See recipe below
A friend handed me an academic journal article over the weekend. It was Igor Cusack’s paper ‘African Cuisines: Recipes for Nation−Building’.
We had just finished our lunch of kapana and beer and continued our prolonged discussion about the need to codify Namibian food and cooking as we drove home from the Goreangab Dam where we enjoyed the spectacular views with floating rubbish bins, plastic bags and wild geese too afraid to dive beneath the water.
He thought the article might, as a manner of speaking, contain some “food for thought”.
Cusack is interested in how post−colonial actors (the state, political elites and others) use cooking and cookery books to create a ‘national culture’, and thereby draw attention to the promotion of some local dishes as ‘national dishes’.
In doing so, food, like the national flag and anthem, become symbols of national identity – i.e. items that demarcate cultural boundaries and distinguish between cultural insiders and outsiders, something useful for building a nation, a ‘prop’ in the process of ‘imagining a nation’.
For Cusack, (African) cuisine is political: “Cuisines, whether national, regional or ‘ethnic’ should not be considered as neutral innocent concoctions. Like most of material culture, they are clearly products of dominant ideologies and related power struggles… African cuisines are nurtured by such ideologies as imperialism, capitalism and nationalism”.
He continues: “Most emerging African national cuisines – and what people actually eat in Africa, not necessarily quite the same – clearly reflect the colonial encounter and the subsequent dependent relationship with the West, as well as indigenous ethnic culinary practices”.
In the developed world – he argues – “…it is taken for granted that very nation has its own cuisine”. Furthermore, “each nation has its own cuisine, although the globalisation of culinary culture has added complexity to the relationship between food and nation… Thus the roast beef of old England is being replaced by chicken tikka masala”.
Of course, Cusack wrote his article as a student of politics and not as a chef or a cook or nutritional expert. Which is why I suspect he places such strong emphasis on ideologies whilst paying very little attention to local matters such as ecology, climate, migration, trade, technology or terroir in the development of national cuisines, before, during and after colonialism.
I have pondered the notion of a ‘national cuisine’ and ‘national dishes’ before in this column. But Cusack’s article got me thinking once more; and so did the visit to the kapana sellers.
If all the food cultures of the world have one thing in common, it is that they are all a combination of local and international; and this interaction between the local and the international is as old as the human race.
In this sense, the influence of colonialism or globalisation on local food cultures is neither unique nor distinctive to Africa and emphasising it is little more than stating the obvious.
The tomato is not indigenous to Italy and the chilli not to Thailand or India. Yet no one continues to harp on about the colonial influences on Italian or Indian food when reviewing their cooking or cook books.
Please note the influence of colonialism is not unidirectional, as often is assumed.
The influence of the ingredients from the new world on European cooking is but one obvious example.
The assumption that the nations of the developed world have a national cuisine is perhaps at best an over−simplification, and at worst, an unsupported demi−truth.
I am convinced that the notion of a national cuisine is truly an imaginary construct that makes only sense outside the national entity itself.
Let me explain: If one were to ask 10 French chefs what the French national dish is, I suspect one would get at least 10 different answers. Now, if one were to ask the same question to ten Mexican chefs, they might all say: Coq au vin or pot au feu or something to this effect.
Repeat the exercise with 10 more chefs from a different country and the effect would be repeated.
I do not think the French gives 10 coarse, toasted breadcrumbs about a national dish. Why should we?
When the dominant food trend at the moment is to return to the indigenous, spatially and culturally, why would anyone want to subscribe to the notion of the national?
I suspect that Cusack reads too much into recipes published on official websites and in African cookbooks. Not every project is political, and the post−modern notion that ‘everything is political’ I find conceptually confusing.
I think there is a definite need to produce formal records of our culinary identity but this is one likely to be defined by diversity rather than uniformity.
Such a project would target local Namibians, what they eat, how they produce and cook, rather than the international community of cookbook consumers who organise their cookbook collections in a manner that reflect the international system of nation states.
My biggest concern with scholars such as Cusack is that they write from a million miles away about localities that they have neither visited, nor have sufficient and reliable secondary sources of.
He writes a few paragraphs about Namibia and mentions the absence of cookbooks and highlights the influence of German colonial rule on Namibian cuisine.
He quotes a source that claims that: “Schwartzwalt−Torte with whipped cream… runs deep throughout this nation’s culinary highways and byways”. I do not know about you, but I think this is just a tad too enthusiastic about the importance of this particular German food relic.
During our discussions about Namibian food, I realised that a definition of what Namibian food is is of greater concern to visitors than to locals. Visitors demand authenticity and expect a set of cultural artifacts that is distinct and very different from their own.
With the onset of the new notion of eco−cultural and particularly food tourism, the visitor does not want to eat what he or she considers European−influenced food, they want the real local deal (whatever that may be).
And because we aim to please, we will feel we have to provide a dish or a collection of dishes that we claim defines us as a culinary nation.
This raises the all−important question of whose job it will be to identify and elevate these dishes? Furthermore, which dishes will be selected and on what grounds?
And with that, with the flick of a balloon whisk, our cuisine will be politicised, and writing cookbooks will be considered a political act.
In the absence of a national dish, I decided to provide a recipe that is clearly not Namibian: Homemade fermented chilli sauce.
Why, you may ask? The honest answer to that is that I received a big pile of chillies from a supplier and that I needed to do something before they went bad.
Furthermore, I have received requests for more recipes on homemade condiments such as sauces, and I thought this week might be a good time to deliver on those requests.
But I also want so show there is more to chillies than drying them or using them as elephant repellant and besides, a man can dream, can he not?
This just might become our own equivalent of Malawi’s Nali sauce; the only thing I came cross that ever approximated something truly national.
 Cusack Igor, 2000, African cuisines: recipes for nation-building?, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 13 (2), December
The Base Sauce
• 700 grams red jalalpeños
(or other medium−sized
red chilli), stems and
green tops snipped off
• 6 cloves garlic, peeled
• 4 tablespoons light
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
The Ready−To−Use Sauce
• 1/2 cup base sauce
• 1/3 cup castor sugar
• 5 teaspoons soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons rice wine
or dry sherry
• 1 1/2 tablespoons
• The base sauce: Place all ingredients except the vinegar in a food processor. Process until chillies are very finely chopped, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer mixture to a clean jar, cover and let sit at room temperature.
• Check jar each day for fermentation, when little bubbles start forming at bottom of jar, about three to five days. Stir contents each day, continuing to let ferment until chillies are no longer rising in volume, an additional two to three days.
• Transfer chillies to the jar of a blender, add in white vinegar and puree until completely smooth, one to three minutes.
Transfer to a mesh strainer set atop of a medium saucepan. Strain mixture into saucepan, using a rubber spatula to push through as much pulp as possible, only seeded and larger pieces of chillies should remain in strainer.
• Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until sauce thickens and clings to a spoon, five or 10 minutes. Transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator.
• The ready−to−use sauce: Add all the ingredients for the sauce in a mixing bowl and mix together until the sugar and salt have dissolved.