We spoke with Portia Mbau and her daughter Lumai, who have recently published The Africa Cookbook (Quivertree Publications, 2019). Inspired by their travels all over Africa and a history of serving African cuisine in their restaurant, this mother and daughter team put together a cookbook with traditional and modern recipes from around the continent.
- Tell us briefly about the inspiration for the book.
The book is based on more than recipes, it’s the journey of 27 years in which the perception around African food has changed. I started a restaurant out of our home in 1992 and that was the first place in Cape Town that served food from not just South Africa, but the whole continent. As that was revolutionary then, our book is inspired by a pan-African experience of cuisine today. Over many years my family has travelled to countries around the continent and was inspired by Africa’s food, hence the book. I am creative in the reinvention of traditional dishes. – Portia
- What makes your journey unique?
My background is unique. I grew up speaking Afrikaans and English and no African language. And that was reflected in the culture I was brought up in. I didn’t grow up with specific Xhosa or Zulu traditions. I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. So I looked to the wider world to learn, and when I travelled, I always identified myself as African first and foremost. I was open to the diversity that being African describes. – Portia
- What are some the things you learned watching your mum run a restaurant during your childhood?
Watching my parents run a restaurant, I observed how much energy and time, being entrepreneurs required. I really enjoyed being in the restaurant as I grew up. It was a lot of fun. I got free soft drinks and the staff were all my friends. When I got older, I learnt that the people you work with and rely upon, can make or break you, and that any business is a business of working with people. – Lumai
- How did you decide which destinations and dishes to feature in the book?
Originally, I wanted 100 recipes in the book, but our publishers recommended we narrow it down to 70. In that process we chose recipes that are favourites of ours; that we’ve served at The Africa Cafe for many years and that represent different aspects of African cuisine. The richness of Ethiopia, the tropical coconut of Mozambique, the sweets from Morocco, etc. We wanted the book to feel like a journey.
- Tell us about a particularly memorable African destination featured in the book, why you feel that way about it and why we should visit.
A memorable destination, which I would highly recommend people visit, is Bagamoyo in Tanzania, a few miles out of Dar es Salaam. It has rich history with unique architecture. It’s a beautiful, coastal area with lush natural beauty and delicious tropical food such as coconuts, fish and fruit. They take a lot of pride in their food there, and the people are laid back and very friendly.
- What were the challenges in putting together a book like this?
The challenge we set for ourselves was to do something that had not been done before. From the cover to the photographs inside, it had to feel fresh, authentic and not fall into clichés. The cover itself was a long debate because for the longest time, some people wanted it to be a photo of food. But we didn’t want to represent Africa with something limiting, like one specific dish. We wanted it to stand out and give the feeling of Africa rather than the literal food.
- What would you like readers to take away from your cookbook?
Globally speaking, African food is not regarded with as much value as French or Italian cuisine and the result of that is a devaluing of us, and our cultures. The result is people feel removed from African food. Even within the continent, we don’t know much about other countries, and that’s a loss. I hope readers feel this book welcomes them to embrace African food; so that it’s less intimidating. Most of all, that it encourages them to make delicious and nutritious food they’ve never tasted before.
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