Today if we think of food and Africa at all, it’s nearly always in the context of famine and shortages, except around the periphery – Morocco, Egypt and South Africa. How can we know so little about the foods of world’s second largest continent, with 58 countries and dependent territories?
The facile explanation is that the continent has had enough trouble feeding its own people without driving exports globally, but that argument never slowed the spread of Chinese food despite frequent major famines and shortages in that country. And a lack of flavour shouldn’t be a major inhibitor to food finding a ready audience. Few dishes could be as bland as American fast food or burgers, but that has hardly slowed the spread of the industry.
It is likely that the first cooking in the world happened in Africa. However difficult that may be to believe, considering the lack of African dishes on a world stage. Despite their lack of global presence, there are still classic dishes. Here’s a baker’s dozen of the best:
South Africa – Pap en vleis
This combination of barbecued meat and maize porridge is common across Southern Africa, particularly in South Africa, where the starch and braaied or stewed meat comes with an obligatory side of spicy gravy. It’s common for restaurants specialising in this dish to be close to butchers’ shops so customers can choose their own meat.
Mozambique – Piri piri chicken
Mix African, Portuguese, oriental and Arabic flavors and you have the taste of Mozambique. Piri piri chicken is probably the most iconic dish: chicken cooked with lime, pepper, garlic, coconut milk and piri piri sauce, often served with cassava leaves cooked in a peanut sauce.
Zimbabwe – Kapenta with sadza
Kapenta are small freshwater fish, often served with sadza (maize porridge) or stewed with tomatoes, onions and groundnut powder, then served with fresh greens.
South Africa – Bunny chow
Although the origin of the name is unclear, this street food of a hollowedout white bread filled with a very-hot curry is thought to have been brought to the country by 19th century indentured labourers from India.
Malawi – Chambo with nsima
The most popular and best-known fish found in Lake Malaw is served grilled, usually with nsima (a stiff porridge) or chips, plus ndiwo, a relish made of pumpkin or cassava leaves, tomatoes and groundnut powder. Nsima and ndiwo are also staple foods in neighbouring Zambia.
Angola – Muamba de galinha
A strong Portuguese influence is evident in the food of Angola, especially in this chicken stew and the popular fish stew Caldeirada de peixe. Sometimes known as Chicken muamba, this spicy and oily stew is made with with palm oil or palm butter, garlic and chillies. In Gabon, a variant called Nyembwe chicken is the national dish.
South Africa – Cape breyani
A classic of Cape Malay cuisine, this dish comprises layers of marinated meat, rice, lentils and spices topped with crisp fried onions and hard-boiled eggs. It arrived via the slave trade, along with bredies, pickled fish, denningvleis and bobotie.
Nigeria – Jollof rice and egusi soup
Nigeria is a large country with many regional cuisines but jollof rice is a staple across most of West Africa. This simple, spicy one pot dish of rice, tomatoes, onions and pepper is often served with egusi soup, made with ground melon seeds and bitter leaf, plus fried plantains and pounded yam.
Zanzibar – Biryanis and pilaus
These rice dishes both draw on the exotic array of spices synonymous with the island and are often served with kachumbari, a fresh onion and tomato salad popular across East Africa.
Egypt – Koshari
A nourishing vegetarian dish of rice, lentils, macaroni, garlic and chickpeas that is bought together by a spicy tomato sauce and topped off with fried onion.
Kenya – Nyama na irio
This well-loved comfort dish, originally a Kikuyu staple that has spread through Kenya, is made of mashed potatoes, peas, beans, corn and onion, often served with spiced roasted meat.
Egypt – Ful medames
Pre-Ottoman and pre-Islam, it is thought this dish dates back to the time of the Pharoahs. Possibly the country’s national dish, this is a mix of broad (fava) beans simmered with spices and olive oil often served in the morning with eggs and pita bread.
Morocco – B’stilla
Although Moroccan tagines and couscous dishes are well known, this sweet and savoury dish (also known as b’stilla) is s a pie made of shredded cooked squab or chicken, thickened with egg sauce with paper-thin pastry and layers of nutty, spicy filling.