After a trip to Malawi, Alex Renton ponders whether sub-Saharan food could really be the Next Big Thing
I was just back from Malawi – an impoverished former British colony that's located, unhelpfully, between the even worseoff Zambia and Zimbabwe – when I heard that Mourad "Momo" Mazouz reckons the Next Big Thing is going to be the cuisine of "black Africa". By this he means the food of the sub- Saharan countries, not the Arab cuisine of the Mediterranean coasts that have of course already been pressed into the globalised cooking cultures.
There's not much terra incognita left on the map of the world's food habits. There are a few countries where the cooking could go beyond High Street ethnic curiosity and go mainstream.
Alan Yau of Wagamama and Hakkasan thinks it's about time Vietnam made the great leap.
Brazil is another contender. But black African?
In Malawi I ate a lot of the national dish, nzima, a stodge of ground white maize. This comes with ndio, "relish". In the countryside, relish was usually stewed pumpkin leaves. But the well-off could have a meat relish – I was offered slices of intestine fried in palm oil, which was good, like gamey bits of squid. And poached mice.
I can't tell you what they were like: I'll try anything once, but not with its clothes on. But the boys selling the mice, which looked as if they'd been drowned before being run over, insisted you chewed ‘em up, fur and all. So I passed.
Most people in sub-Saharan Africa get the bulk of their energy from carbohydrate stodges like the Malawian nzima from maize, plantain, cassava or whatever's available. On the west side of the continent it's called fou-fou, on the east, ugali, in the south nzima or mealie-meal.
What you eat it with is up to the cook and your wallet – but generally you're talking a lot of carb and very little protein. War correspondents and other old Africa bores insist they love the stodges with their texture – and indeed taste - of sodden polystyrene. Expat Kenyans dream of ugali and miss it as much as you might Marmite or a good Yorkshire pud when 6,000 miles from home. But coming soon to a bistro near you?
I don't think so.
There are various theories around as to why African food has remained so simple. The most ingenious states that food-growing and cooking techniques only migrate laterally, to places of similar climate. Thus, from Italy across the Middle East to China and Japan, people have swapped good ideas about what to do with, say, rice, for millennia. But climates change radically in a few hundred miles in Africa, effectively boxing one cuisine off from another.
So no fusion.
The other, of course, is poverty. Veg is cheaper and so poor people across the world get 80 per cent of their energy from carbohydrates, whereas we in our comfortable corner of the planet enjoy a 50-50 split between carbs and protein/fats. (If you're on Atkins, of course, you get 80 per cent from protein, a pleasing reversal of the poor person's dietary formula).
Colonialism didn't do a lot for Africa and Asia, though we did introduce the chilli – which, with MSG, has done a lot to make poor food taste more interesting. Look at Pot Noodle.
It's interesting to wonder what might happen if we returned to the carb-heavy diet of our ancestors. There's no proof that we'd be healthier than we are now. Would we be fatter?
Only if we didn't get off our arses. There's a lot of moral pressure, if you care to listen, to eat fewer animals – chiefly on the grounds that it takes 10 kilos of vegetable to produce one kilo of meat, so by switching to more maize and potato we could feed more people. But the rich world's disastrously inept attempts to feed the hungry of Africa show that we have no idea how to get that surplus food to those who need it.
$10 billion spent in 20 years, and still about as many starving (850 million, according to the United Nations) as there were when Bob Geldof first told us to Feed the World.
The evening after I refused the boiled mice, I tried a bit of Afro-Tuscan fusion, in a pompous, aid-worker-filled restaurant in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. Goat in chocolate sauce. It was the nastiest cross-cultural eating experience I'd had since "Sushi Pizza" in a Bangkok Pizza Hut.
As I chewed at it miserably, I did think how all the people I'd eaten nzima with in the villages had enjoyed their meals. It's facile and probably racist to talk about the simple life of happy Africans, especially in a country with an AIDS rate of 18 per cent and a life expectancy that's down to 37 years. But what's clearly true is that, even with food cheaper in real terms than it's ever been, and a plethora of things to choose from, we in our world of Tesco-plenty don't seem to be any happier than the nzima and relish-eaters of Malawi. Or hunter-gatherers anywhere. Rather the opposite: we fear food and worry about it all the time – they only worry when there isn't any.