We are always exciting to learn of projects that help to increase Africa’s visibility in a positive way. One that we’ve been following for a while now, is the African Cookbook Project by Fran Osseo-Asare (Betumi Blog). The African Cookbook project was launched in 2007 during the TED Global conference in Tanzania. 7 years later, the project is still going strong with the book expected to be published in May next year.
We spoke with Mrs Osseo-Asare to learn a little bit about the project and her mission to put African food on the map.
When did you start Betumi blog?
In the late 1990s. I planned to write a print newsletter called BETUMI, but while working at Penn State as an instructional designer in Continuing and Distance Education, I realized the huge advantages of using the Internet. Despite no formal training in Web design, I bought a basic book and was able to put up a very simple Web page. That was before “blogging” began. I had a “journal section” on the website, and a “discussion forum.” It was wonderful when blogging began several years later—the whole process of posting, interacting, and tracking information became much easier. I still have the betumi.com website and domain name, and resources posted there. I’m working with a professional designer right now to get that site upgraded as soon as my current writing project is completed.
What sparked your interest in cooking African food?
I’ve always been attracted to “good food.” My mom, originally from Appalachia, was my first teacher. Though she never thought of cooking exotic “ethnic” dishes, (apart from maybe veal scallopini or tacos), she taught her three daughters to recognize fresh vegetables and fruits, and how to use quality ingredients.
My love affair with African food is a long story (partly covered in my 1977 book A New Land to Live In), but I went to Ghana for a year in 1971-2 by myself when my fiancé and I were trying to make a final decision about marrying, in the face of some strong parental resistance on my family’s side. Oh, we met while both undergraduates and the University of California in Berkeley.
So, I went to Ghana by myself (a huge leap since I’d only been on an airplane once before, and hadn’t even traveled much except from California to Oregon.) While I wanted to learn to prepare the foods he was raised on, what amazed me was how great the food was—fresh, fresh, fresh—seafood, vegetables, meat, poultry, fruit. It was filled with the lively spiciness and variety of peppers, an unexpected creaminess and comfort from soups and sauces thickened with pureed seeds and nuts, the tang from fermented grains and roots, the richness of coconut, and of red palm butter! You get the idea.
It was a wonderful discovery, but when I came back to the U.S. I ran headlong into a wall of indifference and ignorance (sprinkled liberally with unconscious racism) that sparked a fire in me and fed the flame until I had to speak out and share what I had learned. Plus, Africa is huge. There is always so much to learn from other parts of Ghana, West Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, the whole continent.
Do you have a culinary background?
No, I’m self-taught. But over the years I’ve ended up working and teaching with other culinary professionals, and now feel quite comfortable among trained chefs.
What is your favorite recipe to cook?
How can anyone answer that? It depends on my mood, the season, the location. For Ghanaian food, I’m partial to recipes using ripe plantains: tatale (ripe plantain pancakes), kelewele (deep-fried spicy plantain cubes), roasted ripe plantains and dry, roasted unstalted peanuts. . .
Do you have any any tips or tricks that you have learned along the way?
I’m sure everyone has many “tips” that they use unconsciously when cooking: Here are a few off the top of my head: I sometimes strain my Ghana-style “light” soups to get them the right consistency; I cut an avocado in half and then stab the seed with a knife to remove it; I peel ginger with the back of a spoon, crush garlic cloves with the back of a heavy knife to make it easier to peel them, sometimes hold a very hot cihili pepper with a fork to cut and deseed it, sometimes grate and freeze fresh ginger in ice cube trays . . .
The Africa Cookbook Project is an ongoing project that you have been involved in. Can you tell us more about the project and how it came about?
Cookbooks are an invaluable record of popular culture, social history, and culinary creativity. Culture is truly shared and honored through food, and important to one’s sense of identity.
However, partly because of an oral culture, and partly due to the interference of foreign countries in sub-Saharan Africa’s history, there has been little serious attention in the U.S. paid to accurately recording, preserving, and honoring Africa’s culinary legacies.
When I first lived in Ghana in 1971-72, Ghanaians scoffed at the idea of a woman needing to consult a book to learn how to cook, but I also found many Western-published cookbooks to be cursory/dismissive/wrong and dissatisfying in teaching me what I was trying to learn.
I had tasted Ghanaian cooking and knew it to be exciting and delicious. Something was missing. I broadened by search for Ghanaian culinary writing to that for other sub-Saharan countries, and continued to be dismayed at what I discovered. I also found that when Africans indigenous to a place did write about their own foods, they tended to have a better sense of how dishes “should” be prepared, while also recording external influences and social changes in the diet. Thus, years ago I began collecting cookbooks published in Africa whenever I could.
In Tanzania, in 2007, the TED conference gave me a platform to extend that interest and invite contributions from others, which led to an extensive collection: some of the books are simply pamphlets that have been put together by collections of people from missionaries, to expatriate wives of Africans, to African family and consumer science specialists, to other African culinary writers and teachers. They are important both because of the historical record and because some of the books themselves are in danger of disappearing due to external realities within countries. Also, traditional foods and preparation techniques can disappear in just a couple of generations, especially with the encroachment of multinational food companies seeking new markets, and with ideas of “modern” and status foods affecting people’s attitudes towards classic foods and preparation techniques. My dream is to find ways to digitize some of the older cookbooks and help make the information available to everyone now and in the future, while still maintaining the intellectual property rights of the authors.
Note: Betumi pronounced BAY-two-me is an Akan word meaning “can do.”
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