The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent

I'll be honest, here...there are rumors in my family that there was once a miner married to a Native American woman.  But those remain unconfirmed.  I'm white.  Fishbelly, burns in ten minutes of sun, goth is default merely because I rather like black, white.  And I'm in love with this cookbook.  

It's not the food of my grandmothers, in any way, shape, or form. It's about as foreign to me as a cookbook could get. But it is Great Grandmother's Food for millions of people.  Jessica B Harris does an excellent job of weaving together recipes and stories from her travels, making the food of Africa accessible and engaging. 

This is a case, too, in which I have to freely admit my ignorance:  I went into this book knowing nothing about African cuisine, and very little about Africa as a continent.  Africa was never a place emphasized in my studies growing up, and I know much more about the animals then the people, even as impassioned as I am about projects such as HEAL Africa.  I'm rather embarrassed.  I had no idea the scope of my ignorance, the variety of cultures and ways of life that I was clueless about.  Other then some knowledge of how the Moors influenced Medieval European food, I had no idea about the impact of African cuisine on the world.  Having spend my teenage years in South Florida, I found while reading this book that some of my favorite foods from the Caribbean, traditional Southern and Creole, as well as Central and South America owe their linage to African cooking.  Anyone with an interest in those flavors would do well to read this book, particularly considering the impact of the Colombian Exchange on the food of both sides of the Atlantic.

Harris varies her recipes, organized by type, and obviously tried to go to as many different locations as possible while researching her book.  Egypt and Ethiopian recipes show the influence of Muslim culture, while South Africa surprisingly has a great deal of flavor in common with India, due to centuries of trade and immigration.  Eastern Africa was also an area she traveled quite extensively, with recipes from Cote d'Ivoire, Morocco, Senegal, Benin, and Nigeria.  This will be of interest to many African American cooks, since this portion of Africa was the landing point for the slave trade, leading to many fascinating similarities to Southern cooking.

Some ingredient will, understandably, be difficult to find.  Thankfully, the internet means that spices such as cubebs, and ingredients like orange flower water are only a few clicks away. However, this is a cookbook that I'm sorry to return to the library.  It will most definitely be on my wish list this holiday season, and I look forward to finding her other books. 

Here is Ms. Harris' trademark recipe for Chicken Yassa, a Senegalese dish.

  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 3 large onions, sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 (or more) hot red Guinea pepper-type chile, cut into small pieces
  • 5 tablespoons peanut oil
  • One 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut into pieces
  • 1/2 cup water

Prepare a marinade of the lemon juice, onions, salt, pepper, chile, and 4 tablespoons of the peanut oil. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade, be sure they are well coated, and marinate them for at least 2 hours. Preheat the broiler to the highest setting. Remove the chicken pieces and reserve the marinade. Place the chicken pieces on the broiler rack and grill them briefly until they are lightly browned on both sides. Remove the onions from the marinade and sauté them in the remaining oil. Cook them slowly until tender, then add the reserved marinade. When the liquid is thoroughly heated, add the chicken pieces. Add the water and simmer the Yassa over low heat for about 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked. Serve hot, over white rice. Yassa can also be made with fish substituted for the chicken. In the Casamance region of Senegal, where the dish originated, Monkey Yassa, is considered a delicacy, but you're on your own there.
This recipe is available in the book, and also compliments of

For more information about Ms. Harris, please take a look at her publisher's page, or her website

You can find the Google Books Preview for this cookbook here.


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