The AspenTech Black Leadership Forum (BLF) is an employee-led resource group, and a part of our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives. The goal of the BLF is to create a safe, open forum for employees who share common interests and identity, and their allies, to support each other, build community and enhance belonging. The Black Leadership Forum’s mission is to share our collective experiences, history and culture to raise awareness for all employees to better understand their fellow colleagues, customers and community.
During Black History Month this year, we are celebrating Black Culture & Its Impact on today’s culture and society in the areas of art, food and music. We will be celebrating in our North American offices by hosting lunches that will allow our employees to explore Black culture through food – including Cajun, African/Caribbean and Haitian cuisines.
African cultures have influenced culinary traditions across the globe through trade and migration, both voluntary and involuntary, for centuries. Seasonings such as hot peppers, black pepper and spices, as well as produce like okra, watermelon, black-eyed peas, rice, yams and bananas all originated in Africa.
Let’s look at three staples from Africa that are enjoyed globally and can be found in our daily lives.
African Palm Oil
The African oil palm is a tree indigenous to the African continent. The reddish fruit from the tree provides palm oil and palm oil represents 85% of the vegetable oil used today. The origin of palm oil can be found in the tropical rainforest regions of west and central Africa in countries from present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, southeast to the Congo basin.
Palm oil was used during the slave trade and was mixed with different ingredients to sustain the slaves during the middle passage voyage. As a result, palm oil became an export to the western world where it became a staple in the southern United States, the Caribbean and Brazil. Frying food in Africa was common because it was the fastest way of cooking meats and the added flavor of palm oil made it desirable. Combined with Scottish frying techniques shared from immigrants during the 18th century, enslaved Africans in America made fried chicken a signature of southern cuisine. While fried chicken has been a stereotype of African Americans, the global take-out fried chicken market is expected to reach $9.85 Billion USD by 2030.
Coca-Cola was once referred to as “the most American thing in America.” You may be aware that one of the original ingredients was a powerfully addictive stimulant. The “coca” part of its name referred to extracts from the coca leaf that was once included. The “cola” part of its name and flavor is derived from kola nuts, which originated in Africa. Kola trees are indigenous to tropical West–Central Africa from Sierra Leone to Congo. The nuts are found inside the pods of the kola tree. The fleshy meat found inside, which is similar to a chestnut, was chewed by Africans as a stimulant.
The nuts contain caffeine, theobromine (found in herbal teas, chocolate and coffee), sugar and kolanin (a heart stimulant). The Portuguese were the first to export kola nuts in the 1500s. By the late 19th century, they were shipped to Europe and the United States by the ton. Many cola beverages no longer contain the extract from the kola nut. However, the flavor still resembles the widely sought-after stimulant. Coke products are sold in over 200 countries, with consumers drinking 1.8 billion servings per day. Understanding the original ingredients makes me think differently about the slogan I grew up listening to: “Have a coke and a smile. It makes you feel good.” I’m sure it did.
Speaking of caffeine, many of us need at least one cup of coffee in the morning to get our day started. There are many different species of coffee trees that yield the coffee beans we have come to rely on. Most of the beans the world consumes today originated in Africa. Approximately two-thirds of all commercial coffee production comes from the beans of Coffea arabica, which was domesticated in the highlands of Ethiopia over 1,500 years ago. Much of the rest comes from the beans of Coffea canephora, originating from lowland tropical forests in Africa (Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Guinea).
These beans are used mostly in instant coffee and espresso. A third African bean, though not as popular, is Coffea liberica. In the 1600s a Dutch trader smuggled plants into modern-day Indonesia. With the help of a 17th century Sufi by the name of Baba Budan, coffee soon made its way into India. By the end of the 17th-century coffee drinking was common in Northern Europe. This led to the establishment of coffee plantations in the 18th century, in their respective colonies in the West Indies and Latin America including Colombia and Brazil. Now, the world consumes over 2.5 billion cups of coffee per day.
Africa has had a significant influence on the flavors, foods and drinks we consume every day. The next time you are waiting to receive your venti cup with your name scrawled on it or sipping an ice-cold coke after finishing your favorite fried chicken sandwich, offer a salute to Mother Africa.