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Jul 1, 2010 10:24 AM

African cooking.

I'm currently learning about different African cuisines and I'm interested in finding out what people know about African food. Have you eaten 'African' food? Would you make 'African' food at home? Generally, I think little is known about African food and I'm keen to hear your thoughts.


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  1. I've cooked a little bit of African food (probably more African-influenced, as opposed to being "pure"). I have also been to Cameroon (in West Africa). I assume you are talking about sub-Saharan Africa and not the northern countries like Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, etc.

    West African foods often include stews and spicy sauces (as in hot peppers). Also, peanuts are used as flavoring (deliciously so, I might add!). The meals I ate in Cameroon featured a bland starch or starches (fufu, made from cassava, rice, or a cornmeal porridge) in addition to the stews and sauce. Ndole is the national dish of Cameroon and its central focus is bitterleaf, a spinach-like green that forms the basis of the dish. The Ndole I ate had beef, tomatoes, garlic, and onions and peanuts. Indeed, tomatoes, peanuts and onions were foundations of many dishes. Also, a bottle of Maggi seasoning seemed to be ubiquitous--I don't know why!

    A dish I make at home fairly regularly is a chicken-peanut stew, with flavors typical of West African nations (peanut, tomato, onion, ginger, garlic). It is a dish requested by some of my friends and family, though I put in more peanut butter than is traditional.

    You are correct in that little is known about African cooking, Nii. I know little about the foods of southern Africa, for example. Perhaps all of the World Cup madness will make people more interested in finding out about foods from this continent!

    2 Replies
    1. re: nofunlatte

      I heard about an African grain called "fonio" but sadly have not been able to locate it, and I posted a query on the LA chow board, too.

      1. re: Maxmillion

        What type of Fonio? White, black or raishan?

        Have you looked in any African markets in your area?

        According to this site, Splendid Table has a number of online sources for it

    2. Despite the ease of saying "African cooking," it is not at all a homogenous place. Some more politicized people from African countries might object to the wording of the query because like the countries, religions, languages, and cultures, the cuisines of Africa cannot be lumped together as a continent.

      I am familiar with the cooking of the Swahili speaking coastal areas of East Africa, like in Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Kenya and to a certain extent Swahili speaking communities in Rwanda and Burundi. Gulf Arabs, in particular from Oman, and Hadhramaut in Yemen, and what is now the United Arab Emirates colonized/occupied that land and traded there for centuries, bringing Islam and also culinary influence. Zanzibar Island was actually the capital of Oman until like the 1960s or early 70s, that is how prolific the influence is. There are people there who are racially mixed black African and Arab, and their home language is Swahili, as opposed to a tribal language (Swahili is the official language but other people who are not of this Afro-Arab ethnicity speak their tribal language at home and Swahili as a second language) Anyhow, there is a distinct food culture of the Swahili speaking Afro-Arabs of East Africa. It is an amazingly delicious cuisine. The Indian population has also contributed significantly to the cuisine in those regions, and many foods have Hindustani names (chapati, achaari, kachumbari, samosa, etc) so you have these influences on dishes which are like curries (and indigenous African but quite similar to Indian curries and called mchuzi or kari) taken with cassava mash (mhogo), banana (small but not sweet), and also basmati rice. These Indian origin foods are a regular part of the East African Afro-Arab diet. There are also vitumbua, which remind me of idlis. They are rice and coconut ground together and fermented and then cooked into little pan fried dumpling cakes. And there is a dish which is also found in the Arabian Gulf of rice vermicelli cooked as a sweet (might be called semya). Kukupaka and other coconut milk curries and yum. There is also a sour turmeric colored potato and chick pea soup (I cannot remember the name, if anyone knows, please tell). And of course the deep fried bread taken with tea called mandazi in Tanzania and Zanzibar island, but mahamri in Kenyan Swahili. Hmmm, and again the Arab influence: mishkaaki, grilled kabaabs on a stick served with spicy tamarind sauce, also made with any other protein. And the festive dish bokoboko, the same as Gulf Arab arsia (rice pounded with meat into a paste), but served with a highly seasoned tamarind sauce and ghee. Indian kima, and Indian style pullaos and birianis are also enjoyed. I think the chile used in this cuisine is the scotch bonnet or habanero, and also Indian type green chiles. The food is spicy and chile-hot. The people drink Indian style milky tea but also these delicious infusions like hot sweet ginger infusion, basil infusion, cinnamon infusion. I also remember being served beautiful juices, like sweet and sour tamarind drink. Like the language of Swahili, a Bantu language with heavy foreign (especially Arabic) influence, there is Arab, Persian, Indian, Portuguese, and British influence on the indigenous cuisine of East Africa, making a gorgeous amalgam of flavors in this unique cuisine.

      1 Reply
      1. re: luckyfatima


        "African" cooking is rather a diverse critter. More so even than "European" cooking. I'd say there's more in common between Hungarian and British Isles cooking than there is between Morroccan and Ethiopian cooking. You toss in Nigerian stockfish, and suddenly it seems that the foods one is discussing have little in common. It's a little like lumping Indian food with Japanese food (both Asian).

      2. I thought of another dish that I ate with Swahili speaking people: maharagwe. It is red beans cooked like Indian rajma. They are small sized rajma/chowli beans. They are so delicious and flavorful. I was living abroad and homesick and being originally from Texas, the rich hearty taste of maharagwe hit the same spot for me as some of the Texan, Tex-Mex, and Mexican bean dishes we have. It is a delicious comfort food.

        Hey, I noticed that you are in London. I know there is a Zanzibari/Afro-Arab Swahili speaking community there, I wonder if you could find restos of that cuisine?

        I was also wondering: Since Africa is so diverse, is there any culinary cohesion in vast sub-Saharan Africa? Like eating curry type dishes with plaintain or bananas, eating cassava, cornmeal stuff...? Like what would West, South, East and Central have in common?

        21 Replies
        1. re: luckyfatima

          I should really clarify:both my parents are Ghanaian and here in London we have huge communities of Africans, especially Nigerians, Ghanaians, Algerians, South Africans and Ethiopians. African restaurants from a diverse range are available in abundance here, from hole in the wall cafes to more polished places. I have grown up eating Ghanaian food and it is really glorious and flavourful; I suppose I am wondering why it doesn't share the same popularity as Thai, Indian or Mexican food? Why are there no sub saharan African cook books?

          Thoughts please, anyone?

          1. re: Nii

            Well, one of the issues being brought up here by luckyfatima and Indirect Heat is that Africa is a big continent with myriad cuisines. You mention Thai, Indian, and Mexican foods, but Thailand, India and Mexico are countries (though with their own regional cuisines). You wouldn't talk about a North American cookbook or a European cookbook. That said, Jessica Harris did write The African Cookbook quite a few years ago. Perhaps you could try your hand at a cookbook :)

            1. re: Nii

              I can't really comment on the UK. But regarding the US, just from unscientific observation, I can say that in the US we don't have the heavy African population. Not to say there are no Africans, even in my smallish hometown we have a large Igbo Nigerian community, a West African grocery, a large and very recent immigrant Somali community, as well as a lot of Arabic speaking N. Africans. But it isn't like the UK where there are a lot of Africans and you see them everywhere and there are huge neighborhoods of communities. Ethiopian food, as well as Moroccan food are fairly well known, and have had fad status at times. But the rest of Africa, I don't know why these restos aren't more popular except that there aren't the huge pockets of immigrant communities that open those restos and start up those kind of restaurant trends. I also think that the food would be extremely exotic for many Americans...kind of like Indian food is acceptable but Pakistani or Bangladeshi food would be "weird" for many Americans (the unchowish, I mean) and also they have negative associations with those countries and don't know much about them same with Americans and sub-Saharan African countries. I think it is ultimately lack of exposure and ignorance. My guess is that in major cities with a heavier black African presence, there are trendy African resto spots with chowish non-African clientele who enjoy the food. Perhaps a large immigrant community influx would add more sub-Saharan African exposure to the US "ethnic" resto scene and say a Ghanaian cuisine explosion would happen the way it did for Vietnamese or Ethiopian.

              1. re: luckyfatima

                In those areas that do have a large African population, there are multiple factors that have prevented sub-Saharan cuisines from going mainstream. West African communities tend to keep restaurants within their community, making visibility and access an issue. There is also an affinity for tougher meat and bland pastes that does not appeal to the American palate. Compare the population size of Ethiopian-Americans to West Africans and it seems that the former are disproportionately better represented culinarily; I'd reckon particularly because their highly-flavored stews and bread are more accessible in urban areas and better appreciated by diners searching for exotically-flavored dishes.

                1. re: JungMann

                  I have never tasted West African food to comment, but Ethiopian food is even mentioned in Weight Watchers materials.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    I suspect that those 'bland pastes' are under salted by American standards. I once had an African peanut stew with a cornmeal mush prepared by an American who'd lived in West Africa. The idea was to form a little scoop from a ball of mush and dip that in the stew. The thing that stood out to me was the lack of salt in the mush.

                    1. re: JungMann

                      As someone with Ghanaian parents, I couldn't disagree with you more, but maybe those comments are something to do with your lack of knowledge about West African food, perhaps?
                      Maybe the case for West African restaurants staying within the communties is an issue in the U.S, but in London, I can think of three Ghanaian restaurants that are accessible to locals as well.

                      Ghanaian food shares many similarities with Jamaican food. The roasting of spiced meats, plantains, yams, coconut simmered rice with beans. Typical ingredients: thyme, garlic, ginger, hot peppers, cloves, all spice and peanuts.

                      Two well-known chefs in the U.K, called the Hairy Bilekrs recently made Yam balls froma recipe they were given from a Ghanaian restaurant in London, needless to say, they loved them. I really think sub-saharan food is so varied and as mentioned before - under explored.

                      Hounds: Would you make 'African' food if you saw it on TV or would you be inclined to buy a cook book on the subject if it appealed to you?

                      1. re: Nii

                        Well I must support at least most of what JungMann says. But that may be because of where we live. He appears to be a NYer whilst I live in Toronto.

                        Here in Toronto I guess there are 50+ African restaurants within 5 miles / 8km. The majority of these are probably Ethiopian / Somali / Eritrean. There is also a generous sprinkling of Tunisian and Moroccan. The central West coast of Africa is less well represented.

                        For some reason the Tunisian restaurants are perceived as being more accessible to non-Africans. Certainly most people here know what couscous is but injera would lead to a blank stare. Samosas are better known than dosas. This is re-inforced by supermarkets. You do not see injera except in specialised Ethiopian shops. Teff in particular is hard to find.

                        That being said, taro (which is primarily Eastern Africa) is in every Asian supermarket. (And I do know Asia is not a country within Africa) Various yams, casava etc are readily available.

                        If one takes 'ethnic' restaurants (ie ones that steer clear of chicken wings and burgers) you are more likely to see people from that region. I have listed a few nationalities below. In order (from the top down) there are likely to be more people from other geographical areas in them.

                        Italian (even excluding pizza places)
                        Fake Irish (unless you include fake Irish people)
                        Vietnamese / Laotian / Cambodian
                        Sri Lankan
                        Hungarian / Polish / Czech etc

                        (One last note - this is my estimate from the part of Toronto in which I live. In London UK, Indian would be a lot nearer the top)

                        1. re: Paulustrious

                          In suburban Seattle I have seen injera at a couple of small Ethiopian shops, as well as a larger grocery/produce store with Indian base. I see taro at a number of different shops, but I think that is as likely to purchased by Asians and Pacific Islanders as Africans. I believe it is a traditional crop in Hawaii. I see people who are probably recent African immigrants at that grocery and at one with a Vietnamese roots. Even the large 99Ranch store has its share. I haven't seen much in specially African imports, though I recently bought some sorghum from there. As for teff, I can get that at natural food store.

                      2. re: JungMann

                        "bland pastes"???
                        What the heck are you talking about, JungMann?

                        Many of the West African dishes I have most enjoyed have been incredibly flavorful. The cuisines are characterized by many rich soups and stews that have often been cooked for hours, maximizing the umami!

                        Now, some of the starches might be considered bland, but they are not intended to be eaten alone (just as many kinds of rice are bland if eaten by themselves, but rice is usually eaten in combination with food that is more strongly flavored).

                        If anything, I love many West African dishes because they are so flavorful.

                    2. re: Nii

                      Agree entirely that the various Africian cuisines and restaurants are highly underexplored in the UK board. Despite the abundance you describe, the restaurants cooking various types of Africian cuisines are severely undersampled compared to other cuisines - somehow hounds don't venture out to try them. As a chowhound community, we need to be less conservative and explore more, to fill this huge gap in our knowledge.

                      1. re: Nii

                        I think luckyfatima hit the nail on the head in attributing a large part of the lack of popularity to negative associations and ignorance of the culinary traditions.

                        There are few if any "promoters" of West African cooking. How many celebrity chefs know anything about West African food, other than say a Marcus Samuelsson? When was the last time you watched a tv cooking show and they decided to prepare a West African dish? If I remember correctly, Anthony Bourdain, who knows a lot about many world cuisines, did an episode in Ghana in which he admitted that he knew almost nothing about African food before taping that show.

                        And it doesn't help that in the few US cities where there are West African restaurants, most of the places are decidedly unglamorous. They are places that taxi drivers will stop for lunch or dinner, but not places you would want to take a first date or choose to celebrate an anniversary or a promotion at or book a business meal at. Most of the places seem to aim to cater only to a very small immigrant community.

                        It drives me nuts because it makes it so much harder to find West African restaurants. Nowadays, I take an extra suitcase with me on trips to NYC so I can stock up on food to bring back home.

                        1. re: racer x

                          Yep - that's a problem. Not a lot of people are willing to go out and discover delicious stuff; instead, many are content to follow what's being mentioned in the general media.

                          1. re: limster

                            Interesting Limster. Are we really just foodie snobs as opposed to genuine hounds who seek out delicious food regardless of the cuisine?

                            I really believe you've raised something interesting. The media control (as usual) what/where and how we eat.

                            Considering the popularity of say, Thai and Vietnamese food, how many cook books or dishes do TV chefs prepare or promote compared to Italian, Indian or Chinese food. It's the same old thing!

                            1. re: Nii

                              I don't think of it as a food snobs vs genuine hounds issue ("only certain cuisines are delicious" vs "any cuisine can be delicious"), although it can be one of many symptoms. I see it as an issue of thinking and eating independently and critically. It's not delicious because some critic wrote thus. It's delicious (or not) because one tasted the food, deliberately and thoughtfully, and came to that conclusion.

                              And it's not the media's fault; they're not some evil controlling empire. They're just a limited outlet for that type of information - there's only so many column inches and food journalists - and they're so incredibly outnumbered by places to eat and things to eat. Thus, it's up to everyone to decide how they are going to collect, analyse and act on information if they want to ensure that all of it is high-quality.

                              As much as I would like to take credit, all this is a very old idea -- that's what led Jim Leff to start more than a decade ago, so that people looking for delicious things to eat have a place to share large amounts of information rapidly, thus facilitating exploration and critical thinking/eating.

                          2. re: racer x

                            Racer x - completely agree with you! Like I've said below, all the 'celebrity chefs' and cooks churn out the same old cuisines - it's boring, we need to see something new!

                            I'm sure the I can say the same about the U.S! I think these negative associations about 'African' food are far more ingrained in America than Europe.

                            1. re: racer x

                              Will we ever see any TV chefs cook African food?

                            2. re: Nii

                              UK publisher, Hermes House, has Middle Eastern & African Cookbook, in their picture cookbook series. From a clearance shelf I bought a volume that combines this with their Spanish cookbook.

                              The index has 3 Ghanaian recipes
                              bean and gari load
                              fish and okra soup
                              prawn and plantain salad
                              There are probably others from the region, without the country in the name.
                              It also has a 24 page intro section for Africa and its ingredients.

                              1. re: Nii

                                Here's a site that has lots of African cookbooks ... and in the UK

                                There's also lots of online stuff too, such as the Congo cookbook

                                You mention there are lots of African restaurants in your area. However, not as m any as the other cuisines you mention ... Aside, seriously, there's lots more Mexican food in the UK than African?

                                I think that unfamiliarity is one of the reasons African food is not more popular.When people don't understand a cuisine they are less likely to frequent a restaurant.

                                There really needs to be some major push either on the high or low end side. Some famous chef opening a restaurant and getting lots of press on the upscale side. Or something familiar to the masses ... the Taco Bell of African food, so to speak.

                                The latter might sound trite. However, I've read that Taco Bell did a lot to popularize Mexican food. It might be dumbed down for mass appeal. However, once people get over the fear factor, they are more likely to try the real stuff.

                                I don't know a lot about African food, but I do make Etheopean wat at home.

                                I modified it to make it healthy, but it tastes exactly like what I've eaten in a restaurant.

                              2. re: luckyfatima

                                Fascinating account of Swahili cusine. I spent my honeymoon in part in Zanzibar and love the cusine (and harbor secret fantasies of opening a restaurant in the US).

                                Saveur had a feature on Swahili food, and included a stewed red bean recipe that sounds similar to what you have descrined.

                                1. re: equinoise

                                  About the resto opening fantasy, me too. I think Zanzibari cuisine has broadly appealing flavors and under the right circumstances, a Zanzibari resto would do very well. Thanks for the Saveur link, yummy recipe.

                              3. Well actually much is known :D, but I suppose it hasn't quite caught on with many non-Africans in the US quite as fervently as other styles. You may find some Caribbean stuff that may be similar to some African dishes, and you have some limited North African trendy bits like Cous Cous and such. Much good stuff is being made in African kitchens in a major city near you! I suppose we need to get some of these cooks on forums like chowhound :)

                                I'd recommend looking for some books. You may find that West African cooking differs from East African, which differs from North African, etc etc. Not to mention country by country differences - Sudanese food is not Ethiopian food which is not Ugandan food, though the countries are all quite close. Even so someone from one city may eat something in a totally different manner then someone 30km away. You have some of Indian and even Euro influence in some East African cuisine along with tons of indigenous influence (obviously).
                                I'd try getting a book on East or West African cuisine and reading, I can't recommend any really but I feel like a lot of the resources on the net aren't quite as good as stuff that has been published when it comes to African cuisine (I generally feel the same way about Indian cuisine also, along with other Asian cuisines).

                                Also you might want to try to see shows like Bourdain's show that were filmed in African countries. Bourdain did a show in Ghana, and that "exotic/weird foods guy" (whom can come off as quite insensitive sometimes) did a show in Ethiopia and some other places. Hardly comprehensive, but it would be an entertaining start I guess.

                                1. Quite some time ago I bought this Africa News Cookbook

                                  Its recipes span the diversity of countries and cultures. Besides the 'true' African dishes of sub-Sahara, it has the Mediterranean cooking that isn't so foreign to Americans, and lots of Indo-African curries and such.