There are utensils in food preparation and in cooking that are unique to Africa. Here are a few!
1. Cooking Pot
In modern Africa, many families have switched to using cooking utensils made of metallic, ceramic and other materials, especially when using modern cooking fires such as electric or gas fires. However, the traditional earthenware cooking pot still remains a favourite for many.
The traditional cooking pot is made of clay, and then fired in a kiln. The processes involved in producing a cooking pot and a water pot are different, since a water pot only needs to keep water cool and not withstand the fire.
The traditional cooking pot is often used over an open fire, such as a wood fire, or at a hearth, or over a charcoal burner. The earthy smell of the cooking pot lends a unique flavour to the food. Fresh beans or meat simmered in a pot have quite a different flavour to when cooked in a metallic saucepan.
The insulatory qualities of the clay pot also slow down the cooking process, which further enhances the flavour of the food.
2. Mortar and Pestle
A mortar and pestle used to be standard equipment in many African households, and often still are. A mortar and pestle were used when pounding grain such as millet or sorghum to separate the chaff from the grain.
In western Africa, cooked yam or cocoyam is also pounded into foo-foo. In Uganda, roasted groundnuts are pounded into odii paste, while raw groundnuts are pounded into ebinyewa groundnut powder.
The Africa mortar and pestle are large for heavy duty pounding, differing from their counterpart common in western cooking, which is a small utensil for gently rubbing spices.
3. Mingling Stick
Most African kitchens have a mingling stick, or indeed a whole collection of them. They are made of wood, and come in all sizes and many different shapes. The most common is the wooden mingling stick with a flat head, used to stir food, but more often to mingle posho, ugali or kuon – maize meal or millet meal bread.
Every woman has a favourite mingling stick, which she claims produces the best results!
In many communities, a gourd is a special and very handy utensil. A gourd is a climbing plant, which produces a long or round fruit. When this fruit matures and dries, it makes a very useful container. A ripe gourd is often brown or golden in colour. The woody inside is then hollowed out and cleaned.
The Kalenjin of western Kenya use their gourds to ferment milk in. And of course, every woman has her own favourite gourd.
When a gourd is cut lengthwise into two, one then has two calabashes, which are very useful for serving drinks. The clean, woody smell of drinking water in a calabash is quite unique. In northern Uganda,visitors were often served homemade beer in calabashes.
Several ethnic communities in Africa also use calabashes as musical instruments, including the Acoli of northern Uganda and communities in western Africa, such as in Mali.
6. Winnowing Tray
A winnowing tray – or several – is still a treasured utensil in many African homes. A winnowing tray is woven out of reeds, and is useful for sorting grain. After pounding or threshing, maize, millet, sorghum, rice, simsim and groundnuts are then winnowed in a tray to separate the grain from the chaff.
In some communities, special reed trays are also used to serve food for festive occasions.
7. Grinding Stone
In many communities, a grinding stone was the centre piece in the kitchen. Some homesteads had a grinding hut or house, where various grinding stones of various sizes were housed, for grinding millet, sorghum, or odii. Grinding stones have gradually been replaced by mills.
Like in any other cuisine, knives are important in African food preparation too. However, traditional knives differed from modern ones. In Uganda for example, a short, double-edged knife was popular for peeling matoke – cooking banana – and for scaling fish or skinning slaughtered animals.
Every cuisine in the world uses sieves. Sieves in Africa are now mostly made of metal or plastic. Traditionally, they were woven out of soft reeds. They were used to sieve flour, or beer, before serving it.
In many homes, shards from broken pots and broken calabashes were valued utensils. In the Acoli culture for example, calabash shards were treasured for smoothing out millet bread before serving. Apparently, nothing did quite as well as a piece of broken calabash. And of course, every woman had her favourite shards!
Winnowing trays, mingling sticks, gourds, sieves, calabashes and cooking pots were and still often are included in the gifts a new bride receives to set up her household.
As new foods, and new methods of food preparation establish themselves on the continent, new utensils will also replace the old ones. Indeed, the new labour-saving devices are welcome everywhere.
However, one cannot always quite deny the charm of the traditional African cooking utensils.