Dense plumes of smoke billowing over a flurry of chatter and anticipation.
Licks of open flame dashing and darting about after molten fat drips on to smouldering coals.
Goat, Beef, Ram and Chicken bathing in a melange of herbs and spices , some you know the English name for, some you don’t.
A dusting of Yaji
Sharp, raw, red onion.
Speared onto bamboo or dished onto newspaper, dinner is served and conversation follows.
If you’re familiar with West African cusine, I’m sure you already know where this is going. If not, let me introduce you to Suya, the Hausa tribe’s stamp on the West African food scene. Spicy, nutty slivers of grilled meat finished with a signature ground spice blend, Suya is one of the most popular street foods across West Africa. It’s most often enjoyed in a social context as it’s rarely made at home (it’s just not the same!). The distinguishing groundnut-heavy spice blend and marinade is what makes it so deliciously moreish.
However, aside from this, there’s nothing particularly unique about it (this is coming from a hardcore suya lover so don’t come for me). If we’re being honest, suya is essentially seasoned meat cooked over fire. Nothing special about that. In fact, some form of meat cooked over flames exists in every carnivorous culinary tradition across the world and was most probably humankind’s first foray into what we now call cooking.
“Meat cooked over fire, you can’t tell where you are in the world”
-Michael Pollen, Cooked,, Episode 2
Fire, and by extension cooking, is what some argue, is at the cornerstone of our social and cultural evolution, setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Before we learned how to control it, fires would have been mainly ignited by lightning. Early humans would have foraged for food in the charred savannah land and found a delectable selection of dead animals, birds and insects that had basically been barbecued. Many of which were likely to have been totally charred or under cooked so by placing undercooked meats onto remaining hotspots and rescuing food in danger of becoming burned, humans essentially began cooking.
Aside from the cooked food, which I’ll come back to later, fires provided a range of other benefits to our survival, for example:
Increases light hours, providing extra time for hunting after nightfall.
Provides a means of drying and preserving foods for times of scarcity.
Increases variety of food available- starchy foods like potatoes, cassava and other tubers that are inedible when raw are rendered delicious (iyan, fries, boiled yam, mash….I could go on) when cooked.
Wards off predators
Allows for the development of more sophisticated tools for hunting and protection.
Increases the chances of surviving cold night time temperatures, especially for infants and young children, increasing population survival rates.
So, opportunistic as we are, early humans would have kept watch for naturally occuring fires and sought to transport and maintain them. Maintaining a fire over a long period of time would have required a great deal of teamwork and social interaction possibly leading to the formation of campfire like bases or ‘homes’.
Individuals with greater skills in maintaining fire would have enjoyed a higher social position, perhaps leading to the formation of societies within these early human groups.
Increased communication, nightime activity and time spent together in a central location (i.e. sitting round the fire) could have also lead to the formation of language.
The ability to transport and maintain a fire allowed early humans to survive in colder regions and move across the globe.
Ok now back to cooking:
Most of us will agreed that food just tastes better when cooked. Think why we enjoy the golden, crisp edges of foods like cake and macaroni cheese, why condensed milk is so much sweeter than fresh, why roasted coffee and nuts are so good. The reason is the browning, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars, also known as the Maillard reaction. It’s also responsible for umami, our fifth taste.
Modern humans are biologically disposed to cooked food. We are able to absorb more calories from cooked foods than raw. This, combined with other factors, has been suggested as a reason for the growth in human brain size. Our brains are our most metabolically greedy organs; the brain can burn around 20% of a person’s daily calories whereas the rest of our vital organs account for around 6%.
Sooo, someone could come to the conclusion that the increased quality of nutrition we received from cooked food allowed our brains to expand enabling us to evolve to where we are today. The reality is though that it’s a pretty controversial topic and there are a load of other suggestions as to why our brains are so big however there’s no reason why cooked food couldn’t have been one of them!