We are what we eat and how we cook: historical and delicious journey through Africa's traditional cooking utensils

Cooking pots, grinding stones, appam pans and more! They are not just about the food. They reveal a lot about African traditional knowledge

COOKING utensils the world over are born out of necessity, and a response to our environment: you make them out of what is available where you live, and also the foods your environment allows.

Africa’s traditional cooking utensils are no different, and the huge variety of them is reflective of the continent’s immense scope in eating habits that have been shaped by its long culture and the environment

Because the majority of households in sub-Saharan Africa, some 700 million people, rely on traditional biomass - such as wood and charcoal -  for cooking, a great deal of the utensils in the region are designed to withstand these open flames and longer cooking time. Also, the earth pots, for example, cook slowly, reflective of the role of women in traditional homes - a slow cooking process allowed her to multi-task; do other things like fetch water, even go digging, as she cooked.

Also, due to the lack of processing, in many or almost all traditional homes, meal preparation is done at home. 

Here we explore those key kitchen must-haves from around the continent:

Cooking pots

Deep cooking pots are a central piece of equipment for African, and indeed other, cooking. 

These pots can be balanced over the fire using stones or placed directly into the fire or on hot coals. The pot serves as an oven, a frying pan, a roaster and communal bowl, all at once. It is most often used to make porridges and stews using meats and vegetables. 

There are several recognisable and popular cooking pots in Africa. 

Traditional clay cooking pots across the continent usually have a rounded bottom which increases the surface available for heat transfer and therefore are heat transfer efficient. Rounded bottoms were also more stable on a three-stone fire - which was ideal for areas with limited fuel as they use little biomass - because their centre of gravity is deeper.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo these clay pots are known as “Marmite bombée”, while in other parts of central and eastern Africa the traditional clay cooking pots were known as chungu or nyungu, and in parts of southern Africa the shambakodzi. They are able to retain low heat which is ideal for making various stews that, have long cooking times, and ideal for porridges which are a staple part of many people’s diets. 

These clay pots however have been increasingly replaced by light aluminium pots such as the sufuria - a flat-bottomed aluminium deep pan  -  made by the informal sector, or produced in large numbers in simple factories.

There are, however, hybrids of the cooking pot and their more durable modern replacements which are very popular and in fact came with early foreign traders, missionaries, and in a big way with the colonialists. 

The most famous of these is the potjieko. One of the most recognisable cast-iron pots in the world, the South African potjieko is a round, cast iron, three-legged pot. It descended from the Dutch oven brought from the Netherlands to South Africa in the 17th century and can now be found in the homes of people throughout southern Africa. A key feature of cooking with a potjieko is the minimal use of water - the pot has a heavy lid which is closed after the ingredients and liquids have been added and the contents are left to simmer slowly without stirring.

Cast-iron pots like the potjieko, became quickly popular in urban areas around Africa because they were durable, heated up quickly, and retained heat well. They offered the added advantage of having handles near the rim and echoed in shape the clay cooking vessels that African women had cooked with for centuries.

Pestle and mortar

Across Africa one culinary tool has been a common denominator in this diverse culinary culture - the pestle and mortar. 

Comprised of a bowl, designed to hold a substance, and a club shaped tool which is used to pound the food,the mortar and pestle has been used since ancient times (most commonly in medicine) to prepare ingredients or substances by crushing and grinding them into a fine paste or powder. 

The pestle and mortar’s found in Africa today have evolved into an essential kitchen item which are used to do anything from pulverising raw hot pepper and ginger, to pounding cassava or maize into a paste or flour, making up for the lack of processing or access to processed goods. 

In some parts of Africa, the mortar and pestle is shaped out of heavy stone, but in others it is formed out of wood. They also vary greatly in size. Some are small enough for a handful of spices but, typically, at least more than a foot in depth to pound enough food for a family. 

Coconut grater

In Tanzania it’s called the Mbuzi ya nazi and it’s popular in the kitchens of Africa’s coastal countries - an import form the Indians and Arabs. 

To use the traditional coconut grater you sit on the stool and scrape the inside of an opened coconut on the protruding metal blade. The coconut shavings are collected and later pushed through a sieve to make coconut milk.

Cooker

In Africa there are countless different types of cookers - but if we were to hone in on the traditional rural cookers, the majority of people cook over open flames or on rudimentary stoves.

An example of this traditional stone is the earthenware adogan which is most popular amongst the Yoruba community in Nigeria. It has a flat bottom with a carinated wall and an out-turned rim with three decorated lugs to support the cooking pot. A U-shaped hole is cut in one side to allow air to enter, and through which fuel is inserted. 

The three lips act as a support for the pot, but they break easily. The fire is made inside the pot. The cooker does not last long. But it has the advantage of collecting ash together in one place. 

Traditional cookstoves like the adogan and open fires over the last few decades have been increasingly replaced as a result of programmes concerned with the environmental, health, economic and social impacts of cooking with biomass.

Energy-saving cookstove technologies were born and are now an extremely popular cooking appliance across Africa.  

A well-known example of this is Kenya’s ceramic jiko. This stove uses charcoal as fuel and is made from a metal exterior, with a ceramic internal liner. The ceramic liner has holes in its base, which allows ash to fall through and be collected in the box located at the bottom of the stove. The jiko is able to reduce fuel consumption by 20-50%. 

Appam pan

The Appam pan is an Indian import that has made its way across Africa. Appams are a type of pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk that first emerged in southern India. 

In Africa the pan is used to make variations of this sweet fluffy treat. In Tanzania they’re called vitumba and are made using rice flour, coconut, yeast and cardamon. In Nigeria they’re a rice cake called masa and are a northern breakfast staple. In Madagascar they’re a rice and coconut cake called mokary. 

Flat spoon

A traditional cooking spoon in Africa is wooden and has a flat head. It is useful when mixing maize flour dishes that are found across the continent - known as ugali in Kenya, sadza in Zimbabwe, nsima in Malawi and sakora in Nigeria. 

When making these dishes the maize flour is first boiled with water into a porridge. It is then “paddled”, to create a thick paste with the addition of more flour. This process requires the maker to pull the thick paste against the side of a pot with a flat wooden spoon.

The spoon is called a ntiko in Malawi, a mugoti in Zimbabwe or a mwiko in Kenya. 

Calabash gourd

Domesticated in Africa over 4,000 years ago, the gourd was one of the first cultivated plants in the world, grown not primarily for food, but for use as water containers. 

Gourds today have many uses in a kitchen still as a water carrier but also to clean rice, carry and as food containers.

In Kenya the Kikuyu community use the kinya to make fermented porridge - cooked porridge is stored in the gourd which is sealed and left to ferment for seven days. In Botswana and Nigeria the calabash is used to hold milk while in western Uganda it is used when processing animal products for example when making traditional ghee (clarified butter). 

Tagine

Probably Africa’s greatest kitchen utensil export, the tagine is an earthenware pot that comes from Northern Africa, of Berber origin, and was used when making slow-cooked stews made with meats, fish, vegetables and fruits over an open fire. 

The traditional tajine pot is made of pottery and consists of two parts: a base unit that is flat and circular with low sides and a large cone or dome-shaped cover that sits on the base during cooking. The cover is designed to promote the return of all condensation to the bottom as tagine dishes derive most of their liquid from the ingredients. 

Grinding stone

Grinding stones have been in use by humans since the African Middle Stone Age and for food processing for at least the past 28,000 years. Traditional grinding stones used to grind grain to flour usually consist of a small stone which is held in the hand and a larger flat stone which is placed on the ground. Grain is crushed by the backward and forward movement of the hand-held stone on the lower stone. The work is very laborious, and it is hard work for anyone to grind more than 2 kg of flour in an hour. 

However, today with the introduction of machines for grinding flour this is increasingly rendering the grinding stone obsolete. There has been commercialisation of porridge flour and production of porridge flour using various grains besides maize such as millet, sorghum, and even tubers such as cassava and sweet potatoes.

Hot griddle

Chapatis are flat, unleavened, round breads made from wheat flour, water, and salt. They are a staple for Swahili people and across many parts of East and Southern Africa, brought by Indians during the time of the British empire. For example, in Kenya chapatis arrived there in the final years of the 19th century with Indians working on the Kenya-Uganda railway. 

Their popularity has seen the hot griddle become a staple in many kitchens and street food stalls as the chapatis are fried on a dry griddle. Ugandans use it with great flair having created what they dubbed “the rolex” - where eggs are quickly cooked on the hot griddle with cabbage, onion, tomato, and sometimes peppers, and then wrapped in a chapati. 

Griddles like this are also used to make injera - a sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture that is the basis of all Ethiopian and Eritrean food.

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