French chef Lucas Felzine chases umami across continents
Chef Lucas Felzine has twinkling eyes and a kind smile. He's a chef that uses words like soul, emotions and feelings when talking about how he cooks, a cook who is constantly after the elusive umami taste and takes pleasure in mixing the unexpected to bring new sensations to his customers
When he was a chubby three-year-old, Felzine used to drag a chair next to the stove where his grandmother was cooking, climbing on top of the chair to add whatever took his fancy to the pot and instructing his grandma to taste his concoction.
Even as a little boy, Felzine had a predilection, coupled with the confidence, for experimenting with food. His Parisian Mamie never discouraged him, even though she did not lie to little Lucas about how the food tasted.
Thirty years later, Felzine set up his own restaurant, Uma, in the heart of Paris, not far from the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre Museum. A restaurant that explores Nikkei cuisine with a French touch à la Felzine. Nikkei cuisine was born in Peru, a fusion between the Japanese cuisine brought in the 19th century with the first migrants and the local Peruvian food.
The name is a word used on both the Asian and American continent.
It means horse in Japanese and water in Quechua, an indigenous Latin American language. Uma is also short for umami, the fifth taste after sour, bitter, sweet and salty, named by chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is also that elusive taste that combines all flavours. Felzine says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly and describes it as something one is irresistibly attracted to. Similar to a child’s taste for ketchup.
Cooking with soul
“I want, when people taste my food, that they have a lot of sensation. I want to touch their soul,” says Felzine
The chef believes in making almost everything himself, from smoking fish to making various condiments and curries, sometimes with as many as 30 ingredients, like his black Peruvian curry inspired by the Chef Pascal Barbot.
Felzine works with a few suppliers around Paris for fresh produce and one in south-western France, a biochemist who upped and left Canada with his anthropologist wife and now grows, among other exotic curiosities, huacatay. That is a herb from South America “between basil and mint with a bubble gum taste at the end”. The biochemist is also growing papaya trees in Samadet.
Felzine is constantly exploring new ways of preparing food, even deconstructing what he has created to build something different or totally new. So, even though the menu of the restaurant does not change continually, there might be some alterations in the kitchen. Boredom and routine are words he abhors.
“I like to discover something new, all the time, everyday,” he says.
Explosion of flavours
In his kitchen, one will find mostarda from Italy, aji panca from Peru, tamarillo from the Andes, to name but a few of an array of ingredients he enjoys experimenting with.
His preparations involves a high number of ingredients and often result in a wealth of flavours exploding on one’s taste buds. Felzine’s skill lies in striking the right balance so that they all play their part harmoniously in a composition concocted by the chef.
“When you follow your instinct, it’s OK,” says Felzine, “If you use all your senses, you see all, you know all.”
Chef William Ledeuil, whom he worked with, once told him that he liked his sensitivity. At that time, an inexperienced Felzine was taken aback by such a comment. Now he understands that his instinct and his feelings are what set him apart and drive his creativity.
“Every dish is different, you transfer your sensitivity, your emotion, angry or happy,” he explains.
Gyozas have it all
Gyozas, the Chinese-origin dumplings now popular around the world, are Uma’s signature dish. They allow Chef Lucas Felzine to write a culinary partition fusing Japan, Peru and France in one bite. He says it is the best representation of Nikkei food.
“I can put all that I want in a gyoza, all that I imagine. It is a really a fusion between all influences, all ingredients,” declares Felzine.
He says that obtaining a Michelin star is not of paramount importance even though he admits it would be flattering. But what he cares most for is the “star in the eyes of my customers when they are eating my food”.
“I want to make this food because I want to stop time” says Felzine.
Whether he has succeeded in that aim or not, his food is a culinary voyage for your taste buds.
Follow Chef Lucas Felzine on Facebook UMA
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
Sound editor: Alain Bleu
Zambian gemstone jeweller looks to dazzle the Chinese market
Lusaka-based gemstone company Jewel of Africa is taking aim at the Chinese market after establishing exports to the US, pushing their “home-grown” precious stones. The family-run business runs its own mines, cuts and polishes gems and runs retail outlets, employing around 100 locals. The Zambian jeweller is looking to further its expansion into the lucrative Chinese market.
“People are getting to know more about gemstones and about the quality and value of Zambian gemstones,” Sandra Kasaby, Jewel of Africa’s marketing and operations manager told RFI at the recent World Export Development Forum.
Jewel of Africa uses gemstones such as garnet and tourmaline. “We like to say that we have the best amethysts,” says Kasaby, pointing out that their emeralds are also very popular.
The Zambian firm produces showcase jewellery worth over 100,000 US dollars in value and at the bottom of the range from 50 US dollars upwards. “We cater to all walks of life,” says Kasaby, describing clients including the Moroccan King, diplomats as well as young gentlemen looking to propose to their girlfriends.
The jeweller prides itself on taking precious stones direct from the earth straight to their workshop. “Our slogan is ‘mine to you’, so we are at every step of the chain,” says Kasaby. “We mine, we cut, we polish, we jewellery manufacture, we retail and resize, repair and also certify jewellery and gems.”
Jewel of Africa has already taken advantage of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) which enables countries in sub-Saharan Africa to access the US market tariff-free.
“Thanks to that we are able to export to the US,” says Kasaby, outlining the trade shows they attend and the buyers they have in different US cities.
The next step is to further their appeal in China. “We have a lot of Chinese coming to Jewel of Africa to buy our gemstones, especially emeralds,” says Kasaby. “We see that as an opportunity to market that,” she adds. Jewel of Africa has recently been chosen by the Chinese embassy in Zambia to represent the country at exhibitions in China.
Consumers in China are becoming “more knowledgeable about gemstones and jewellery, and more astute in their purchases”, according to a report by the Gemological Institute of America. The report describes China as the second-largest jewellery consumer in the world.
The business does, however, face some headwinds. Finance can be a problem and trade policy in Zambia also creates some obstacles.
“Mining is very expensive and it’s difficult to get access to credit here in Zambia,” says Kasaby. The company sometimes teams up with foreign partners to try and access lower interest rates.
The other issue relates to the ATA Carnet system which provides a framework for temporary import-export. Zambia is not a member of the system, impacting the ability of Jewel of Africa to bring jewellery for exhibitions duty-free and tax-free. To visit trade fairs with expensive jewellery this often means putting down a large deposit with customs, which can affect cash flow, according to Kasaby.
The company is one of a kind in Zambia, says Kasaby - nobody both mines and produces jewellery. Their biggest competition on the African continent comes from South Africa, she says. Most of their competitors in South Africa are focused on diamonds, leaving Jewel of Africa to specialise in coloured gemstones.
The company is proud to provide “opportunities for people to grow”, says Kasaby, outlining the training Jewel of Africa gives to new employees whether in sales or manufacture. “Coming from three to over 100 people in 25 years is a pretty good accomplishment,” she adds.
Reporting assignment supported by the International Trade Centre
Djibouti emerges as arms trafficking hub for Horn of Africa
The rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea has repercussions that go beyond diplomacy on the Horn of Africa. A recent investigation shows that while Eritrea is no longer isolated, Djibouti is emerging as the new regional arms trafficking hub.
The small strategically located state acts as a transit location for weapons trafficking between Yemen and northern Somalia through the AMISOM mission among others actors in the trade.
The findings are the result of an investigation carried out by EXX Africa (specialist intelligence company that delivers forecasts on African political and economic risk to businesses) in illegal weapons trade on the Horn of Africa.
In its research, the results of which are contained in the report titled The Arms Trade In The Horn Of Africa (the report has been partially published on EXX Africa website behind a paywall and is available upon request), the UK based company states that many Djibouti -based companies engaged in the country’s thriving marine sector have been implicated in the illegal weapons trade.
Djibouti's growing economy
Djibouti is one of the world's fastest growing economies and opens onto one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It is strategically located on the Horn of Africa with access to both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Djibouti is only 32 kilometers away from Yemen and shares borders with Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland and Somalia.
The country also hosts a number of foreign military bases - France has its largest African military base there, the US military base there caters for some four thousand troops and can act as a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia, while Japan, Italy, Germany and China also have a military presence in Djibouti.
According to EXX Africa’s executive director, Robert Besseling, most of the weapons appear to be coming from Houthi controlled territory in Yemen - the Khokha district of Hodeidah province - shipped in the direction of Djiboutian ports from where they are passed to armed groups in northern Somalia supported by the government in Djibouti.
Besseling added that his team uncovered evidence of some of these weapons reaching armed groups in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia. However, he said he has no evidence that Djibouti is directly arming the Al-Shabab terrorist organisation.
The investigation also shows that the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) is involved in supplying illegal weapons to armed groups in northern Somalia.
“The Djibouti contingent deployed to AMISOM which is allowed to take weapons to Somalia, under very strict arms embargo, has been shipping some of those weapons to armed groups previously and still currently supported by Djibouti’s government,” Besseling says.
Djibouti fills in the gap left by Eritrea
The rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Eritrean peace overtures towards foreign countries (diplomatic ties restored with Somalia and Djibouti) is not only reshaping the region’s geo-politics, but is also likely to shift the dynamics of arms trafficking in the region.
During its years of isolation, Eritrea turned to illicit arms trafficking that “facilitat[ed] shipments of weapons to embargoed destinations like Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia," the report reads.
The report also claims that Eritrea has also been involved in “arming and training Al-Shabaab militants as well as Ethiopian rebel groups like the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).”
Now that Eritrea is emerging from decades of isolation, it is likely to reduce its “central role in arms trafficking in the Horn of Africa," Besseling says. He adds that such a situation “would open up a vacuum in arms trafficking into which Djibouti could step into”.
The EXX report states that senior Djiboutian military officials, government officials and heads of state-owned enterprises have ties with companies involved in the funding and facilitation of arms trafficking into the Horn of Africa.
Besseling adds: “Based on that evidence, it would seem very conceivable that the Djiboutian government is aware of its position in arms trafficking and that it is, indeed, actively encouraging it.”
The foreign military powers in Djibouti do not appear to be concerned with the arms trafficking happening under their nose.
“It would not be in these countries’ interests to reprimand Djibouti or to impose punitive sanctions given that many of these countries are UN Security Council members (NB: France, USA, China). They would be fearful of losing their leases over their military bases in Djibouti,” says Besseling.
This explains why there has been no concerted action by the United Nations or by these Western and Asian governments to try and curtail the arms trade in the country.
Besseling warns about the risks of a blowback due to this absence of action to address the illegal weapons trade in Djibouti. He says that armed criminal activity is on the rise, fuelled by a proliferation of small arms in the country. Furthermore, there is the added risk of armed local insurgency because of clan divisions and political repression.
And the terrorism threat remains; it already happened in May 2014 and the presence of thousands of Westerners still makes Djibouti a target for terrorist attacks.
Follow Robert Besseling on Twitter @ExxAfrica
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
The funny yet serious world of black comedian Daliso Chaponda
Malawian comic Daliso Chaponda says his way of coping with the world is through humour. He does so with much irreverence while getting laughs out of sensitive and complex issues. Chaponda is convinced laughter has a better chance of shifting views.
On an average day two to three strangers will come up to Daliso Chaponda asking for a selfie, that modern translation of autograph.
For the time being he finds it delightful, as not that many people recognise him as the comedian and Britain’s Got Talent contestant. But this is surely about to change: he keeps adding more dates to his UK tour while still finding time to perform in Africa.
Chaponda says he is part of “this new nomadic nation” of “international children” who grew up in different countries.
He was born in Zambia of Malawian parents. As his father was working for the United Nations, he lived in Somalia, Kenya, Zambia, Switzerland, Malawi, to name but a few. As an adult he spent some time in Canada and, since 2006, has been living in the United Kingdom.
This exposure to different cultures makes him feel that he is part of both Western and African culture but at the same time, he says, he is a citizen of nowhere.
“I realise how much I don’t fit in, in both places," he comments. "In England it is obvious: I am African, I have to keep reapplying for visas, I’ve got some African values.
"But when I go home to Malawi, I feel even more of an outsider because I do not speak the vernacular language, I believe in equal rights for homosexuals, I am not as religious as some of the people there. So, I can’t say that I fit in that culture as well."
Colonialism, old and new
Chaponda’s humour touches on a wide range of topics but he has a talent for getting laughs out of sensitive issues such as colonialism or slavery.
He talks about the troubled relations between the UK and Africa much the same way Francophone Africa talks about “La Françafrique”, a term used to describe the murky, incestuous relationship France entertains with its former African colonies. That is to say, after decolonisation, the colonial powers did not really leave.
“Government can leave but money never leaves,” explains Chaponda. “If you own a mine, you are never leaving because that mine provides millions if not billions of potential earnings.”
In his show Chaponda jokes about a current UK/Malawi deal, dating back to 1955, which allows British companies to send tax-free revenues back to the UK. He also cites a report on 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange which control resources in Africa worth one trillion US dollars.
“Even when things are renegotiated, it is in small increments and it is rarely ever beneficial," he says. "Then you have people like [former Zimbabwean president Robert] Mugabe taking this absurd view to chase them out and repossess everything. And that doesn’t help because it creates its own brand of chaos.”
Chaponda doesn’t lay the blame on one side only, he believes the Africans are also responsible for “this horrible situation because of the mismanagement and corruption happening in African governments”.
The comedian has a way of making people laugh at more subtle and complex issues.
One of his routines raises this notion that “white is better”. To illustrate this Chaponda tells the true story of his mother, who used to work as doctor in a hospital in Malawi, and how she was cast aside when a foreign white male doctor came to work at the same hospital.
“All of the patients, who were predominantly black, queued for this white doctor because they perceived he was better, even though he didn’t have the experience in tropical diseases that my mother has because she grew up there and done her education there," he remembes. "Often the white doctor would then, ironically, ask my mother for a consult. It is a pervasive sense of self-loathing.”
An attitude that permeates all aspects of life. Chaponda recalls how in Malawi black waiters in restaurants would automatically give the bill to his white friend and not to him, even though he was the one paying.
“They just automatically defer to the white person. The word for white person… [is] 'Bwana' which means boss! So even down to the wording that people use there is this culture of subservience, the feeling that we are not good enough.”
He has been personally affected by this attitude, as he only earned respect at home as a comedian after performing in the UK.
“They only found me valid because they said ‘Oh, you made the white people laugh, you must be funny,',” he says.
This mentality is very slow to change even though decolonisation happened some 50 years ago. According to Chaponda, it has a lot to do with the education system in former colonies.
“We study Shakespeare, British history," he says. "If you do not see anything of your culture in what you are learning when you are a child, if all the intelligent role models you have are Albert Einstein, Florence Nightingale … it’s a natural thing to think they are the best [and you] want to be like them.”
Black humour vs white humour
The comedian has been performing standup for the past 17 years but winning third place on Britain’s Got Talent last year gave a tremendous boost to his career. Suddenly his shows start attracting bout 1,000 people, when prior to the contest they gathered 80-100 spectators.
Daliso Chaponda relishes the “wonderful immediacy” of performing live, saying it feels like a conversation with the audience. Something his work as a fiction writer doesn’t provide.
He also performs in Africa - recently in Rwanda and South Africa. He is preparing an African tour while slowly working on a show about next year’s presidential elections in Malawi. He says he spends at least six months researching the candidates before “mocking it all”. That posed a problem when his father was in the government and didn’t understand why his own son had to make fun of him.
“I kept telling him that I only have integrity in the eyes of the audience if I insult [him] harder than I insult [his] opponents,” explains Chaponda.
Chaponda found out the hard way that politics and religion are topics of controversy in Africa. In Zimbabwe he received an avalanche of insults on social media after he made fun of a self-proclaimed prophet. But, in his experience, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria allow considerable freedom of speech.
“Every place in the world has something you are not meant to talk about," he comments. "The difference is [that] in a lot of African cultures, they let you say whatever you want about groups but there are certain individuals they do not want you to talk about. While in some Western countries you can say anything you want about individuals but when you talk about groups, especially minority groups, people get nervous. You have to think about the words before you say them and you have to think about the repercussions.”
Chaponda's success on Britain’s Got Talent encouraged Malawian theatres to search for the next homegrown comedy star with weekly shows. He is confident that in two to three years, he will “have lots of competition”.
Follow Daliso Chaponda on Twitter @dalisochaponda
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt
Overcoming personal struggles, refugee students in eastern Chad hit the books
Adam Barka University in Abéché, the fourth largest city in Chad, is teeming with students, including a few non-Chadian undergraduates. These are refugees from Darfur, Sudan, and from the Central African Republic, who have been given scholarships by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with contributions by the German government. RFI's Laura Angela Bagnetto sat down with three students to find out about their lives as refugees, and university students.
"My father said, 'you have to study because things are bad in this country, the Central African Republic, you can't stay here. We can't all die together.'" -- MKader Sihannasou, third year university student, studying economics, refugee from Bangui, CAR
"The most difficult challenge we face is that the communities we are living in are not the same as the communities we were raised in. We don't have family and relatives if we are in need, so because of this there is great difficulty in renting a house...and sometimes the community will not accept you."-- Mohamat Usman Ali, student and president of refugee students association
"My ultimate ambition since I was seven years old is that I want to be a president of Sudan. As people say, 'I have a dream'. Before that, I have to work hard so as to achieve my goal."-- Rahman Mohamed Yebet, law student