SBS Food talks to French-Gabonese chef Anto Cocagne, co-author of new book 'Saka Saka'.
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15 Jun 2022 - 7:25 PM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2022 - 4:19 AM

What does the food of Gabon and Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, Cameroon and Congo, have in common? The vibrant wax print cover of Saka Saka: Adventures in African cooking, south of the Sahara, gives one clue. Sub-Saharan cuisine is colourful, inviting, and, according to co-author Anto Cocagne, under-discovered. “Africa is the last continent to discover in terms of gastronomy,’’ she tells SBS.

In Saka Saka (the name comes from a cassava leaf dish found in various forms and with various names across the continent), photographer Aline Princet and Cocagne, a chef originally from Gabon, have created a book that sets out to celebrate conviviality along with African flavours and ingredients. Woven in among the recipes are interviews with an artist, a musician, a fashion designer and others who talk about their favourite African dishes and food memories. Princet writes in the book that she wanted to invite champions of Sub-Saharan culture to (figuratively) dine at her 'table’; and in a way, that’s what the book feels like, a gathering full of interesting people, bright colours and diverse, delicious food.

The food comes from Cocagne, who was born in France when her parents were students, and grew up in their home country, Gabon. At 20, she returned to France to study cooking. Today she’s a presenter on a food show on French TV, a restaurant consultant and now, co-author of a book that has been published in three languages (French, German and English). The 80 recipes in the book are a combination of traditional dishes, including condiments, salads, fritters (such as the prawn and cassava fritters below - recipe here), stews, street food and desserts, and Cocagne’s own ideas for using popular African ingredients, such as her peanut friands.

“While we often talk about African cuisine, it would be more insightful to refer to the ‘cuisines of Africa’,” she writes in the book. “Even though the basics are often similar, there are actually as many African cuisines as there are African countries, cultures and dialects. And while the Mahgreb region is the most well-known from a culinary perspective, the sub-Saharan region is yet to be explored.”

SBS Food chatted to Cocagne about the diversity of African cuisines and some of the recipes in the book.


 

The theme of Pan-African cooking - cooking that's about product and flavour, rather than national borders - feels like a central point of the book. What do you hope readers will learn about African cooking?

“I hope that readers will understand that Africa is a continent that existed before independence in 1960, before colonisation, before slavery. That is why I preferred to highlight products rather than countries. The existing borders have cut off ancient kingdoms, and old empires. This explains why border countries can share the same surnames, the same languages, the same tribes and therefore the same recipes. In addition, wars, natural disasters, exodus, and even marriages between two personalities from two different kingdoms have helped to make our recipes travel. So don't be surprised that the cassava leaves stew, which is called saka saka, is found in the west of Africa, in the centre, in the east, in the south, as far as Madagascar.”

The pages where artists and writers and other creatives share their food memories and talk about their favourite dishes are fascinating. Were you inspired to try some foods you hadn't made before, after reading their answers?  

“Yes, of course, their stories encouraged me to do more research on our gastronomies and try recipes and products I didn’t know, like baobab fruit, and millet flour.”

And for you? What dishes trigger taste memories for you?

“One of the recipes that trigger the best memories for me is cassava accras. This recipe I received from my mother, who had learned it from my grandmother, is a must-have recipe for our family reunions and celebrations. It reminds me of the women and girls gathered in the kitchen, chatting, laughing, singing, an atmosphere that we only find in those moments.”

While there's a lot of variation, sauces and spice mixes seem to be key to every cuisine. Nokos,s for example, is in a lot of dishes in the book, such as the prawn and cassava fritters and the Yassa chicken. That looks like a great base ingredient to make and have in the fridge, ready to add to dishes? 

“Nokoss is not a sauce, but a paste of condiments that is used to season and marinate the ingredients before they are cooked. This paste, based on fresh ingredients like onion, garlic, ginger, herbs, and spices, is very common in black cooking. I wanted to put this essential ingredient back because unfortunately younger generations no longer use it, in favour of industrial cube broths.” (Find the recipe for red nokoss from the book here.)

Talking of that fine-looking dish, why is Yassa chicken called Yassa chicken?

“Yassa is basically an onion-lemon sauce.  It accompanies both fish and meat. It was found in West Africa (Senegal, Mali, Gambia). Like many of our African ancient recipes, unfortunately, I have not yet found the very origin of this name.”

Are the peanut friands a reflection of your life growing up in Gabon and now living in Paris? 

“Yeah, peanuts have always been a part of my life since I was a kid. Whether sweet or salty, from breakfast to dinner, peanuts are part of our recipes. There are many different nuts in France where I currently live. But I have no connection with them. I prefer peanuts.”

In the book, you describe the food of sub-Saharan Africa as colourful and delicious. What else should we know about African cooking?

“Our cuisines are rich, varied and we have exceptional products!”

 

Images and text from Saka Saka by Anto Cocagne & Aline Princet, photography by Aline Princet. (Murdoch Books, RRP $45).

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