The fictional worlds spun in many TV shows, movies and video games can feel as real and as meaningful to fans as places with actual ZIP codes. Think of Hogwarts, the magic-filled, honey-lit boarding school in the world of Harry Potter books and movies; the faraway galaxy of "Star Wars"; or even the lovably quirky small town of Stars Hollow in "Gilmore Girls."
Wakanda, the wealthy, technologically advanced, mountain-ringed land of the "Black Panther" comics and blockbuster 2018 movie, though, occupies an even more rarefied role. It's not just the setting for the action in a beloved franchise; it has become a symbol of African greatness, a mythical place that feels like an actual homeland to many people, and not just to comics geeks with posters of King T'Challa on their bedroom walls.
In April, the mythical country saw its culture expand with "The Official Wakanda Cookbook," a collection of recipes sanctioned by "Black Panther" publisher Marvel.
"I definitely felt a combination of pressure and pride," says Nyanyika Banda, the freelance writer and chef who created the cookbook. "The lore of Black Panther and what Wakanda means now socially is so important, not just for Black Americans but to people of African descent around the world."
Banda, who has long been a student of the foodways of the African diaspora, developed both the 70-plus recipes and the story-within-the-story of the cookbook: It's written from the perspective of a young woman who is plucked from her mother's stall in the capital city's marketplace to become the royal chef to King T'Challa, a woman who — like Banda — was influenced by the elder women in her family.
Aside from the challenges posed by satisfying an avid fan base and respecting a cultural touchstone, Banda faced another, more practical task. Often, a cookbook author writing about a region of the world is concerned about staying true to the dishes, the ingredients, the people and the history of the land. But what does it mean to be faithful to something that doesn't actually exist?
Banda, who prefers the pronouns they and them, says that before signing on to the
project, they had seen the movie but hadn't read many of the comics. And so they delved in and also explored the deep well of fan-fueled websites, seeking to understand the characters and the landscape of Wakanda. Food doesn't figure prominently in the comics or in the movie, so some creativity was in order.
Some ideas came more easily. Wakanda has a lake, Banda notes, so fish recipes would work. Produce and ingredients available in sub-Saharan Africa (where Wakanda is located, according to the comics), such as cassava, mangoes and goat (you can substitute lamb, Banda instructs), figure prominently. Vegetable dishes are also featured — in a recipe for eggplant and herbs, the narrator notes that "many Wakandans eat a predominantly vegetarian diet," perhaps a reference to the moment depicted in the movie in which the tribal leader M'Baku threatens to feed a CIA agent to his children, before revealing the threat is just a joke. "I'm kidding," he says. "We're vegetarians."
An important part of the kingdom's story is that it is incredibly technically advanced, so Banda wanted a few recipes that incorporated gadgets, such as a sous vide machine or a dehydrator, to represent that.
One such dish, a smoked mushroom jerky, was inspired by the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's elite team of female warriors. "I imagined it would be something that would be fueling but that would carry well," Banda says.
Jennifer Simms, Banda's editor at Insight Editions, the publisher of the Wakanda cookbooks as well as dozens of other pop-culture spinoff cookbooks, says that from the outset, she didn't want to create a cookbook that was generically "African." "We wanted to make sure we weren't trying to represent Africa as having one food culture," she says.
To create a cuisine that is fictional, yet feels specific, Banda drew not just on studies of African foodways, but on family recipes. One dish, braised kale with tomatoes, was cribbed directly from the last meal Banda cooked with their aunt, who, like Banda's father, was born in Malawi. "We talked and laughed, and it was a special moment," says Banda, whose aunt died in 2020. "I thought of her a lot while I was writing this."
One of the trickier conditions imposed by the Black Panther narrative was that Wakanda, unlike many other African nations, was never colonized — according to its lore, it had long remained hidden from the rest of the world to protect itself, and the valuable metal it contained, from outsiders. And so Banda had to find storylines to explain Western influences.
Visits to Wakanda by Captain America explained a simple trout dish and an iced coffee laced with cocoa. Travels to New York by the narrator character, the fictional palace chef, explain a pasta dish. And the current king, T'Challa, was educated in America and Europe under an assumed name, and some dishes are described as being food he discovered while abroad.
Banda and Simms worked closely with the team at Marvel when developing the dishes and the stories around them. "We would talk about whether or not they felt like it would be a part of Wakanda," Banda says. "I wanted there to be integrity within the dish, but also have integrity in terms of storytelling."
Banda developed the recipes while staying with their 90-year-old grandmother in Amherst, Mass., during the pandemic. And all along, they considered how important the Black Panther story was to its most devoted admirers. "I was never not thinking about Black Panther fans, hoping they would see the time and thought that went into this," Banda says.
Black Panther fans aren't the only cooks that publishing houses are thinking about these days. The Wakanda cookbook is part of a growing trend of pop-culture cookbooks, based on popular franchises with loyal fan bases. Insight Editions CEO Raoul Goff said he first saw the potential for the genre after the success of a 2016 "World of Warcraft" cookbook based on the popular online role-playing game.
Since then, the publisher has produced dozens of titles tied to games such as "The Elder Scrolls" and "Street Fighter," plus movies and TV, including "Star Wars," "Friends," "Downton Abbey," and forthcoming cookbooks on "Seinfeld" and "Emily in Paris."
Goff sees these books as more than just the present you give your game-obsessed nephew or Crawley fangirl friend for Christmas. Cooking, he says, helps fans connect with the stories and characters they love in a way that no T-shirt could. "It's another aspect of getting immersed in that world, whatever it is," he says.
Are there any shows for which he couldn't imagine a cookbook spinoff? Maybe "The Walking Dead," this reporter suggests? Surely there's nothing appetizing about struggling to stay alive after a zombie apocalypse.
He laughs. "We've done that one," he says. "It was a cookbook and survival guide. Fans loved it."
"OK, what about 'Dexter?'" I challenge him, throwing out the name of the show whose serial-killer title character spends his evenings carving up human flesh.
There's a pause, but Goff isn't wiling to concede, entirely. "'Dexter,'" he says, "would be a tough one."
Cookbook author Nyanyika Banda's Aunt Rose taught them to make this dish before she passed away. Banda included it in "Marvel's Black Panther: The Official Wakanda Cookbook," with a fictionalized account of how it came to be, noting that it could be eaten with "roasted fish and nsima (a white cornmeal patty) soaking up the vegetable stock with each bite." Rice also is a suitable addition to the table.
Braised Kale and Tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, halved and sliced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced or grated
- 2 vine-ripe tomatoes, diced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- Fine salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 8 cups curly kale, stemmed and chopped
- 1 cup low-salt vegetable broth
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent and the garlic is just starting to brown, about 4 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, cumin and paprika, and lightly season with salt and pepper.
Add the kale a handful at a time, stirring occasionally and waiting for it to wilt before adding more. Once all of the kale has been added, pour in the broth.
Bring to a simmer, cover and heat for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed to keep it at a simmer. Taste and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Remove from the heat and serve family style or divide among the bowls.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information: Each (¾ cup) serving contains approximately 163 calories, 6 g protein, 8 g fat, 22 g carbohydrate (6 g sugar), no cholesterol, 172 mg sodium and 7 g fiber.
Carbohydrate choices: 1 ½
Adapted from "Marvel's Black Panther: The Official Wakanda Cookbook" by Nyanyika Banda (2022, Insight Editions)