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African Food Ingredients

by Terrie Wright Chrones

introduction  |  ingredients  |  terms  |  recipes


What are ingredients for the traveler? African American cooking, with ingredients carried from the New World to Africa and back, gives us some clues. Mealie, the African name for corn, is used to make the soft cornmeal mush and batters that are a characteristic of African and American southern foods today. Fufu, brought to America by Nigerian slaves, is a stiff cornmeal or yam mush, directly related to southern spoonbreads and cornmeal. Porridges and ground millet, sorghum, teff, barley, and cassava flour make up the fritters, batters, flatbreads, griddle cakes, and grits known not only in the American South, but is part of the homemaker's repertoire in Africa.

The prime characteristic of native African meals is the use of starch as a focus; accompanied by a stew containing meat or vegetables, or both. Starch filler foods, similar to the rice cuisines of Asia, are a hallmark. Cassava and yams are main root vegetables. Steamed greens, mixtures of hot spices with root vegetables, stew with and without meat, particularly chicken, all are African inspired. Peanuts, called groundnuts in Africa, feature heavily in many dishes from a garnish to peanut soups. Melons, particularly watermelon, are popular.

Nigeria and the coastal parts of West Africa are fond of chilies in food. Coastal recipes include fish marinated in ginger, tomatoes, and cayenne, cooked in peanut oil. French cooking influence in Senegal uses touches of lime juice, chopped vegetables including scallions, garlic, and marinades. Peanut oil, palm oil, and often coconut oils are common. The black eyed pea is a staple of West Africa. Okra, known also in the American South, is native to Africa; used in many dishes to thicken soups and stews. Tropical fruits, particularly the banana and coconut are important ingredients.

Outside of Muslim Africa, alcoholic beverages are part of the diet. South Africa is known for the production of good quality white and red wines. South Africa also produces a tangerine based liqueur called Van Der Hum. Tusker, the famous Kenyan beer, is exported for those who want to recreate a meal. Beer goes well with most African cuisine.

The most famous alcoholic drink in the interior is the Ethiopian honey wine, Tej, which has been made for centuries. Bees are the earliest domesticated animals. Wine made from their honey is a slightly acquired taste, similar to the mead of Old England. Ethiopia lays claim to another first, the cultivation of coffee. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony includes lighting of incense, passing around the beans for guest's approval, and roasting on the spot. From Ethiopia, coffee spread to Yemen, and on through the Arabic world to Europe.

Let's start with Ethiopia, with the most isolated of the African cuisines. Removed geographically from the rest of Africa, it is one of the purest indigenous cuisines. Its high interior plains, cool nights and long growing season provide an abundant variety of food. It is a meat based diet. Ethiopians are very particular about the freshness of their meat. It is typical at traditional Ethiopian weddings for the bride and groom to serve fresh slices of just slaughtered raw beef to guests. A popular dish remains a version of steak tartare; raw ground beef served with assorted condiments. Accompanying many dishes is the fiery Berbere, a spicy hot pepper paste. Doro Wat, a stewed chicken, is the national dish. Doro Wat is composed of meat, onions, tomato, stock, and hard cooked eggs. Teff, the smallest form of millet, is ground into flour, used in a thin fermented batter to make Injera. Injera batter is poured upon a griddle in a large spiral, where it blends into a large 24" circular flatbread. Cooked in minutes, the spongy sourdough like bread becomes the plate for the Wat, and replaces a spoon.

South Africa has emerged as a polyglot cuisine. European colonization, the adaptation of the native Bantu cooking, and large scale immigration of foreigners and workers have all contributed. Dutch settlers brought their forms of agriculture, and the British merchants imported the "mixed grills" that now include African game meats. French cultivated the vineyards, known worldwide today. Malay workers contributed curries, adding spice to a traditional plain English-Dutch influence. British empire Indians who came to build the railroads forever influenced cuisine with dals, lentil soups, and curries. Game, and lamb, the famous South African lobster, and a vast repertoire of fish add to a truly cosmopolitan cuisine. Still, in the bush and smaller towns with mostly native Africans, the main meals remain starch and stew based. South Africa's most unusual meat is called Biltong. It is a spicy form of jerky, wind-dried, used in traveling, snacks, and can be found not only country wide, but throughout Africa.

In the bush, one may find the most traditional African foods. The African village diet is often milk, curds and whey, (Ethiopia is justly known in the Bible as the land of milk and honey) and dishes of steamed or boiled green vegetables, peas, beans, and cereals. Starchy cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes round out a daily diet. The most unusual use is the local Baobab tree. This thick trunked tree looks somewhat in silhouette like an upside down carrot, growing wider at the base. Baobab seeds are dried, crushed and ground, and the flesh of the fruit is used in powder form to thicken sauces. In each locality there are numerous wild fruits and greens that are used in all manners of cooking. Yam feast days are common, often accompanied with eggs. West African cuisine makes croquettes of yams, fried in peanut oil. Along with the banana and plantain, the starchy vegetable form of banana, these comprise important elements of the diet. Yams are often served with eggs.

Cooking techniques of West Africa often combine fish and meat. Flaked and dried fish is browned in oil and combined with chicken, yam, onions, chili oil and water to make a highly flavored stew. Beef and mutton are not common in West Africa, used mostly as a condiment; as it is very tough.

East Africa is huge. Kenya is larger than France; Uganda is the size of the Midwest, they are huge countries with immense plains. The European influence is less, as this side of Africa was last changed by the trade ships. The diet of the East African is again starch based, with millet, sorghum, bananas and milk mostly found as curds and whey. Cornmeal is now such a basic part of African cuisine is hard to believe that it was a new World import.

Home to some of the greatest game preserves, East African cuisine is distinctive for the almost total absence of meat. Cattle, sheep and goats are regarded as more a form of currency, and status, and so are not eaten. The Masai, live almost entirely upon the milk and blood, but not the meat, of their cattle.

Settlers influenced East Africa by importing their cuisine almost in its entirety. The first settlers, were the Arabs, settling in the coastal areas. The many pilaf dishes, rice cooked in the Persian steamed and spiced manner remain. Pomegranate juice, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, all spice East African food; showing the Arabic origins. Eventually, and many centuries later, the British, and their imported workers from India conspired to forever influence the East African diet, including boiled vegetable, and curries.

The Portuguese influence upon Angola and Mozambique is pervasive and subtle. They were the first Europeans to move to Africa south of the Sahara in the 15th century. Settling so long, this relatively inconspicuous European country influenced African life more than the more direct and intrusive British, French, and Dutch. Just as in their Indian colony of Goa, the Portuguese brought the European sense of flavoring with spices, and techniques of roasting and marinating to African foods. These influences blended with local cuisines and ingredients to produce subtle and aromatic recipes. Separated across the tip of the continent, Mozambique is more fish based and Atlantic. Angola is reflective of the west side, with drier climate, and corresponding change in ingredients. Catholicism also introduced to the Portuguese African cuisine the sense of feast and fast days, meatless Fridays, changing the native African cuisine. The Portuguese brought from their Asian colonies, the orange, lemon, and lime. From Brazil, another colony, they brought the foods of the new world; chilies, peppers, corn, tomato, pineapples, banana, and the domestic pig. The Portuguese gardeners, farmers, fishermen profoundly influenced native stews.

In addition to growing cashews, Mozambique is most known for its piripiri, or hot pepper dishes. Using the small tremendously hot peppers of that country, sieved lemon juice is warmed, adding red freshly picked chilies, simmered exactly five minutes, then salted and pounded to a paste. This pulp is returned to heat with more lemon juice and eaten over meats, fish, and shellfish...and hot! In a way, this simple condiment of blended techniques and imported ingredients is a perfect exam example of African food sensibilities.

A quick tour...and exotic. To plan an African meal, consider a starch base, emphasize yams, cornmeal, and variety of greens. If palm and coconut oil do not appeal in heart healthy menus, use corn oil, but not olive oil. There are many African books around, and most of the ingredients are easily available. Natural food stores now commonly stock millet, teff, stone ground white corn grits, and varieties of greens. African cuisine is and remains, a melange of native ingredients simply prepared. Add to the tubers and starch the food greats of the new World, the peanut, chili, tomato, and pepper, overlaid with the spices and sauces of colonial countries, Indian and Malaysian spices, and local drinks. Hospitable, generous and filling, African dinners will be a welcome addition to a festive meal.


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