Here is a report on a few ring-bound or paperback cookbooks that came to attention because of their novelty or timely interest.
The Africa News Cookbook: African Cooking for Western Kitchens, edited by Tami Hultman, (African News Service: $12.95 ring-bound; $11.95 paperback, 166 pp., illustrated)
This timely book was written because "Africa's cuisine is as little known as its politics, its economies or its art," laments the blurb on the title page.
However, Africa's politics, which have been thrust upon the world of late, should inspire interest in the cuisine as well, and the cookbook is a good place to start, if only for a sampling of the many regional African cuisines.
Politics and food are linked with equal passion in the book, however. "The causes of current African poverty are debated in scholarly journals, international forums and in the media. Hunger in the 20th Century has been attributed to many causes: the colonial legacy, the scars of the slave trade, contemporary economic relations between a wealthy, industrialized Northern Hemisphere and a poor, commodity-producing south; a lack of education and know-how; discrimination against women; incompetent and corrupt governments, and, of course, to the weather, which may be influenced by such human interventions as the destruction of rain forests. But all observers agree that, whatever the reasons, there is a crisis."
The editors go on to implore readers to become part of the solution by taking some action. "One idea is to get access to a restaurant or community center and use the recipes in this book to prepare an African dinner to benefit famine victims."
The book is an amalgamation of recipes from various and sundry sources, both public library and private, such as the library of the American Women's Assn. of Rabat, Morocco, a book called "Good Tastes in Africa" by the African and Africa-Related Women's Assn. of the University of Illinois, and dozens more. The recipes, however, have been adapted to "present a consistency of style and approach," as well as to suit the American kitchen.
The Islamic-Arabic influence is undeniable in Northern African cuisines, with such dishes as the filled pastries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Cape Verde, whereas natural ingredients of the lands of the south dictate the essence of South African cuisines, with some influences from French, Italian and British colonizers, as well. India's influence is also apparent in curries, vegetable stews and flat breads featured in the book.
The African diet is naturally low-cost and healthful because it relies chiefly on complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and grains), with meat used as a supplement to the diet. Depending on the region, legumes and grains such as millet, rice and couscous; and fruits and vegetables, such as beans, corn, lentils, peas, cassava, tomato and soybeans are mainstays of the African diet.
However, spices, which brought spice traders to Africa 2,000 years before Portugal's Bartholomeu Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in quest of spices, play an important role in African cuisine, and you will find some familiar and not-so-familiar spices in the recipes. The editors provide a glossary of spices, including origins and uses of cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander, fenugreek and turmeric as well as the more familiar ginger, pepper, sesame, mint, cloves and cinnamon.
There is a chapter devoted solely to spices, sauces and condiments. A Berber hot pepper seasoning used by Ethiopians is a hot and spicy mixture containing cumin, cloves, cardamom, pepper, allspice, fenugreek seeds, dried and fresh chiles, ginger and turmeric. Piripiri is the Mozambique counterpart to Indian curry, and several curry mixtures, which are used throughout Africa, are provided.
Recipes for soups, snacks and appetizers, chicken, meat and fish cover many regions of Africa. Couscous from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania differ in style and savoriness. The Mauritanian couscous is made sweet with dates and raisins, whereas Algerian couscous is garnished with mint.
From countries bordering the oceans, there are interesting fish dishes using curries and chiles. From Ghana there is a fish dish cooked with tomatoes and chiles, and from Kenya one baked with curry. A pastry dish from Cape Verde is filled with tuna and chiles.
The vegetarian seeking new ideas for using vegetables will find unusual dishes from Namibia, Rwanda, Gabon, Kenya and Malawi among many others, using okra, carrots, plantains, greens and yams, the highly nutritious, fibrous root vegetable considered a staple of many African countries. There are West African yam balls, Burundi boiled plantains used as a base for meat or vegetables stews, sweet potato puffs, potato balls made with garbanzo bean flour, and legumes, such as beans with coconut milk, spiced red beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans with potatoes, spiced lentils and others.