Mrs Annabel Hughes Aston is an award-winning chef and writer, who lives with her husband on a farm in the Zambezi Valley, upstream from Victoria Falls in Livingstone, Zambia (Africa). She is the creator of “bush gourmet” cuisine, developed while experimenting with, and fusing, wild and indigenous Zambian ingredients—bought from neighbouring villages, Livingstone’s native markets, or local small-scale farmers—with her own fresh produce grown in her organic vegetable garden. Annabel’s hyperlocal “bush gourmet” cuisine won multiple awards after she introduced it at The Elephant Café in Livingstone, Zambia, which she co-founded in 2016.
Food, a primary human need, has only recently become an object of many scientific discussions due to its acknowledged contribution in cultural heritage (Giovine & Brulotte 2014). This means that food, as well as with religion, language, folklore is a marker of ethnic, national, regional and local identity (Timothy & Ron 2013, p. 99).
Cooking styles seem to be constituted of a mix of tangible and intangible elements: tangible elements include ingredients and accessories while intangible elements involve tastes, smells (see Sutton 2010), recipes and eating traditions. Thus, the mix of both elements clearly contributes to the understanding of cultural values and characteristics of social groups and places.
Scholars distinguish the term ‘food’ from the term ‘foodways’. The former indicates the physical fare consumed by people while the latter includes the culinary smell, sights, sound and eating practices of individuals, as well as culinary routes, sites and landscapes (Hall et al. 2003). From this perspective, foodways become a term loaded with cultural meanings, experiences, and lastingness (Timothy & Ron 2013, p. 99).
This interview aims to consider food from a heritage perspective focussing on its importance as a marker of identity and as a tool for community revitalisation. We analyse how creative cooking styles can create immersive cultural experiences particularly in the tourism sector and how local communities can be involved in order to keep alive traditional eating practices. Finally, we also discuss how external factors may negatively impact traditional cooking practices trying to present some strategies of safeguarding based on our expert’s practical experience.
1.Where did your passion for food come from? Why and when did you settle in Zambia?
I attended culinary school as a young adult but then became a journalist instead. It was while I was living in the United States that I really developed a love for cooking after I created my own vegetable garden and started foraging. I settled in Zambia in early 2013 after I fell in love with a man whom I had known and been close friends with since I was a young woman living in Zimbabwe.
2.When did you open a restaurant such as The Elephant Café? Where are the elephants from?
I co-founded The Elephant Café in May, 2016. The elephants were found in various locations as babies, after being orphaned as a result of droughts and culls in Zimbabwe. Some of the younger ones at The Elephant Café were born into the herd, while another baby followed them in after feeding on an island in the Zambezi River. One can only assume he had lost his mother, or been separated somehow from his own family.
3.Can you explain to us the concept and the principles of your “bush gourmet cuisine” which is behind the creation of the dishes? Are all your ingredients local?
The concept of ‘sufficiency’ is my inspiration behind my “bush gourmet cuisine”. When I was seriously challenged financially in my last few years of living in the United States, I fed myself well from my tiny vegetable garden and from the wild edibles I foraged for around my house. When I moved to the Zambezi Valley I wanted to do the same, even though I was no longer alone, or impoverished. Zambia is boundless in its natural resources, yet so many of its people live on, or below, the poverty threshold. Many in the rural communities survive on wild edibles, an age-old tradition that is now stigmatised by the more affluent for not being able to afford to shop in the cities’ supermarkets. I want to dispel this stigma by showcasing the gourmet cuisine that can be created out of using wild edibles and indigenous local ingredients. I have spent the past eight years, since moving to Livingstone, developing my organic garden and experimenting with, and fusing, wild edibles and indigenous Zambian ingredients with the produce I am growing. While my recipes are inspired by Mediterranean, South East Asian and Middle Eastern / North Africa cuisines, the menu changes according to the fresh food available on any given day. All my fresh ingredients are produced or foraged from within a 30km radius of the farm. So, yes, all my FRESH ingredients are hyperlocal.
4.Do you include locals in your activities? If so, how?
I sincerely believe that the success of my food is a result of a growing collaboration between me and Zambia, both the people and the terroir. The centuries-old wisdom of our neighbouring riverside communities helps me identify and forage for wild food. I buy indigenous dried ingredients like beans and grains from nearby small-scale growers, while the Zambian chefs with whom I work have led me to the diverse selection of local food found in Livingstone’s native markets. As such, it is my sincere hope that by promoting the use of these inimitable, and largely unexplored, natural resources our local economy will also be enriched.
5.Based on your experience, how does traditional food play a crucial role in tourism development?
At this stage, in my experience, traditional food does not play a crucial role in terms of tourism development. By adding a contemporary element to traditional ingredients—by transforming them into dishes that tourists will better understand—I hope to raise the profile of not only the food itself, but also of the importance of these healthy, unique native ingredients among the tour operators and stakeholders in Zambia.
6.What is your strategy to make tourists fully experience local culture through the consumption of food? How do both locals and visitors benefit?
The local Zambians who forage or grow the food are economically uplifted by my purchasing their products. I have set up a small collective owned and operated by a Zambian woman here on the farm, who works with other women among our neighbouring communities procuring ingredients for me. Visitors benefit from not only eating plant-forward, hyperlocal gourmet food made with some ingredients they would not have tasted before, but they also have the opportunity to learn about Zambia’s traditions and culture. The food experience I am opening here on the farm this year also includes village and market tours, garden and farm tours, and foraging in season.
7.Could you please share the most representative dishes which are symbolic of the local identity?
There are many, but the one I am most proud of is a dessert I conceived called MUNKOYO PANNA COTTA WITH SINDAMBI & MONGONGO NUT FLORENTINE. Munkoyo is a wild root that is traditionally consumed as a drink. It is stark white and has the most unusual taste. The wild root is fermented in masembe (pounded maize) for a couple of days, mixed with sugar, and then served as a drink at celebrations and ceremonies. As soon as I saw and I tasted it I knew would make a beautiful panna cotta. Sindambi is the calyx of an indigenous hibiscus. The leaves are consumed as a relish in traditional Zambian cooking, and normally eaten with fish by the communities along the Zambezi River. In the villages the crimson-coloured calyxes would normally be dried for seed the following year, or discarded. I have set up an arrangement whereby I purchase the calyxes to use in my bush gourmet food, carefully remove the seeds from inside, and then return them to the grower for planting the following season. It is a win-win for the growers and me.
8.Can globalisation be considered a threat to local gastronomic identities?
Yes, I believe it can be considered a threat to local gastronomic identities. The affluent Zambians, for the most part, disregard their traditional and wild food and see it almost as an embarrassment. They want to be seen shopping in foreign-owned grocery stores; they want to be seen being wealthy enough to afford purchasing and consuming foreign foodstuffs. Then there is the growing issue surrounding foreign fast food franchises popping up all over Zambia, particularly among the more populated cities. Malnutrition is not as big a problem among the rural populations in Zambia as it is in our cities where the lower-income earners have access to unhealthy cheap fast food.
9.You and your husband live and manage a farm; can you tell us if and how climate change is impacting agriculture?
Climate change is beginning to impact agriculture in the Southern Province of Zambia where we live. The average rainfall is most definitely declining, which for subsistence farmers is a major challenge not having the resources to access water for supplementary irrigation. The decreasing flow of the main rivers for irrigation and hydroelectric power is and will continue to challenge all types of agriculture.
10.Similarly, how may climate change impact eating practices? Will they evolve or are they at threat of perishing?
If anything I think it will force eating habits back to more traditional food, depending more on drought-resistant, heirloom seed varieties, and traditionally eaten and sustainably-harvested wild foods.
11.Can other external phenomena such as colonialism, armed conflict, migration, cultural or religious conflict, impact the use of ingredients, dishes and the development of foodways within a culture?
Naturally colonialism and the attendant migrations, cultural oppression and cross-cultural influence have deep and long-lasting effects on food cultures.
12.Can the cultural heritage of food be treated as a resource that can leverage environmental sustainability and social integration.
Absolutely, for all the reasons I write about above.
13.Based on your direct experience, how is it possible to safeguard traditional food?
The only way I believe one can safeguard traditional food is to make it popular again; to make Zambians proud of their traditional food by showcasing the multifaceted uniqueness of it.
14.What did you learn from local Zambians? How did they enrich your life?
Collaborating with Zambians means I never stop learning. I sincerely believe that we have so much to learn from their traditional forefathers and mothers, not only in land stewardship and sustainability, but in nutritional and medicinal values of all our native flora.
15.What are your plans for the near future?
This year I will be opening a food experience here on the farm, during which I will also be selling my small-batch artisanal bush gourmet range of products. A part of this new venture is raising money and awareness to assist our neighbouring growers to have access to water and irrigation in order for them to be able to always feed their families and become self-sustaining. I am hoping, too, that what we do here might perhaps become a model for lodges and operators around Zambia to emulate. It is not difficult and will enhance menus in so many different ways.
The Heritage Call warmly thanks our expert Mrs Annabel Hughes-Aston for sharing with us her experience, story and knowledge.
Based on Annabel’s practical experience, it emerges that food is an important element of cultural identity and, for this reason, needs to be safeguarded and promoted with targeted strategies.
Her experience in Zambia raises awareness on the importance of local resources, as well as on the wide knowledge of local communities. Annabel, working and cooperating together with Zambians, expanded her knowledge and was able to make relevant local products promoting them by a creative mix with other ingredients which help construct an immersive experience for tourists. In doing so, tourists can appreciate healthy, hyperlocal food together with a better understanding of the importance of specific agricultural practices behind the dishes they enjoy to eat.
This interview reports that, with the change of time, some Zambians have recently started buying foreign products at the expense of local and traditional food. This is indicative of how some important traditions directly linked to local identity may be lost due to globalisation and, yet, how local economies can be negatively impacted.
However, it clearly emerges that the enhancement and promotion of local resources can be helpful in a sustainable future perspective, meaning that local people can considerably benefit by the promotion of their own traditional food, knowledge and practices. From this viewpoint, safeguarding traditional food, as rightly suggested by Annabel, should imply strategies aimed to make food relevant again so that people can start appreciating its unique characteristics. This concept should be really taken as an example to be applied in many other contexts around the world. As seen, local communities can play a crucial role in the process of safeguarding their own traditions and they can transmit important values and healthy practices to future generations in order to be proud of their own traditions.
Last but not least, climate change is a real threat! The problems linked to the lack of water, as highlighted by our interviewee, should be taken into account and meditated on in order to globally raise awareness, to take seriously the problem of climate threat and, above all, to act for in the best nature for the future of our planet.
Brulotte, R. and Di Giovine, M. eds. (2014). Edible Identities: food as cultural heritage. Burlington: Ashgate.
Gabaccia, D. (1998). We are what we eat: Ethnicity and the Making of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Di Giovine, M., Mabry, J. and Majewski, T. (2016). Moveable feasts: food as revitalizing cultural heritage. In Silverman, H. Waterton, E., and Watson, S. eds. Heritage in Action: Making the Past in the Present. New York: Springer, pp. 201-216.
Kong, L. and Vineeta, S. eds. (2015). Food, Foodways and Foodscapes: culture, community and consumption in post-colonial Singapore. Singapore: World Heritage.
Sutton, D. (2010). Food and the Senses, Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 209-223.
Timothy, D. and Ron, A. (2013). Understanding heritage cuisines and tourism: identity, image, authenticity and change, Journal of Heritage Tourism, 8:2-3, 99-104.
Interview directed by Dr Barbara Mordà
Annabel’s feedback on The Heritage Call: I very much appreciate being interviewed by Dr Mordà about the importance of food as a marker of identity and as a tool for community revitalisation. The discussion provided me with an opportunity to showcase how growth and sustainability, in an area with obvious economic disparities, can be achieved through creative enhancement and promotion of hyperlocal food resources, and as well, through collaboration with native Zambians, who are the conveyors of their own traditional knowledge and practices.