National Identity and Food

Food and national identity have long been closely associated with each other.  In the United States people classify restaurants by the country where the dishes they serve are thought to have originated.  Certain dishes have become inseparable from the countries that they come from.  Hamburgers are associated with the United States, tacos are associated with Mexico, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with England, sushi with Japan, and so on.  Chances are you already knew about most of the dishes that were just talked about, but I challenge you to name one national dish from an African country.  Chances are, unless you have been to Africa or studied it, you cannot do it.  That is because in the United States and Europe whenever someone says Africa and food, the first things that pop into our mind are famine and starvation.

Africa does in fact have national dishes or at the very least dishes that are associated with a nation or region.  However, it is important to understand that in Africa national boundaries and cultural boundaries are often two different things.  This makes the development of a national cuisine or any kind of a national culture for that matter, a very complicated process.  This blog post will look at national, regional, and cultural identity and how their complex relationship can be explained through the lens of food.

The first example of how African countries have struggled to formulate a national food comes out of Ghana in the early years of independence.  In 1957 Ghana became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from its colonizer and their first President, Kwame Nkrumah was focused on bringing about national unity.  He struggled to this as the many ethnic groups desired to reinforce ethnic boundaries, but regardless Nkrumah tried hard to create a unifying Ghanaian culture.  As part of this, there were efforts to establish a national cuisine, but unfortunately, they never truly materialized.  With Cocoa production taking on such an important role in the post-colonial economy, many advocated for making cocoa a national food, but Nkrumah say that cocoa was already a part of Asante culture, and that making cocoa a national food would be seen as favoritism to one ethnic tradition.  This is an example of how complex formulating a national cuisine can be.

There are also examples of how regional cuisines have been adapted to become part of a national identity.  Since neighboring countries often share similar climates and economic realities, it is not unusual for their food to be quite similar.  One example of this is Jollof rice in West Africa.  This dish, which originated in Senegal, can be found across western Africa in a number of different variations.  The popularity of the dish has sparked a friendly competition over which country has the best jollof rice.  The debate is particularly fierce between Ghana and Nigeria where government officials and celebrities from each country talk about why their country’s version of the dish is better.  This is an example of how a regional dish can turn into a national dish and become a symbol of national identity.

It is important to note that the development of a national cuisine is influenced by the history of that country.  In Africa this is important because the colonizing countries played a big role in influencing the culinary traditions that would go on to be a part of national identity.  There are many instances of this.  One example is in Nigeria where the cuisine found there today is heavily influenced by both of the country’s colonizers; the Portuguese and the British.  Fried plantains and sweet potatoes are very popular today in Nigeria, but they were originally brought there by Portuguese sailors.  The same is true in Zimbabwe where oatmeal and porridge are commonly eaten for breakfast, a tradition that is part of their national identity thanks to British rule.

While the development of a national cuisine has been a struggle in many African countries, there is evidence that today food is very much a part of national identity.  Nowhere is this more evident than it is with African diaspora.  African immigrants in the United States and Europe can shop at grocery stores and restaurants that have food from their country of origin.  These businesses are able to stay open and operate overseas because they have a loyal clientele that keep coming back to eat the food that they identify with.

Africa is a large continent with an impressive variety of both cultures and food.  The diversity of cultures and historical backgrounds make African countries what they are today.  While some countries were able to establish some kind of national cuisine, other still struggle to do so and cuisines divide as nations instead of uniting them.

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