The Modern Soul of African Cuisine
May 04, 2007 - Article

As more travelers seek wonderful African destinations like Marrakech, Mombassa and Maputo, we’ve seen an increase in African-inspired cookbooks and new restaurants with exotic African themes. And where the restaurant trade goes, the retail market is soon to follow.

While a restaurateur can employ African décor and music to create an authentic atmosphere, the retail product only has the authenticity of packaging and product design to recreate a memorable experience.

The challenge of communicating the vibrancy and boldness of a vast continent into a single range of products on a supermarket shelf is intense. So where does one start? Maybe by exploring the underlying values regarding food and the important role food plays within many African communities.

Food values 

Africans live to eat and eat to live. Meals are a ritual. In many communities, the whole day revolves around either going to the market in the morning to procure ingredients for the main meal or working the land to receive the goodness it provides, and then returning home to commence meal preparation. All of this is a labor of love, because Africans seldom eat alone—even when they are in commute, they share and enjoy food together. People who eat alone are pitied, because they either have no friends or no family. Food is a celebration, and people take time out of the day to savor and share it.

So, even though convenience meals or meal components are created to save time and ease meal preparation, the portion size needs to be sufficient enough to allow sharing. Having food to prepare and enough to share is considered a blessing.

No food is wasted. Every single bit of food is used—whether merely to add flavor (by means of the stock pot) or as part of the main dish and, afterward, leftovers (if any) are cleverly recycled into the next meal.

Cattle and livestock symbolize wealth and are only slaughtered for very special occasions, such as weddings, births and special festive days, and ceremonies. Meat is expensive, so meat, poultry and fish are often only used to impart specific flavors to a dish, rather than as the main meal component. Some of the roasted fish dishes in Ghana, Nigeria and other countries in western Africa would be an exception, but elsewhere it is not uncommon to be served an amazingly aromatic casserole containing very little meat.

The field of ingredients 

Plantains are popular in western African cuisine. These starchy, banana-like fruits—which require cooking before eating—are fried, stuffed, boiled or baked.

In most of Africa, it is only what the local land provides that ends up in the cooking pot or on the table. Limitations in logistics and distribution technology result in an involuntary seasonality of produce— and, to a certain extent, bring an African uniqueness to the table. Most crops are still produced privately, obtained through trading, and/or procured from open-air markets.

Agriculture knows no boundaries. It is not defined by political borders, but by geographical and climatic conditions that support or restrict the growth of certain crops. Basic vegetables—potato, onion, tomato, spinach, cabbage and carrot (or local hybrids thereof)— are found all over, but interesting regional produce also abounds:

  • Marogo, a pale-green, leaved weed normally found in southern parts of the continent, is used like baby spinach, but has a much-milder and less-astringent flavor. Young leaves are added to casserole-type dishes.
  • Madumbe, the African potato, is a small tuber found in southern Africa. This commercially farmed food is very similar to the iris root, but with a stronger, savory flavor. It is used for manufacturing seasoned or flavored fried snacks similar to potato chips.
  • Plantain, a big, starchy, banana-like fruit common in eastern and western Africa is fried or stuffed and used in savory or sweet dishes.
  • Okra, also called lady’s finger, is common in western and northern Africa, but not in sub- Saharan Africa. It is used in meat casseroles.
  •   Ditloo wild beans—mostly sun-dried and used like pulses—are found in southern Africa.
  • Samp, dried maize (corn), is soaked and cooked whole to a thick porridge.

As far as fruit is concerned, Africa is blessed with an incredible selection: Bananas, mangoes, papaya, citrus (orange, lemon and grapefruit), lychee, grapes, dates, apples and pomegranate are commercially produced for global export, but a couple of less-familiar types have been kept back for local use. These include:

  • Wild melons—not as sweet as many melons—are cooked and eaten like pumpkins.
  • Marula, or elephant fruit, is an astringent, fleshy fruit with a thick, rubbery skin. It’s often used to make alcoholic beverages, due to the high sugar content in overripe fruit that feeds fermentation.
  • Wild quinces have big, fleshy pips with a sour-tart flavor in a hard shell.

Interestingly, Africans are not big on sweets. Fruit is either consumed on its own as a snack or used green in savory dishes (like Kenyan curried green papaya soup).

Beef, lamb and goat are widely used in dishes and, even though pork is widely available, it is selectively consumed (for religious reasons). Game, like venison and impala, is considered a delicacy due to its scarcity and price. Poultry, mainly chicken or game fowl like quails, guinea fowl, and other water birds, is widely accepted and consumed all over. Western Africans (Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal) consume less red meat, but more fish and seafood, than any other region.

Continental influences 

Moroccan tagine, an aromatic, simmered stew often seasoned with garlic, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper, saffron and turmeric, can include poultry or lamb and a variety of seasonal vegetables.

The biggest reason for Africa’s culinary diversity is not so much the different ingredients—at first glance, they appear familiar—but the unique culinary influences that have flirtatiously fused with local ethnic cuisines over many years of spice-route trading, nomadism and colonialism. The various cultures and cuisines in Africa can be roughly classified geographically into four regional cuisines (though, admittedly, each region can comfortably justify a full thesis on its regional cuisine and culinary heritage).

North African. Even though North African cuisine—that of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—is best known for its wide variety of spices, the food is not very hot, but rather aromatically spicy. Cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin and clove are blended into ras el hanout (a complex blend of spices that can include ginger, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and many others) or dukkah (a mixture of spices, nuts and seeds eaten with pita and olive oil, or used to season dishes or as a crust), and are used with preserved lemon to spice tagine (slow-cooked vegetables with poultry or lamb), couscous and casseroles. Beautiful harissa paste (chiles, garlic, coriander, cumin, caraway and olive oil, and sometimes tomatoes) is used sparingly on its own as a spicy accompaniment to other dishes, or blended with lemon juice and rind, olive oil, parsley, cilantro, onion, and saffron for pungent chermoula paste that makes a lovely marinade for fish and poultry dishes.

The eating culture is relaxed, and mezzes of many small dishes are presented together as a culinary feast that is washed down with pomegranate syrup, mint teas or small cups of sweet, dark coffee and served with tiny portions of extremely sweet breads and pastries. Very little dairy is used. Couscous is the staple of choice.

West African. Cuisine from Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal is by far the hottest and spiciest in Africa. The only spices really used are chiles, garlic, ginger and paprika, along with pungent and salty fish paste, tomato paste, or prawn paste, as well as copious quantities of palm oil and peanut butter (called “groundnut butter”), to enrich flavor and add texture to casseroles. Dishes like Nigerian Yoruba (a casserole of beef, chiles, tomato and onion) and Ghanaian palava (a rich, meat-and-fish stew made with palm oil, onions, tomatoes, chiles and spinach) often contain par-smoked meats and are served either with white rice, fufu (steamed potato dumplings) or banku (steamed cornmeal dumplings).

East African. The cuisines of this region—which includes Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania —have an Indian and spice-route influence. Most of the world’s clove, coriander and black pepper are produced along Africa’s east coast, and they have found their way into the local cuisine. In addition, curry powder, turmeric and masalas (spice blends that can include black pepper, cumin, cloves and cardamom) are widely used with fruit and coconut milk. Another common spice blend is berbere. It can include chiles, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries and ajwain. Rue berries’ rather strong flavor is simultaneously aromatic, sweet and hot, while the flavor of ajwain resembles a subtle, aromatic thyme.

Fruits like pineapple, papaya, coconut and mango are not only served with meals to cool the palate, but also widely used to create a tropical flavor. Green, tropical fruits go into savory soups like mtori (Kenyan cream of banana soup) or supaiya papai (spicy green-papaya soup with chicken stock and onion). Plantain is used widely in dishes, or sliced and fried as a snack. Poultry is used more often than fish. Ugali (maize porridge) is the staple and eaten daily. East Africa produces some of the world’s finest coffee, and it is widely consumed.

Southern African. It is probably most difficult to characterize the cuisine of southern African countries—including Angola, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa—because it is so varied. Spices are widely used, but mostly curry powder, chiles (peri peri) and coriander. The remains of the Malay community in the south of South Africa still use a lot of cinnamon, cumin and clove in specialty dishes like bobotie (ground-beef meatloaf with raisins, cinnamon, clove and coriander) and denningvleis (a pulled-beef dish with strong coriander, cumin and clove flavors). Huge portions of red meat are generally consumed in this region— the highest consumption per capita in Africa. Sadsa (maize porridge) served with sheba (a savory tomato and spinach casserole) are staples.

Portuguese culinary influence from both the west coast (Angola) and east coast (Mozambique) has resulted in wonderful seafood dishes like peri peri prawns (shrimp basted with a peri peri sauce—a blend of lemon, garlic, African birds-eye chiles, oil and vinegar— and grilled over an open fire) and frango a cafrial (flattened, whole chickens marinated in, and basted with peri peri, then flame-grilled over an open fire).

Meal patterns 

In Africa, basic meals consist of three types of items: a big serving of starch, a savory topping or sauce, and several meal extenders. 

In northern Africa, that starch will be couscous, while in western Africa it will be a rice dish, like Nigerian jollof rice (rice with chicken, tomatoes, onion, salt and pepper). In central, eastern or southern Africa, the starch will be a stiff cornmeal porridge or steamed cornmeal dumplings (sadsa, ugali, pap or fufu, depending on the region and country).

Another aspect of meals is the savory topping. This is often tomato-based with chunks of meat and vegetables and flavorings, such as palava from Ghana, maafe (lamb, beef or chicken and peanut sauce stew) from Mali, or Yoruba from Nigeria.

Several vegetable dishes also accompany the meal. In addition, sambals and relishes often extend the main dish. Components like Moroccan chermoula paste or peri peri sauce are often offered as table condiments. Food is shared, often eaten from communal platters.

So, to recreate a typical African meal experience, potential product-development categories could include:

  • Dry spices or seasoning blends for rubs or marinades;
  • Wet marinades and culinary pastes;
  • Sauces for simmering or to pour over foods for quick-recipe dishes;
  • Quick-cook dehydrated starches or side items;
  • Pre-marinated meats and other proteins for quick preparation and inclusion in casserole-type dishes;
  • Prepared ready meals or meal components;
  •  Relishes, sambals, chutneys and dips.

The secret to a product’s commercial success will absolutely depend on how compatible its flavor is with the preferences of the intended market segment. While a dried-fish stew might be a delicacy in Nigeria, it might not translate into a popular dish with the American consumer. Another important aspect is the authenticity of the flavor delivery, and the extent to which the manufacturer can manage to create a “homemade” appearance and texture in the product.

Only recently have big, international food companies entered prosperous markets like Nigeria and Kenya with such prepackaged foods as stock cubes, soup powders and ready-to-use seasonings. Some African companies, like Nando’s, Mama Africa’s and Mrs. Ball’s, have successfully translated some regional dishes and condiments into retail products, and currently export these to the United States. But this is literally the tip of the culinary iceberg. Beneath the surface there lies so much more to be discovered.

So, instead of planning your next culinary expedition to Europe, experience the vibrancy of African life and book that trip to Marrakech or Mombasa. Your taste buds will not be disappointed! 

Rochelle Schätzl was born and raised in South Africa, but has traveled and worked around the world since graduating in Food Science & Marketing from the University of Pretoria, South Africa, in 1994. She has held various positions within the food industry, including senior chef with Holiday Inn, advisory chef with McCormick & Company, and business-development manager with Firmenich (internationally). She currently heads the global product-development team for Nando’s International, a fast-casual restaurant group originating in South Africa, a position that has taken her all over Africa, allowing her to research and develop a unique understanding of the diverse cultures and cuisines of Africa. She is also a director of the South African Chef’s Association and a member of the Research Chefs Association. Schätzl is dynamic, inspired and passionately African.

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