The African continent is home to people form hundreds of different tribes, ethnic and social groups. No wonder all this variety shows in African cuisine all the way through the ingredient used to the preparation and cooking techniques.
The Warmth of Food in Africa
Common to most of the continent are meals with little meat, plenty of whole grains and beans, and even more fresh fruits and vegetables. African cuisine may well become the new healthy way of cooking.
Cuisine of Africa
The food of Africa is a combination of local fruit, grains, vegetables, milk and meat products, their own traditions and Arab, European and Asian influences.
Eating habits of the different African regions vary greatly. Milk, curd and whey would make the bulk of the diet in some areas while in others milk cannot be produced due to diseases in cattle. Grains are staple food in the Eastern African diet, where they use cattle, sheep and goats as coin and rarely, if ever, eat their meat; while Central Africa residents not only eat beef and meat with gusto, when available, but hunt for other meats at the forest as well.
Food in North Africa
The food of the countries lined along the Mediterranean Sea is the most familiar to the Western between all African countries, probably because of the constant interaction with Mediterranean Europe.
Think Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt; one could say North African cuisine has its roots at the beginning of civilization. Couscous, main staple in North African diet, has become a familiar word for many and its popularity out of Africa grows by the day. Carthaginians introduced wheat and semolina. The Berbers, a Christian nomadic people, made semolina into couscous. Apart from couscous, count on olives and olive oil, known since before the Romans arrived, saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, typical spices, incorporated by the Arabs, baking and sweet pastries, after Ottoman Turks, and some of the foods from the New World –tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes and chili peppers- define North African cuisine.
Food in East Africa
People in the inland savannah keep cattle, but cattle heads are regarded as a symbol of wealth, not as food; meat products are notoriously absent from their diet. Sometimes cattle’s milk or blood might be drink, but meat is consumed only on the very odd occasion.
The rest of Eastern Africans rely on grains and vegetables; you will find ugali –a starchy corn based paste similar to polenta- served with soups and stews everywhere. Matoke, a dish of steamed, green bananas, provide the filling base in many of the Ugandan meals.
Swahili cuisine shows Arab influences, particularly at the coast, in their use of saffron, cloves and cinnamon, or their preference for spiced steamed rice and pomegranate juice.
Oranges, lemon, limes, chili peppers, corn, tomatoes, pineapple, and pork meat were introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish, from their countries and colonies in Asia and America. They also pioneered the techniques for roasting and marinating meats, and the use of spices to flavor otherwise bland dishes.
Finally, one can find curries, lentil dishes, chapattis and pickles brought by British and Indian settlers.
Food in Central Africa
Remote and inaccessible, Central Africa has remained quite true to its traditional food, as it did not have many external influences until the 19th century, not taking into account that peanuts, chili peppers, and cassava, their staple food, were introduced from the New World. Very likely those items were incorporated into the local cooking techniques.
Plantain and cassava are the main ingredients in the diet. A starchy paste made from fermented cassava roots accompanies sauces and grilled meats. Meat is hunted in the forest adding an exotic touch when crocodile, monkey, antelope and warthog make it occasionally to the menu instead of beef or chicken.
You could find yourself in front of a meal of peanut casserole with chicken, okra, chili and other spices, with stewed spinach and cassava greens on the side. Bambara, a sort of porridge made from rice, peanut butter and sugar, could be the dessert.
Food in West Africa
Sitting down to a typical West African meal, one cannot help but noticing it is loaded with starchy foods, very light on the meat side, and well dipped in fat. Fufu a semi-solid paste, not unlikely mashed potatoes or Italian polenta, but made from root vegetables like yams or cassava, will accompany soups and stews.
West Africans love hot spices -including chili peppers, probably the only Western World influence in West Africa cooking along peanuts, and other ingredients from the New World- and they can boast of having grains of paradise, or Guinea pepper, their own native hot seasoning. Cinnamon, cloves and mint were incorporated through trade with Arab countries.
Seafood is eaten often and it can be mixed liberally with meat, usually chicken. Goat meat is the dominant red meat, as beef and mutton are tough and not very appetizing in that area.
Water has a special significance, particularly in very dry areas, and it will be the first offered to a guest. Palm wine is other beverage enjoyed in West African nations. Made from the fermented sap from various palm trees, it can be sweet or sour, depending on how long was left to ferment.
Food in Southern Africa
Southern African cuisine is cultural Technicolor with so many influences mingled in their food. Put together local ingredients, including game meats like antelope and ostrich, European contributions from Portuguese, Dutch or British settlers, and add Malay or Indian spiciness; you get the idea.
Seafood is very much appreciated, as are vegetables and fruits –grapes, mangoes, papayas, bananas. Fresh fruit is very often the dessert of choice, puddings served on occasion.