Diverse foods and foodways

Diversity in foods and food culture have been an interest since I was young, but this has taken on new dimensions as I've had the chance to live and travel in diverse parts of the world, especially West Africa and China. Much of that has been personal - in our own kitchens and vegetable garden - but there has been some writing and publishing as well, notably on soybeans and millets.


In the early 2000s I had the chance to research and write an article on uses of soybeans in West Africa, with focus on a traditional condiment called daddawa or sumbala, and a local version of beancurd/tofu. This included a conference presentation in Chengdu in October 2003, and eventual publication as a book chapter:

  • Osborn, Donald. 2008. "Soybeans and Soybean Products in West Africa: Adoption by Farmers and Adaptation to Foodways." in Christine DuBois, Tan Chee-Beng, and Sidney Mintz, eds. The World of Soy. University of Illinois Press.

Two related blog posts on Multidisciplinary Perspectives:

My interest in soybeans in Africa goes back to Peace Corps volunteer service in Togo in 1979-81, where I grew a successful trial plot of soybeans without "inoculating" the seeds with rhizobacteria (the prevailing wisdom at the time was that this was necessary in African soils, but since the soil where I planted had previously had leguminous crops, this turned out not to be necessary).


In 2015 I wrote a 6-part series of blog posts on Multidisciplinary Perspectives (MdP) about millets (and also an article on LinkedIn). This is a subject I had in the back of my mind since being introduced to pearl millet in West Africa, and encountering different kinds of millet on return to the US and eventual living in China. My goal was to bring some clarity to the diversity of grains involved, which we in the Anglophone world lump under the single term "millet."

The MdP series highlighted the four main millets in terms of production and consumption, while also discussing other grains in the "millet spectrum":

The LinkedIn piece summarizes the above, focusing on how the term "millet" constrains thinking about the diversity of grains covered:

My interest in millets came from eating one kind in West Africa, then encountering an entirely different millet in the US. It was not until later that I spent the time to disambiguate this experience. That was prompted by experiencing another kind in Chinese porridge and yet another in an East African non-alcoholic beverage. It was upon finding all of the above and others in one form or another in an Indian food store in Falls Church, Virginia in 2015, that I decided I had to write about it.

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