Photo Credit: Brazzaville, Congo: forest of colorful umbrellas of the street market on Avenue de Djoué, Makélékélé - photo by M.Torres
Culture Through Food: An Explorer and a Chef Take on Africa
Three countries in 30 days. A 30th birthday treat of sorts, my partner (in crime) Chef Hiyaw Gebreyohannes and I were on a mission: to explore business, culture, and family ties in Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, and South Africa. What we’ve always known on our trips back home to the motherland (he’s originally from Ethiopia, and I’m an eclectic mix of Congo and Niger) is that you can’t escape the imposing theme of food in Africa, almost no matter where you go. This trip’s destinations were no different. Food is a focal point of culture and insight into the customs, flavors, and spice of the people themselves.
Stay with family, and you’re cornered into eating beyond your belly’s capacity. Abs, be gone. When we arrive in Addis, we find his aunt and cousin waving for us from the airport parking lot. The ride to their house is smooth. Minutes after setting our bags down and settling down on the living room couch, Tia Bekelu (“Tia” meaning aunt), the family’s live-in cook, emerges from the kitchen. Standing tall at 4 feet 9 inches, she wears the charm of an angel and the wit of a fox. “Are you hungry?” she asks in Amharic, a rhetorical question. And so, it began.
She disappears from sight and only emerges to go back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table as she fills the tabletop with steaming dishes. Ten dishes later, we take our seats. Years of Abyssinia restaurant take-out in Harlem prepared me for this moment.
Our feast consists of: injera, which is an Ethiopian flat bread made of teff flour. A standard in Habesha households, injera is spongy in texture, sourdough in taste, and light in weight. It’s a different kind of staple but an equally addicting carb. Tibs, a delicacy of cubed sautéed beef. Kitfo, minced raw beef marinated in chili powder. Shiro, ground chickpeas. I scoop some shiro with a generous piece of injera. Commonly known as the poor man’s food, shiro is rich in flavor and Hiyaw’s favorite.
As chef of Taste of Ethiopia, these home cooked meals are what inspired Chef Hiyaw Gebreyohannes’ culinary career, so now he’s in his element. After stuffing his own face, he turns to give me “gursha”, a handful of food delivered from his hand to my mouth from the heart. Ask anyone in Ethiopia and they’ll say a single gursha from one person to another means they care. Three, and it must be love. I learn in this moment that food is my love language.
After every meal during our time in Addis, we lean back on the couch with the family and sip miniature macchiatos as we rub our food babies. Coffee drinking (and production) is a longstanding tradition in Ethiopia. Story has it, the coffee plant coffea arabiaca was discovered by a 9th century goat herder when he saw how energized it made his flock. Until this day, Ethiopians huddle together sipping macchiatos, which is known as customary bonding.
Twelve days and er…maybe five pounds later, we fly over the Congo River and touch down in Brazzaville. We’re welcomed at the airport by my family this time. Aunts, cousins, nieces, and my sister chant their welcome home song as we pile in the taxi and make our way home.
Every morning my sister and unofficial set of aunties catch a local taxi to the city’s Grand Marché to purchase fresh produce for the evening’s dinner. We tag along, putting our foodie and chef hats on for the fun. Foot-and-a-half long plantains, piles of spices, cow tongues, and mounds of raw peanut butter, are what fill the grocery basket. Women vendors prod and probe to get the best deal for a bundle of spinach. Our nights in Brazza are filled with dozens of nieces and nephews playing hand-clapping games and giggling hysterically, aunties perched outside on plastic chairs, scolding them and gossiping family politics.
The food accompanying our Ethiopian journey was as follows: Injera , which is to Ethiopia as cassava is to Congo. And we ate lots of it. Manioc, or straight up cassava, is peeled, soaked, sliced, and boiled. Or, my guilty pleasure is foo foo: pounded into flour with a large wooden mortar and pestle, and ultimately, making its way into a stiff and dense doughy consistency. Foo foo is coupled with a saucy dish like peanut sauce with finely sliced cassava leaves, smoked fish straight from the Congo River, and emphatically juicy plantains. All meant to be eaten with your fingers, Congolese food is my favorite way of getting my hands dirty. (Traveler tip: Influenced by the presence of French expatriates, the pastries in Brazzaville are perfection. If you have a sweet tooth for dessert while in Brazza, check out La Madeleine.)
Four thousand miles south, Johannesburg is home for the last leg of our trip. Jo’burg is unlike Addis, and even more unlike Brazza in that it’s booming of modern esthetic, multiculturalism, and progressive food fusion. All this lends itself to an exciting foodie scene, showcased in the city’s bustling bazaars, from Arts on Main to Fourways Farmers Market to Neighborgoods Market. Stroll around any of these weekend events past the packed crowds and you can browse tables on tables of vendors selling food inspired from around the world: Cornbread with shredded chicken and salsa, paella and oysters, vegan tacos – you name it. The food culture is intense and makes for a mouth-watering culinary experience in the City of Gold.
On the flip side, South Africans are also proud of their native dishes. This includes: a standard plate of pap (grounded maize), chakalaka (spicy beans, tomatoes, and peppers, served cold), braai (assorted bbq meat), and spinach is served on any home-style menu. Go deeper into Soweto and bite into some bunny chow, a fast food dish of bread with a hole cut out the center and filled with curry. And somehow, all of this tastes better in front of a winning rugby match on screen.
We wrapped up the trip, mission accomplished. Addis, Brazza, and Jo’burg each offered their own “gout”, aroma, and comfort. To know international dishes is to know the world just a little more intimately.