58-year-old Christian Abégan is one of the continent’s most famous chefs. He has pioneered African gastronomy throughout the world, exploring its heritage, promoting haute cuisine inspired by the land, traditions and know-how of the African continent. Abégan now plans to pass on this passion by sharing his knowledge of ancestral cuisine.
He sat down with us to discuss the importance of culinary heritage.
Cameroon has just hosted the first edition of the Diaspora Kitchen Festival. How do you see this event?
Christian Abégan: I think it was excellent because the African continent needs to reconsider its place in the culinary world. We suffer from many negative stereotypes about our work, and the introduction of all these chemically-processed products in our cities and even in our countryside is gradually distorting the quality of our traditional dishes and the environmental factors of our crops.
France, which is the best place in the world for gastronomy, has been preserved because the French have systemised what a sauce is, how it should be made and not distorted what should be put in it. When you don’t add structure to something, people can change the game and tell a different story.
You have been fighting to preserve this culinary heritage for many years. Why is that?
I’ve been doing it for 40 years now. I am very sensitive to issues regarding nutrition, and especially quality. We have a continent – I’m talking about the whole continent because I also work with other African countries – that has similar projects, sensitivities and concerns. We need to codify in a way that allows young people to have a basis for creation so that in the coming years they can decide which gastronomic route to take. This should be based on local products, without distorting the local cuisine’s DNA. This work must be carried out with scientists, the sector’s players, chefs, anthropologists, etc. so that a roadmap of permanent preservation can be created.
Is the project of creating an encyclopaedia of specifically Cameroonian cuisine feasible, given the debates regarding the origin of some of the traditional dishes?
These debates have not advanced the cause of culinary Africa or African countries. Nobody has the recipe for salt. If we start looking for the person who originally created this or that..No! People have always consumed and transformed what they had around them to feed themselves. Cassava is grown in most African countries, but everyone cooks their cassava stick differently: chikwangue in Congo, miondo in Cameroon…
However, everything fits together in a didactic way because we need to eat. Claiming origin is only a national base that serves as a reference. It cannot be extended to villages, regions, etc. Although Cameroon is a country with different geographical areas, it remains a whole. We know that each region has things that it is known for, but that are also found in others. We must avoid these subjects that divide rather than unite. Eating is a civilised act.
You fight to preserve the DNA of traditional dishes but also want African recipes to be recreated around the world. Isn’t this paradoxical?
Universalism comes from the fact that chefs can cook everything together. We associate sushi with Japan. But it is possible to make sushi with any kind of fish, including fish caught in Cameroon. The main thing is to use the basic techniques, which we add to. It is a living art. We dress the products in a different culinary culture, to delight the whole world’s palates.
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