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Why Are There So Few Sudanese Cookbooks?

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Last week, a few of the Food52 editors rounded up a list of cookbooks celebrating the cuisines of countries affected by the current American administration's Muslim immigrant ban. There was a glaring dearth of cookbooks from specific countries in the African continent—Libya, Somalia, and Sudan—on that list.

How many people batted an eye at this? It recalls that depressingly pertinent refrain that "Africa is a country," as if the continent of Africa is a monolith in spite of its vast, sweeping diversity. The well-intentioned gesture to learn more about the culinary customs of these seven countries accidentally revealed a greater systemic ill: In the world of cooking, there's sometimes a tendency to impose a one-size-fits-all philosophy on the many cuisines of Africa.

The Sudanese Kitchen.
The Sudanese Kitchen. Photo by Omer Eltigani

Omer Eltigani, a 32-year-old British-Sudanese pharmacist, is trying to change this when it comes to the food of the Sudan. Last year, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Sudanese Kitchen, a cookbook of 40 Sudanese recipes sourced from his family. He aims for it to be the first commercially-available Sudanese cookbook in the West. The Sudanese Kitchen is a project born out of his own observation that the Sudan is often imagined in terms of the volatility and turbulence of its past, by its historical association with the cancers of war, famine, poverty, and genocide. This has resulted in a profound ignorance of the intricacies and beauties of the Sudan’s culture, including its food.

Born in Ireland and raised in Khartoum, Eltigani dedicated this book to his mother, a woman who raised him and his two brothers the classic Sudanese dishes of eggs with pastrami and ta'mia, which he calls a Sudanese falafel. He began the project in October 2015, when, weary and homesick, he quit his job, embarked on a 10-day trip to the Sudan, and visited his older female relatives to learn their culinary ways.

Photo by Omer Eltigani

“In its food, I wouldn't say the Sudan is misjudged,” Eltigani tells me when we speak this past weekend. “It’s not even judged at all. Most people I meet have never tried Sudanese food.” He describes Sudanese food as having a variety of rich textures and flavors, by turns tangy and spicy. “Sudanese food may not always look great, but it always tastes great,” he claims. “It’s just good. Period.”

A few years ago, Eltigani came across a decaying copy of Cooking the Sudanese Way by Judith Mahjoub, a rare cookbook by the British wife of a Sudanese writer at some point in the mid-1980s. Eltigani used this work as a guide for how to write about, and frame, Sudanese cuisine for a wider audience. It was the only book of its kind he found.

Photo by Omer Eltigani

“I think many women and families keep their own personal editions of Sudanese cookbooks, but these are rarely shared to a wider audience,” he says of this lack of existing literature. “I guess very few people took the initiative to share these recipes, and it seems even crazier when you realize how good the food is.” The problem, he believes, is partially due to the fact that numerous ingredients you may need to create Sudanese dishes can’t be found easily outside the Sudan. He mentions the Sudanese feta cheese used for making mish, a spicy yogurt dip, along with sorghum and millet flours, both used for making aseeda, a jelly bread, and kisra, a thin bread with the consistency of a pancake.

In spite of these barriers, Eltigani hopes his book, set to release later this year, will go a long way in introducing otherwise unknowing audiences to Sudanese cuisine. It’s a relatively high-profile project; he’s already received write-ups in The Guardian and VICE. When I ask him what the Trump administration’s recent actions may mean for the Western understanding of Sudanese cuisine, he's cautiously optimistic.

"When a group of people have been targeted by an immigration ban that does little to strengthen national security and more to disrupt lives and break apart families, a bystander may see this suffering of innocent people as an opportunity to learn about this group they knew little about before," he explains to me. "This may spur an interest in culture and, of course, its cuisine.”

Eltigani's late grandmother cooking with a family member.
Eltigani's late grandmother cooking with a family member. Photo by Omer Eltigani

But he recognizes that it’s double-edged. He understands that another individual may see nothing wrong with such a ban, and instead claim that such a clampdown comes in the interest of national security.

“This is an outlook driven by hate, fear, and ignorance, one that only sees conflict and division. The stakes are no longer about whether we like each other's food. It's clearly becoming a question of if we can live alongside one another as equals,” he tells me. “I’d like for this to be an opportunity for a huge wake up call for the United States—I hope that it brings Americans of all backgrounds closer, and that Sudanese food can be one of many vehicles through which we bridge the gaps that are trying to tear people apart.”

The Sudanese Kitchen comes out later this year. Visit the website for recipes from the book.

Tags: Long Reads, Books