My Food is Not a Challenge — How to Represent African Cuisine on Social Media

a mound of white dough beside a red and green stew on a purple tablecloth

Since the beginning of the pandemic, food trends have reigned supreme on social media, but above all African cuisines appear to be having their moment.

The latest viral trend bringing them into focus is the Fufu Challenge, which features curious TikTokers sampling the soft, doughy food staple typically enjoyed with soups or stews across West Africa. The reactions to this dish, which vary from appreciation to downright disrespect, have inspired discussion about the use of social media to showcase food cultures from the continent.

The power of the platform

Social media provides an unprecedented opportunity to raise the profile of Africa’s diverse food traditions and there are tons of foodies in the diaspora using their platforms to encourage others to explore foods outside the mainstream. Malicka Anjorin is a food blogger who posts informative content focused on Beninois cuisine on her Instagram handle @theblvckgourmet. She credits social media for the platform it has provided her to promote underrepresented food cultures.

“I feel like social media plays a huge role in making sure our food is put out there,” she shares. “You rarely hear anyone talk about African food, and I’m doing the little something that I can to make sure that changes.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/CL4rm5RhKE9/

Through her highly descriptive posts, the blogger works to ensure her followers learn about the culture behind traditional foods by explaining cooking methods and key ingredients. While doing so, Malicka has also been careful to emphasize the diversity in foods across the continent to avoid generalizations.

“Many countries cook the same dishes but we might call them by different names depending on where we’re from,” she explains. “If you’re going to be teaching people about a dish from your country and how it is called, I think it’s important to also let them know that the dish name is specific to your country.”

Afia Amoako of @thecanadianafrican has also been putting in the work on Instagram, TikTok, and her website to increase exposure, focusing on a vegan approach to Ghanaian cuisine. As an influencer, she’s used social media to own her narrative when educating her followers and to highlight the versatility of Ghanaian food through her tested vegan recipes. Her secret to good food content is context. “I am a firm believer in having my audience learn more about the culture surrounding the dish than the dish itself, because that’s the gateway to learning about the culture.”

a white bowl of greens mixed with egusi seeds, tomato, and onion typical of African cuisines
On her site, Afia shares vegan versions of Ghanaian classics like this kontomire stew.

Both women have generated very positive engagement in their online communities, with many followers outside the diaspora showing interest in learning about culinary traditions across the continent. These influencers and websites like BLACK FOODIE prove that social media can give the world access to contemporary and traditional food stories, but as we’ve seen with the Fufu Challenge, increased representation has also fueled misrepresentation.

The problem with trends

The recipe for today’s viral videos is simple: a short, attention-grabbing video that triggers an emotional response and inspires a bandwagon effect. This formula can be an effective way promote African cuisines because it motivates hundreds of thousands of viewers to discover new foods thanks to the thumb-stopping nature of the content. But one of the problems with trends like the Fufu Challenge lies in how they are framed.

For foodies like Marc Kusitor, chef and founder of ghost kitchen/pop-up food business @choptimecatering, respect is key when it comes to speaking about cultural foods on social media. “I find the term ‘challenge’ to carry such a negative connotation,” he explains. “My food isn’t a challenge. These are the dishes we grew up eating and enjoying.”

The entrepreneur uses captivating photos and descriptions of ChopTime Catering’s Afro-Caribbean menu offerings to draw in customers and inspire them to learn more. He’s a big fan of using social media to promote African food culture, but he acknowledges that social media trends can be limiting. “Some stories should never be told in 30 seconds because that dilutes our food, our history, and our culture,”

Platforms like TikTok can feed our collective curiosity about the world, but a growing preference for short and punchy videos means that some creators are sacrificing context in favour of clickbait. After all, the Fufu Challenge videos didn’t go viral because we could learn from them; they went viral because many featured negative and exaggerated reactions to “foreign” West African food. When promoting dishes that are part of such rich and complex cultures, these types of videos only tell part of the story and may even negatively impact perceptions.

So if our goal is to move our food cultures forward and bring them to the mainstream, how will food bloggers and influencers in the diaspora reconcile today’s shortened attention spans and thirst for viral content with the need to authentically showcase our cultures? As we keep taking control of our own narratives social media platforms will continue to make it easy to promote all that African cuisines have to offer.

The real challenge moving forward will be finding a way to strike a balance between trendy and teachable.

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