairo, travelers often marvel at the warmth with which they're received in Africa. My trips to the continent began with Dakar, Senegal, in 1972 to research Senegalese theater for my doctorate. When the friend I'd planned to go with canceled at the last minute, I found myself with my mother as a traveling companion. This proved a boon, as together we were able to demonstrate that African Americans share the same love of family that Africans cherish themselves.
As we journeyed down the western coast, we were astonished by the generosity of the people who welcomed us into their homes, and by the simple, delicious foods they fed us.
In the three decades since that initial visit, I have made more trips to West Africa than I can count; my African friends have now been a part of my extended international family for more than 20 years. Each time I get off the plane, I bask in that same warmth of hospitality and connection to family. It feels like home.
I like to share that feeling with my stateside friends, and I often entertain African-style in my own home. To set the stage, I play music that features the magical sounds of a Senegalese kora or the intoxicating rhythms of Yoruba drums, and I dress in traditional African garb. I make sure table settings are alive with color; wooden bowls and calabashes are piled high with vibrant fruit, which we'll eat later for dessert. The food is authentic, and always it's copious.
The communion over food and fun usually lasts well into the night. As they enjoy their meal, my friends inevitably comment on how such exotic flavors taste so hauntingly familiar. To those who ask for my secret, I smile and share what I've learned as the recipient of West African hospitality: Keep it simple, cook plenty, and offer what you have with an open hand and a giving heart.
Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Benin are three of my favorite West African countries. Here are my hints on how to evoke the exotic feel and create the (almost) familiar foods of these countries for your own friends and family.
Tiny Benin fascinates me because it is the ancestral home of many African Americans in Louisiana and other parts of the South. I've always been astonished that such a sliver of a country offers such expansiveness. Tradition demands that extravagant feasts be held for all of life's ceremonies; here I have celebrated weddings, baptisms, and religious festivals with the friends who have become my closest African family.
Cotonou, the country's major city, offers streets bustling with activity, and markets -- including the mother of them all, the Dan Tokpa -- offer everything from fruits and fabrics to car parts. On a smaller scale, restaurants, called maquis, are set up by women in their home kitchens. They serve clients seated at tables in courtyards or along the sandy roadsides.
My Beninoise meal tries to duplicate the warmth of the maquis. Brightly hued African batik prints are my tablecloth, and I serve on inexpensive enamel plates or plain white crockery. Tumblers and simple silverware complete the setting. The music ranges from the sounds of Benin native Angelique Kidjo to the Juju music of the late Fela Kuti from neighboring Nigeria.
Crunchy Vegetable Salad
Grilled Apple-Smoked Striped Bass
Tropical Fruit Salad
Senegal was formerly the pivot of French West Africa (I was lucky I spoke French when I arrived on its shores in the era before English was the international lingua franca). The country is a universe of contrasts; it bears the legacies of the great desert empires of Tekrur and Ghana, as well as the simple traditions of the nomadic Diola clans of the south. Senegal is more than 90 percent Muslim, and many people wear a boubou, a flowing garment made of brightly colored fabric. The unique combination of history and culture is intoxicating.
I've spent most of my time in the capital, Dakar, where my friends are fabulous hosts who make the Wolof word teranga -- which means welcome -- a reality. In Senegal, tradition dictates sitting on the floor and eating out of a communal bowl with your right hand. Guests are given soup spoons to use. The section in front of you is yours, and a careful hostess makes sure that the space is always filled with delicate tidbits.
Bring Senegal home by inviting your guests to sit on the floor. Place a cloth in an open spot, as you would for a picnic. Serve the chicken atop white rice in a large deep pan or basin, from which your guests can serve themselves. Make sure everyone has a small plate on which to put chicken bones, and offer tea towels or pieces of colorful African fabric as large napkins. To set a musical mood, check your record store for music from Youssou n'Dour or étoile de Dakar. Then sit back and allow yourself, like your guests, to be seduced by the tastes of lemons and chiles as you take time to dream of ancient civilizations.
Pan-Fried Fish Balls
Senegalese Lemon Chicken
The Côte d'Ivoire that I knew in the 1970s was a very different place from the battleground depicted in today's headlines. Then, fiercely proud of its recent independence, it was hailed as one of the continent's economic miracles. Its capital at the time, Abidjan, was the most sophisticated city on the West African coast, complete with a forward-looking middle class and enough multistory buildings for a skyline. The city hummed with the rhythms of international commerce and ancient ways; as businessmen made deals in hotel bars, open-air markets marked the change of seasons with piles of ripe purplish avocados, sugary pineapples, and delicate ginger flowers. This is the time and place I evoke when I serve Ivory Coast Chicken.
I like to combine worlds on my Ivorian table. Kente, the colorful king of African fabrics, graces the table with an overcloth of white damask. I fill my best crystal goblets with spiced juices and French wines, and use wooden plates and earthenware casseroles as serving vessels. The music is a mix of my favorite tunes of the moment: African, European, and American. As the plates are passed and filled with the chicken and rice, I like to ask my friends to take a minute to recall the glories of Abidjan's past and say a silent prayer for the Ivory Coast's future.
Ivory Coast Chicken
Gingered Pineapple Juice