Like everybody else in Europe who had been straining under the terror that was Winter 2012-2013, I celebrated the first sunny day by taking a long, slow stroll through the neighborhood. All of life’s burdens seemed suddenly manageable. I returned friendly “hellos” to strangers and smiled in collusion, as if to say, “Yes, people, our collective misery has successfully willed the seasons to change.” We knew it didn’t, but that didn’t matter. The feeling was that we’d survived and deserved a reward. So we went out and stayed out choosing to sit at cafés and smile at each other.
Even though we were all still wearing jackets and scarves, restaurants and cafés were putting tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, luring the jolly and overly optimistic passersby. There were charming arrangements of flowers on the tabletops. Colorful displays advertising spring deals abounded. Knowing we had spent months and months with our heads down, these eateries were making an effort to make sure that, now that we were starting to look up again, what we saw reflected the potential of the months to come: Something bright, fresh and possible. I stopped at one such café and ordered myself a coffee.
Directly opposite the café was the first African food restaurant I had seen since returning from my recent travels to Ghana, where I had been working on My African Food Map, a new project documenting African food.
You would be forgiven for thinking that it is being renovated or under construction (see image below). You would be forgiven for imagining that it has been temporarily abandoned, and that the proprietors would be back soon, after a long hiatus in warmer climes, to rejuvenate it on par with all the other cafés and restaurants in the area. It wasn’t. It was open for business. I looked through the window and could barely make out little tables and chairs arranged nonchalantly in the gloomy and unwelcoming room. It was disheartening to look at. I wondered: “Why does this disturb me so much? What is it about African restaurants? Why are there so few that look inviting – that reflect the deliciousness of the food made within?”
African food is, in my experience rich, dynamic, varied and overwhelmingly fantastic. More often than not. So when I see a restaurant that, in appearance, betrays this knowledge it bothers me. And this is not the only African restaurant in town that has not managed to meet the basic expectations of a modern-day eatery. Although there are numerous restaurants which are well-maintained and beautifully set up, I have stumbled across too many, over too many years, which aren’t. I thought it was common knowledge that selling food has, in large part, a lot to do with presentation and the aesthetics of the place it’s sold in. If you are lucky enough to be able to own or rent a space in which to sell your food, please do it some justice. Give it the respect it deserves.
And so it is with this sentiment that I submit such African restaurants the world over to the food revolution table. The world is starting to view food and the restaurants in which it’s served with fresh and more stringent perspectives, and the same standards should be expected of African restaurants.
Allow me to take a few steps back.
I am a filmmaker, editor and PhD student living and working in Berlin. Although I was born in Europe and have spent a large chunk of my adult life here, I grew up all over Africa. Until I turned 18, I lived in villages, small towns and cities in Ghana, South Sudan, Botswana, Lesotho, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. I was also lucky enough to explore widely within these countries and make short stops in many more places, like Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Throughout these travels, I ate. I took my joy of African food for granted until I moved to London, where I had relatively limited access to the foods I’d grown up with. This was amplified with my move to Berlin. But now, beyond just wishing to find the ingredients for a few well-known African recipes or discovering restaurants which serve these dishes, I feel it is important to share what the continent has to offer food-wise. The relative ignorance of African food is alarming and, quite frankly, unnecessary in this era of increasing globalization and connectivity.
I have recently started to work “in food.” I wanted to provide a platform for African cuisine, which would convey the exquisite and subtle nuances of flavor found in as many dishes as I encountered from the continent. I wanted to do this for a very simple reason: I know that almost all of the dishes I have eaten are really quite amazing. And that range is already quite limited. So, I have no doubt that what awaits will only continue to blow my foodmind. Fortunately for me, I am not at the “being introduced to African food” stage in my life. I am therefore quite open to trying dishes I don’t know. If, however, I had never eaten African food, I might be more reserved about exploring what the continent has to offer. A big issue I find which results in this apprehension, is that they have often looked unappealing, and in nearly every circumstance under which they are presented, have looked relatively unappetizing. If it’s not the pictures, then it is the restaurants. As I challenged earlier: if you are going to go through the trouble of opening a restaurant, one would expect that you would at least do your best to ensure that it would attract as many customers as possible. I understand that financing has a lot to do with it, but then in the shifting restaurant and food aesthetic trends, “less” has become “more.” People often enjoy going to restaurants with either an uncluttered, fresh, “organic” feel or the neutrally-toned, “honest”/no frills approach. The same applies to how the meals are served. And so if your menu were generally unfamiliar to the immediate public, I would imagine that you would be more mindful of these details in order to attract and then retain new food explorers.
It could certainly be argued that if, for example, you know that sukuma wiki or groundnut stew are delicious, you may not be too concerned about the state of the restaurant nor the way in which these dishes are presented. Your attentions could be focused on the fact that it is even possible to eat these meals away from their countries of origin; your concern might be more focused on the way they taste. These reasons are, of course, absolutely acceptable and would ensure that the restaurant would attract at least African customers who know the menu. But why should a restaurant limit its potential in that way? Why not make it appeal to as many people as possible? And why, as a customer, should your food experience stop at “well, it tasted good!?” We should expect more from the experience of eating African cuisine outside our homes. African food has great crossover potential. Even if the sukuma wiki or groundnut stew are not as flavorsome as you would find in Kenya or Ghana, I know they would still dazzle the most discerning taste buds. Yes, I can again state with confidence that African food is that good. How about getting the general state of African restaurants to match the deliciousness of the foods they serve? In My African Food Map, for example, the aim is not only to share recipes and videos on how to prepare them, but also to capture their tastiness visually. The aroma and the sophisticated, full flavor should reach out from beyond what you see, and either pique your curiosity or remind you of just how delectable the dish is.
All I am trying to say is that it is equally if not more important to ensure that space and presentation are also up-to-scratch. Because people don’t just pay for food, they pay for the total experience.
Tuleka Prah is the founder and director of The Gemüse Project, an independent production company based in Berlin. She is a self-taught filmmaker and editor as well as a PhD student. Although her primary focus at the moment is My African Food Map, she is currently working as a photographer for local businesses and is making a music video for an up-and-coming Berlin artist.