Eating African Style

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Eating African Style

African cuisine is as diverse as the continent’s geography – so whether it’s tagines in Morocco, fufu in Accra or bokkoms on the West Coast of South Africa, the continent’s colourful cuisine is a journey worth taking. By Elizabeth Badenhorst. 

Africa’s culinary language is a fascinating one – sometimes dictated by landscape, sometimes dictated by culture and, often, necessity has provided the space for creativity.

North Africa’s fragrant tagines cooked in iconic clay pots boast a sweet-and-sour marriage that sings thanks to the addition of dates, honey, briny olives and preserved lemons. Couscous meals that feature spicy merguez sausages, braised lamb, a vegetable broth and a couscous mount (from rolled semolina flour) are traditionally enjoyed by the extended family dining together around one central platter. For added kick, try the condiment traditionally served with this meal – harissa, made from pounded chillies, vinegar and cumin.

Bastilla is a pigeon pie that is toasted in the pan and sprinkled with cinnamon – a Moroccan specialty not to be missed, even if chicken often replaces the more traditional pigeon these days. Another Moroccan dish that has travelled the world is Mechoui, grilled lamb topped with traditional spices. North African spices are justly famous, the best known being Ras el Hanout, meaning the vendor’s ‘top blend’, and can include cumin, cardamom, cloves, ginger and turmeric, to name just a few. North African food is fragrant but never overly spicy and the hot stuff is usually served on the side.

Mint tea is a staple and should be enjoyed while haggling with spice and carpet vendors, after a couscous meal or whenever you need a breather. Don’t leave without a sweet, sticky pastry – dripping with local honey and covered in nuts – or try out a spot of halva, which is decadent and sinfully delicious.

West Africa’s braised fish and chicken dishes impress – like Senegal’s Yassa chicken – with Nigeria’s ‘red sauce’ travelling as far as New York and leaving a mark. Suya is a favourite in West Africa – it’s a type of shish kebab with spices cooked on the barbeque. In Ghana, you’ll get fufu –yams, cassava or plantains boiled and pounded to a doughy consistency and eaten dipped in a sauce or soup. Then there is Kenkey – a type of sourdough dumpling dished up with soup. Jollof rice is a hit in Senegal, as is Thieboudienne – a fish dish.

In Nigeria, try the yam porridge (amala); acaraje (black-eyed peas) or Echicha, which consists of cassava, pigeon, peas and palm oilof Frejon – a coconut bean soup. In Ivory Coast, you just have to try the coffee – potent and roasted extra dark, it packs a convincing caffeine punch, strong enough to please the French and Italians. On the opposite side of the continent, Ethiopia is their main rival in the coffee stakes. Do try the traditional Ethiopian staple of a fermented pancake topped with a choice of spicy accompaniments, ranging from meat and vegetables to relishes.

East Africa, and the island of Zanzibar off Tanzania in particular, is home to a luxurious variety of spices – such as pepper, cinnamon and cloves – hence the name, ‘The Spice Islands’. The night market in Zanzibar’s Stone Town offers diners the chance to walk along the beachfront and taste as far as they go, as the grilled fish and other seafood smoking on the coals are that day’s catch and difficult to resist. In Somalia, there is Lahoh – a spongy bread – and in Kenya and Tanzania, try out Mandazi – a fried bread treat

Wherever you travel in East Africa, you’ll find an East Indian presence and it’s a good idea to at least once try some Indian food, which is rich in spices and satisfyingly hearty, even if you’re having only a vegetable dish with flat bread on the side. East Africa gave Southern Africa the chilli, which travelled down the coast with Portuguese and Indian merchants.

Mozambique is the world’s best ambassador for piri-piri prawns. A walk through the market in capital, Maputo, will introduce you to this delicacy in all its sizes and varieties. Matched to a local beer or a grassy Portuguese wine, thick chips and spiced rice, prawns are the ultimate indulgence here. The local crab and fish preparations are equally inviting, particularly when grilled over an open fire.

Southern Africa has Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa which are known for the excellent quality of their beef and char-grilled steaks. If you’re a fan of roasted ribs, then go for it, particularly in Zimbabwe.

The West Coast of Namibia produces some of the best oysters and venison in the region and the semi-desert interior of South Africa (the Karoo) is home to lamb redolent of the wild herbs on which they feast.

The cuisines that dominate the South African table are African (meat, maize meal porridge and beans dominate), Malaysian/Indonesian, East Indian, English, Portuguese and Italian.

German settlers gave South Africa its iconic boerewors (farmers’ sausage). The Malays came to the Cape with the first Dutch settlers from Indonesia and produced the country’s national dish – bobotie – a meat pie with a savoury custard topping.

And if you don’t know, dried red meat called biltong is the national snack, closely followed by dried wors (sausage), and these can be purchased in most food outlets, but butcheries usually stock the best. Variety meats (offal) are an African staple and chisa nyama is something you will definitely find on the township streets. To make the most of African cuisine, opt for regional specialties – the locals will be only too happy to recommend their best dishes. So, let your tastebuds take you on a journey through the continent.

THE BUSH DINNER

There is nothing quite like a bush dinner, and these are generally an option for visitors to bush lodges all around Africa. Dining under all-encompassing African skies with the sounds of nature to serenade is a beautiful end to any day. Tables are usually set in an outside boma – and chefs will prepare a range of delectable dishes, sometimes using wild meats such as warthog, eland or even crocodile. {Not to worry, there are always vegetarian options and dishes to suit every taste). The stars twinkle above as guests sip on wines from the continent and around the world.

BRAAI – Reuben on Fire

One of South Africa’s best-loved chefs, Reuben Riffel, has brought out a number of excellent books. His latest is called BRAAI – Reuben on Fire and is dedicated to the wonderful tradition known as the South African braai. Braaing is simply a way of life for many South Africans. As Riffel explains, ‘[It] is the ultimate way to cook. Social, primal and the most fun you can have with your clothes on as a South African – or anyone for that matter – it’s a skill worth perfecting.’ His latest book is published by Quivertree (www.quivertree.co.za) and is available at all good bookstores and as an e-book.

Image by: Ryan Jones

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Bewitched by the magic of France, Melissa Jane Cook is an intrepid explorer. A lover of traversing the globe, she eagerly absorbs different cultures and laps up the magnificent oceanic experiences. Wooed by words and writers alike, her penchant for facials, chocolate, owls and bugs, is surpassed only by her fascination with the stage aglow in lights or bookshelves that heave with stories, where characters invite her along on their marvellous journeys.

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