Roberta Brown Cooper’s new cookbook provides gastronomic inspiration for all.
How could a continent as large as Africa not be featured in cookbooks and bookstores? This question appeared multiple times during chef and author Roberta Brown Cooper’s 28-year career working in the travel industry as an international flight attendant with Pan American World Airways and American International Airways.
While she traversed the African continent and other parts of the world, curious about cuisines and cultures, it became clear to her that African cuisine, despite its healthy and nurturing reputation, simply wasn’t represented as much as other cuisines in mainstream media.
Thus, the idea was born for the cookbook “African Food is a Culinary Journey,” which Cooper released last January. The cookbook covering African culture, cuisine, history and heritage, featuring around 200 recipes from all regions of the continent, is truly a great addition to any family’s kitchen.
Spotlighting African Cuisine
“I'm excited about my cookbook. I'm getting positive feedback from those who bought the book and in helping to educate a lot of people about African cuisine,” Cooper says. The cookbook features recipes from all regions of Africa and part of the proceeds from sales of the book will go to her nonprofit Marylanders for Progress (Liberia), Inc. raising funds for Liberia, where she’s originally from.
“We're building water wells for poor communities, and we are building a school for a village that has never had a school building before,” she shares. The cookbook is the culmination of years of collecting recipes during Cooper’s career in travel. That inspired her love for international cuisines and the desire to learn more about each country and region she visited. The realization soon hit that she had never seen a cookbook that featured African food in bookstores.
That began a quest to collect recipes every opportunity she got. Whether visiting friends during her travels or talking to passengers on planes, conversations revolved around food. Cooper’s mother also nudged her on to write a cookbook, hearing her concerns about not seeing any cookbooks on African food.
“African food is a culinary journey because it's a journey you're taking into the continent of Africa to learn what we eat, why we eat what we eat because our food is very healthy. It's all organic and natural, and the world needs to know that this is what Africans eat,” says Cooper.
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“Most of the African food is steamed or grilled. We don't eat a lot of salt because of the herbs. You don't have people with diabetes or hypertension. We eat a lot of greens and grains. A lot of the foods that we eat also are connected to the food that African Americans eat in the United States,” Cooper shares
Implementing Culinary Knowledge
The cookbook has about 200 recipes and represents every region of Africa. From West Africa, there is jollof rice—a dish Cooper suggests is a must-try, especially given the fact that every country in Africa has its version of it. Another dish from West Africa is egusi soup, a renowned Nigerian dish.
From North Africa, there is the seven-vegetable couscous, a stew. Bamia (okra in Arabic) is a famous Egyptian dish made with tomatoes and garlic and eaten with bread or rice. From East Africa, there is coconut shrimp and a dish with spinach and peanuts. And the list goes on.
The journey of bringing the cookbook to fruition also included attending culinary school. That’s where Cooper learned what would become the greatest hurdle in the process of writing her recipes—measurements. “In Africa, when we cook, we just put things together. The outcome is always very delicious,” she says.
“But for me to be able to sell this book, I had to learn how to measure all the ingredients and that was a task,” admits Cooper. Her instructor at the prestigious L’Academie de Cuisine Culinary School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, warned that she would be the oldest in class and in a very challenging course. But she was prepared. “I said, ‘I'm expecting that, but I'm going to do it,’ and I was determined to do it. I wanted to make sure I knew how food was prepared, how to cook different foods from different parts of the world,” she shares.
Cooper never missed a day and graduated with honors from culinary school. She has since worked with several notable chefs including the late Walter Scheib, former White House executive chef, and Patrice Olivon, former executive chef at the French Embassy, Washington, D.C., chef instructor and program director of Culinary Arts at L’Academie de Cuisine.
Honoring Childhood Dreams
Cooper’s curiosity about the world around her began at a very young age. She knew there were three things she had her mind set on. She was interested in airplanes and wanted to be an air hostess, which was accomplished in 1972 when American World Airways came to Liberia to recruit flight attendants. She wanted to own a restaurant or be a caterer and was able to realize that during a stint where she did some catering for weddings, private parties, and the like.
She also wanted to be able to take over what her mother was doing by becoming a humanitarian and supporting orphaned children like her—Cooper’s birth mother passed away during childbirth and she was adopted and raised by an American missionary. Her cause-oriented work in Liberia through her nonprofit organization stems from that wish.
Cooper last traveled to Africa at the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic was announced, visiting Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal. She hopes to revisit before the end of the year to view the work her nonprofit is doing in Maryland County, Liberia. She is hoping to replicate the elementary school model in other villages so more young children can have access to the benefits of elementary education.
Meanwhile, Cooper’s focus is on spreading the word about the cookbook and bringing more exposure to African cuisine, no matter which region of the continent you turn to. It gives her great pleasure to watch others enjoy her creations and learn more about the gastronomic delights the continent offers.
“My book really does represent Africa, and I always say it's a culinary journey into the continent of Africa,” she says. “That was my goal, my vision, my dream, to introduce the world to African food.”