Cuisine of Africa reflects indigenous traditions, as well as influences from Arabs, Europeans, and Asians.
The continent of Africa is the second largest landmass on the earth and is home to hundreds of tribes, ethnic and social groups. This diversity is also reflected in African cuisine, in the use of basic ingredients as well as in the style of preparation and cooking techniques.
Traditionally, as in almost all cultures, the cuisine of Africa uses a combination of locally available fruits, grains, and vegetables, milk and meat products. In some parts of Africa , the traditional African diet has a predominance of milk, curd, and whey – naturally, the Old Testament has described Ethiopia as the land of milk and honey. In much of tropical Africa however, cow's milk is rare and cannot be produced locally (owing to various diseases that affect livestock). Yet, differences, sometimes significant, are noticeable in the eating and drinking habits across the continent of Africa - African cuisine differs in different parts of Africa , and East Africa , North Africa , West Africa , Southern Africa and Central Africa each have their own distinctive cuisine.
The cuisine of East African varies from area to area. In the inland savannah, the traditional cuisine of cattle-keeping peoples is distinctive in that meat products are generally absent. Cattle, sheep and goats were regarded as a form of currency and a store of wealth, and are not generally consumed as food. In some areas, traditional peoples consume the milk and blood of cattle, but rarely the meat. Elsewhere, other peoples are farmers who grow a variety of grains and vegetables. Maize (corn) is the basis of ugali, the East African version of West Africa 's fufu. Ugali is a starch dish eaten with meats or stews. In Uganda , steamed, green bananas called matoke provide the starch filler of many meals.
Around 1000 years ago, the Arabs settled in the coastal areas of East Africa , and Arabic influences are especially reflected in the Swahili cuisine of the coast – steamed cooked rice with spices in Persian style, use of saffron, cloves, cinnamons and several other spices, and pomegranate juice.
Several centuries later, the British and the Indians came, and both brought with them their foods, like Indian spiced vegetable curries, lentil soups, chapattis and a variety of pickles. Just before the British and the Indians, the Portuguese had introduced techniques of roasting and marinating, as also use of spices turning the bland diet into aromatic stewed dishes. Portuguese also brought from their Asian colonies fruits like the orange, lemon and lime. From their colonies in the New World , Portuguese also brought exotic items like chiles, peppers, maize, tomatoes, pineapple, bananas, and the domestic pig – now, all these are part of East African and the African food.
North Africa lies along the Mediterranean Sea and encompasses within its fold several nations, including Morocco , Tunisia , Algeria and Egypt . This is a region marked by geographic, political, social, economic and cultural diversity, and the cuisine and the culinary style and art of North Africa are also as diverse as the land, its people and its history. The roots to North African cuisine can be traced back to over 2000 years.
Over several centuries - traders, travelers, invaders, migrants and immigrants - all have influenced the cuisine of North Africa . The Phoenicians of the 1st century brought sausages, the Carthaginians introduced wheat and its byproduct, semolina. Olives and olive oils were introduced before the arival of the Romans. The Berbers, a Christian nomadic people, adapted this into couscous, one of the main staple diet. From the 7th century onwards, the Arabs introduced a variety of spices, like saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, which contributed and influenced the culinary culture of North Africa . The Ottoman Turks brought sweet pastries and other bakery products, and from the New World , North Africa got potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chiles.
Most of the North African countries have several similar dishes, sometimes almost the same dish with a different name, with a slight change in ingredients and cooking style. Sometimes, differences are noticeable – Moroccans relish full-bodied flavors, whereas Tunisians savor fiery dishes.
A typical West African meal is heavy with starchy items, light on meat and generous on fat. Fufu, a semi-solid starchy mass similar to mashed potatoes or polenta, is served with soups and stews, such as egusi. Fufu is often made from starchy root vegetables such as yams, cocoyams, or cassava, but also from cereal grains or plantains.
Another characteristic is the hot spices, including peppers and chiles. Seeds of Guinea pepper (Aframomum melegueta; also called grains of paradise or melagueta pepper) a native West African plant, were used as a spice and even reached Europe , through North African middlemen, during the Middle Ages. Centuries before the influence of Europeans, West African people were trading with the Arab world and spices like cinnamon, cloves, mint were not unknown and became part of the local flavorings. Centuries later, the Portuguese, French and British influenced the regional cuisines, but only to a limited extent. However, as far as is known, it was European explorers who introduced the American chile, or chili, pepper (Capsicum) to Africa sometime soon after Columbus sailed to America .
Thus, in essence, the local cuisine and recipes of West Africa continue to remain deeply entrenched in the local customs and traditions, with ingredients like rice, peanuts (another plant from the New World, similar to the Bambara groundnut and Hausa groundnut of Africa), black-eyed peas, and root vegetables such as yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, and cassava (yet another American plant). Cooking is done in multiple ways: roasting, baking, boiling, mashing, and spicing. A range of sweets and savories are also prepared. Use of items introduced by colonizers are also not uncommon – like okra, plantains, peppers and green peas, citrus fruits, and pineapples, which are legacy of slave ship traffic between Africa and the New World.
Cooking techniques of West Africa often combine fish and meat, including dried fish. Flaked and dried fish is often fried in oil, and sometimes cooked with chicken, yam, onions, various spices and water to prepare a highly flavored stew. In some areas, beef, and mutton are not preferred due to poor quality of the meat, particularly toughness. It is common to have a preponderance of seafood and the seafood, as earlier stated, is sometimes also mixed with other meat products. Eggs and chickens are also preferred.
Cuisine of South Africa and the neighboring countries is sometimes called rainbow cuisine and rightly so as the cuisine of South Africa and the countries around them have largely become polyglot cuisines, having influences of several immigrants which include Indians and Malaya , as well as Europeans. Thus, the food here is a blend of many cultures – European, Asian and African.
The Malay influence has brought spicy curries, chutneys, and pickled fish and curry-marinated pork or lamb kebabs, and variety of fish stews. The Indians have introduced a different line of culinary practices, including a variety of sweets and savories. The Afrikaaners have their succulent potjies or stews of maize with tomato and onion sauce, with or without rice. There are several European contributions like Dutch fried crueler or koeksister and milk pies. The basic ingredients include seafood, meat products and wild game, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruits include grapes, mangoes, bananas and papayas, avocado. Most desserts are simply fruit, but there are some more western style puddings, such as the Angolan Cocada amarela, which was inspired by Portuguese cuisine. Meat products include lamb, and game like venison, ostrich, and impala. The seafood includes a wide variety such as crayfish, prawns, tuna, mussels, oysters, mackerel, and lobster. Last but not least, there are also several types of traditional and modern alcoholic beverages including many European-style beers.
Central Africa stretches from the Tibesti mountains in the north to vast rainforest basin of the Congo River , and has remained largely free of culinary influences of the outside world, until the late 19th century, with the exception of the widespread adoptation of cassava, peanut, and chile pepper plants which arrived along with the slave trade during the early 1500s. These foodstuffs have had a large influence on the local cuisine, perhaps less on the preparation methods. Central African cooking has remained mostly traditional. Nevertheless, like other parts of Africa , Central African cuisine also presents an array of exotic dishes.
The basic ingredients are plantains and cassava. Fufu-like starchy foods (usually made from fermented cassava roots) are served with grilled meat and sauces. The most traditional meats are those that are hunted in the forests. A variety of local ingredients are used while preparing other dishes like spinach stew, cooked with tomato, peppers, chiles, onions, and peanut butter. Cassava plants are also consumed as cooked greens. Groundnut (peanut) stew is also prepared, containing chicken, okra, ginger, and other spices. Another favorite is Bambara, a porridge of rice, peanut butter and sugar. Beef and chicken are favorite meat dishes, but game meat preparations containing crocodile, monkey, antelope and warthog, are also served occasionally.