One of the hot food trends for 2016 is cooking with African flavors. I’m excited because the flavors of African foods are so diverse and delicious. Most people are somewhat familiar with north African food, specifically Moroccan food, but what about the other regions of the continent? Every region has their own common ingredients. African cuisine is not only diverse in regards to ingredients but also in the style of presentation and cooking techniques. Part of this diversity is due to the crops farmers grow and also the hundreds of different cultures and groups that have inhabited, invaded and visited the continent.
Although many dishes in African cuisine contain meat and/or dairy, there are also many healthy dishes that are made with the bounty of produce, nuts, and grains available. In fact, most African dishes are made with organic and unrefined ingredients as well as bold and flavorful spices. Read Take a Trip Through Africa With These 14 Vegan Recipes to get an idea of African cuisine. Then let’s take a look at how to cook with the flavors of Africa in our own homes.
1. Central Africa
Of all the regions of Africa, Central Africa which includes Cameroon, Angola, Chad and the Congo, until the late 19th century, had the least influence from other cultures so many of the dishes are made with traditional foods. Exceptions to this are cassava, peanut and chile peppers which arrived with the slave trade during the early 16th century.
Common ingredients are plantains and cassava with starchy dishes usually served with meat and sauces. Plantains are unripe bananas. Try using them to make this Plantain Dumpling Soup or Chili Coated Plantain Crisps With Lime Ketchup. Cassava, also called yucca, is nutty and a good source of zinc, magnesium, manganese, coppe,r and iron. It can be prepared as a root vegetable and added to stews and salads. It can also be ground into a meal and used to make bread or pasta dough like this Squash Ravioli With Kale Pesto and Pine Nuts and this Summer Vegetable Flatbread Pizza. Pounded cassava is known as fufu.
Spinach stew, or Muamba, is a popular dish made with tomatoes, peppers, chile peppers, onions, and peanut butter. It’s similar to this Chickpea Spinach Stew with Lentils and Quinoa. Groundnut peanut stew is usually made with chicken, okra, ginger and many other spices. Try this African Peanut Stew, African Groundnut Stew, and this Rich and Comforting African Peanut Stew. A favorite dessert is Bambara, a porridge made of rice, peanut butter, and sugar. Try adding peanut butter to this Coconut Plantain ‘Rice’ Pudding to make a similar dish.
2. West Africa
There are sixteen countries that make up West Africa including Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. The local cuisine can be very traditional though it is influenced some by European explorers and slave ships which brought ingredients such as chili peppers and tomatoes to West Africa. Meals usually have starchy foods as well as meat, fish, and spices. Just as there is a mirepoix in French cuisine, a holy trinity in Cajun, and Creole cooking and sofrito in Latin cooking, there is a common trio of onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers in West African dishes. There are many hot spices and use of chile peppers in West African food because of an early history of trading with the Arab world.
Fufu, usually made from pounded cassava, can also be made with yams, plantains, sorghum and millet. Corn and rice are common ingredients and Jollof Rice is a popular dish especially in Nigeria. There are many variations but the most common ingredients are rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, and red pepper and then any type of vegetables, protein, and spices can be added. It’s sort of like an African version of this Caribbean Paella.
Vegetables such as eggplant, squash, okra, pumpkin, and black-eyed peas are common as are starchy tubers, root veggies, and many leafy greens including baobab leaves. Yam and eggs are a common Nigerian dish. This Nigerian Yam and ‘Egg’ is a vegan version of that dish.
A popular snack are akara fritters, which are made from black-eyed peas, like these Black-Eyed Pea and Spinach Cakes. Serve them with this Nigerian Ogi which is a custard or porridge made using the raw, fermented starch from ground white or yellow maize. Another Nigerian snack is chin chin which are crunchy cubes or strips of sweet, deep-fried pastry. This Vegan Chin Chin bakes the snacks instead of frying.
3. North Africa
North African cuisine is probably the one that most people have some knowledge about. The northernmost part of Africa along the Mediterranean Sea, also known as the Maghreb, is made up of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. There is a great amount of cultural and culinary diversity.
As early as the first century, wheat and semolina were introduced to the region and the nomadic Berbers used the semolina to make couscous, one of the most well-known North African foods. Try this Slower Cooker North African Couscous that’s packed in bold flavors. The Arabs introduced spices such as saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Sweet pastries and other baked foods were brought by the Ottoman Turks and the New World brought potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, and chile peppers. Olives are an important local harvest in North Africa and olive oil is frequently used in cooking as are legumes, nuts, and fruits. Spice mixtures such as ras el hanout, baharat, and chilli pastes like harissa (especially in Tunisia) are frequently used. You can taste all these flavors in this Moroccan Tofu in Lemon-Olive Sauce over Spaghetti, Moroccan Miso, Lentil and Pumpkin Soup, and this Moroccan Chili which uses both harissa and ras el hanout. Learn how to make your own homemade Harissa.
The tagine is a clay cooking vessel common in this region. It is used in Morocco to make stews like this Seitan Tagine with Apricots and Dates, Delicious Roasted Veggie Moroccan Tagine, and Tempeh Tagine Bowl. In Tunisia, however, a tagine is a frittata/quiche-type dish similar to this Roasted Vegetable Frittata. Other North African dishes include this Harira Soup With Hummus Pitas, this Chermoula-Spiced Karantita which uses a North African marinade and this Kale Fattoush which is a take on the Egyptian dish.
4. East Africa and the Horn of Africa
East Africa is made up of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Like other regions, East African dishes have grains including millet, sorghum, rice, maize, beans, yams, vegetables, meats, and coconut milk. Arabic influences are seen in the spices such as saffron, cloves, and cinnamon while Indian influences are seen in curries, lentil soups, pickles, and chapattis which are flatbreads similar to roti and parathas. There are lots of stew-like curry dishes made with tamarind, coconut milk, and beans similar to this Roasted Red Pepper, Spinach and Chickpea Curry and this Cauliflower Chickpea Cashew Curry, usually served with basmati rice.
In the Horn of Africa, dishes have more lentils, chickpeas, and pulses. Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes are commonly stews, called wats, made with vegetables and legumes. My Ethiopian Beans and Greens Stew can be made with whatever beans you like and is seasoned with the Ethiopian sweet and hot spice blend called Berbere. Fenugreek, cumin, and paprika are common ingredients. The stews are served with flatbreads made with teff and other flours called injera.
Somali and Djibouti cuisine is a fascinating mix of North African, French, Italian, Arab, Persian, and Indian influences so you will see dishes with ingredients like saffron and pasta. Learn more in Taste Buds in a Rut? Try These 6 Ethiopian Spices and Flours.
Halva is common in North Africa and the Horn of Africa and is often served at special occasions. This Halva Pudding is a delicious, traditional pudding made with semolina flour, chopped nuts ,and sweet syrup and flavored with aromatic cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom.
5. South Africa
Southern African cuisine is known as “rainbow cuisine” because it is a blend of many cultures and their influences. Maize and milk are common ingredients as are meats, in particular, barbecued and cured meats. When slaves from India and Indonesia were brought to Cape Town, South Africa in the 17th-century, their influence resulted in curry dishes that combine sweet flavors of dried fruits, cinnamon, and ginger with spicier garlic, onions, and chiles. These are now known as Cape Malay Curry dishes like my Cape Malay Curry with Turmeric Cinnamon Rice.
Portuguese influences brought piri-piri chiles to the region. Piri-piri chiles are used in these Grilled Seitan Kebabs with Creole Coconut Sauce. Ground maize or corn is used in many meals to make porridges or dough which is served with stews. This ground corn or maize is known as nshima and sadza. Learn more about cornmeal in Cornmeal is the New Black: How to Use This Gluten-Free Flour. Baobab is a healthy fruit that originates in Africa and is a staple of the South African diet. This Orange, Fig and Baobab Cheesecake is a delicious, creamy dessert that is made entirely of whole foods so you can enjoy every spoonful.
It’s no wonder everyone is so excited about African cuisine. It’s filled with healthy vegetables, beans, and legumes plus the most flavorful spices. I know African dishes are going to be served in my home a lot more often.
Lead image source: Rich and Comforting African Peanut Stew