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BOOK REVIEWS : In Search of the Great African Cookbook : The African Cookbook, By Bea Sandler ; (Citadel Press: $12.95; paperback; 232 pp.) : A Taste of Africa, By Dorina Hafner ; (Ten Speed Press: $24.95; 160 pp.)

July 29, 1993|ANNE MENDELSON

Smart cookbook buyers live for the small fraction of capable, honest, well-planned works shining out amid the other 90% or 95%. Here and there are people with something to say and the ability to say it. And then there is the rest.

In the early 1970s, a brief flurry of African cookbooks appeared, some quite ambitious, promising to form a solid future addition to international cookbook literature. Somehow this never happened. The vogue went flat for a while. I'm willing to bet it wouldn't have been revived if Africans and African-descended people hadn't started coming to this country in big numbers in the late '80s.

The newly reissued "The African Cookbook" (first published in 1970) belonged to the early wave of African works. When it first came out, the roughly 200 recipes with suggested menus (preceded by descriptions of dining customs) from about a dozen nations offered a glamorous trek into the unknown. But today the effect is hardly the same.

The author, the late Bea Sandler, readily accepted as "African" some things like "jungle dressing" for salad (coconut seems to supply the requisite junglesomeness) and touristy ice cream parfaits that put one in mind of "Irish" pubs dyeing the beer suds green on St. Patrick's Day. She also seemed more interested in turning out streamlined Americanizations than in understanding African ingredients and cooking methods. Lacings of hot peppers were regularly softened into a sprinkle of cayenne; apparently unfamiliar with flame-roasted green peppers, Sandler noted them as a curiosity. Packaged convenience ingredients turned up everywhere, with no discussion of how well they matched originals. Readers of this book also faced a somewhat peculiar recipe-format and directions that could mystify (how do you beat fresh ginger "to a powder?").

Any author dusting off a work like this 23 years later surely would want to acknowledge new developments and fix old shortcomings. It's a shame that Citadel Press didn't try to do this. Today's readers could well have used an index, a few obvious updates such as "Zaire" for "the Congo," and especially a nod to the new immigrants who have brought so many foods into the ken of black and white cooks. Does a guide to African cuisines really have to be full of clumsy substitutes in 1993, when millions of us can buy tiny blazing "bird peppers," palm oil, dried shrimp, manioc, taro and true African yams (which Sandler seemed to think interchangeable with American sweet potatoes)?

Although not an ideal candidate for anyone's first book on the subject, "The African Cookbook" could find a place on the bookshelves of people with the time and skill to choose recipes that appeal to them and cook by comparing versions in several cookbooks. The same is partly true of a better-planned recent book, Dorina Hafner's "A Taste of Africa." The Ghanaian-born author, founder of an African dance company in Australia, has had the penetrating idea of dividing her coverage among 10 African nations (scattered around the continent, with north-of-the-Equator coastal lands getting most attention) and a handful of other areas shaped by the African slave trade, including Brazil, parts of the Caribbean and New Orleans.

This plan in itself suggests a greater insight into the word "African" and puts one on the alert to notice culinary connections and influences. Plainly Hafner and the Australian publishing team she worked with are interested in deeper, more systematic understanding than Sandler was. The chosen regions are introduced with maps and tables of relevant facts such as important crops (locally consumed or for export); the author shows a real concern for the context (geography, climate, history, folklore) without which recipes are just blind alleys.

Though geared to meat-oriented Western tastes, the choice of African dishes also conveys how a few elements such as rice, millet, local greens, tropical root vegetables, beans and corn sustain life over most of the continent. Tourist-gimmick recipes are conspicuously absent, and Hafner has a knack for finding unexpected things like lemon grass tea or a porridge made from partly roasted popcorn kernels. The color photography by Jonathan Chester/Extreme Images strikes me as perfectly matched to the spirit of the whole, a much better visual punctuation than Diane and Leo Dillon's would-be-atmospheric woodblock illustrations in "The African Cookbook."

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