Couscous and other Cuisines in the Sahel in 1798 – Mungo Park’s Experience

Niger River in Mali, 2001. Just south of the S...

<Niger River – Wikipedia

The Scottish explorer Mungo Park was 24 when he first travelled to West Africa to seek the source and the debouchment of the Niger River for the Africa Association of London.  The Association was also desirous of learning more about the land and people of the area.

Mungo Park Source: (c) Gazetteer for Scotland

Park’s first trip to the Niger basin lasted over two years.  Throughout these travels he collected a considerable amount of information about local food, its preparation and the cuisines of different areas.

The region through which Park travelled. Source: historycooperative-org

A recent blog provided his information on shea butter and the shea tree, which is the first description of the product given in Europe.

In the following entry, Park generalizes as to the structure of daily meals in the areas through which he travelled.  Here as elsewhere,  he stresses the importance of kouskous  (couscous) in local diets and also as a travelling food.  the ‘gruel made of meal and water’ that he mentions below, which is for breakfast, could have been made of wheat, sorghum or millet flour, depending on the area, though he never specifically states.

… The usual diet of the negroes is somewhat different in different districts; in general the people of free condition breakfast about daybreak upon gruel made of meal and water, with a little of the fruit of the tamarind to give it an acid taste.

About two o’clock in the afternoon a sort of hasty pudding, with a little shea butter, is the common meal;

but the supper constitutes the principal repast, and is seldom ready before midnight.  This consists almost universally of kouskous, with a small portion of animal food or shea butter mixed with it.

In eating, the kafirs [non-Muslems}, as well as Mohammedans [Muslems], use the right hand only.

Source:  Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa 1795-97 – Volume 2

In Volume 1 of the same work Park describes the making of couscous and hypothesizes that it is a technique learned from the Moors.  This is a discussion several of us had on Book of Rai a few years ago, and whether or not the technique and the cooking were locally generated or borrow from the Moors remains, as I recall, a moot question.

Here is what Park has to say on the topic:

In preparing their corn [term for grain] for food, the natives use a large wooden mortar called a paloon, in which they bruise the seed until it parts with the outer covering, or husk, which is then separated from the clean corn by exposing it to the wind, nearly in the same manner as wheat is cleared from the chaff in England.

The corn thus freed from the husk is returned to the mortar and beaten into meal, which is dressed variously in different countries; but the most common preparation of it among the nations of the Gambia is a sort of pudding which they call kouskous.

It is made by first moistening the flour with water, and then stirring and shaking it about in a large calabash, or gourd, till it adheres together in small granules resembling sago. It is then put into an earthen pot, whose bottom is perforated with a number of small holes; and this pot being placed upon another, the two vessels are luted together either with a paste of meal and water, or with cows’ dung, and placed upon the fire.

In the lower vessel is commonly some animal food and water, the steam or vapour of which ascends through the perforations in the bottom of the upper vessel, and softens and the kouskous, which is very much esteemed throughout all the countries that I visited.

I am informed that the same manner of preparing flour is very generally used on the Barbary coast, and that the dish so prepared is there called by the same name. It is therefore probable that the negroes borrowed the practice from the Moors.

Source:  Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa 1795-97 – Volume 1

In some parts of the Niger basin he found that the diet consisted primarily of rice, an indigenous variety locally grown. Throughout his descriptions he mentions that rice and salt were often given as a welcoming meal when entering a new village, and during travels was sometimes eaten raw.

An area through which Park travelled; he is shown in the lower right had corner, sketching a picture of the bridge. Source: Travels in the Interior of Africa…

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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1 Response to Couscous and other Cuisines in the Sahel in 1798 – Mungo Park’s Experience

  1. Pingback: More Adventures of Mungo Park, Who Describes Hunger Crops in the Western Sahel, 1797 | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture

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