African Cuisine

“No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill.”

– Barbara Kingsolver, “The Poisonwood Bible”

The unique cuisines of Morocco, Ethiopia, and South Africa notwithstanding, the cuisines of the African regions share similar ingredients but each have their own distinctive dishes, preparation techniques, and eating rituals. Very little food is imported and each region’s cuisines are defined by available local ingredients, historical foreign influences, and religious guidelines.

Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent after Asia. At about 11.7 million square miles, including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of Earth’s total surface area and 20% of its land area and is the world’s hottest and second driest continent. It’s 54 sovereign countries are the most of any continent. Africa accounts for about 16% of the world’s human population with around 1.3 billion people speaking over 1,500 languages. It is also the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent, with the average poor person in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to live on just $.70 a day. African dance, art, literature, music, fabrics and, of course, foods, are exceptionally colorful, exciting, and vibrant.

African Cuisine Flavor Profiles

Like most other cuisine of the world, African cuisine is a blend of culinary influences from past invaders, colonizers and nearby neighbors. Culinary influences of the region also include limited local ingredients and tribal rituals. This creates a diversified cuisine unique to the African continent. Here are some of the influences:

  • Africa is and always will be a collection of individual tribes. Each tribe’s adaptations to survive in its immediate environment formed the foundations for African cuisine.
  • All of Africa, except for Ethiopia and Liberia, were colonized by foreign powers during the “Scramble for Africa that occurred between 1881 and 1914. The Dutch, English, French, and Spanish “visitors” introduced the cooking methods and ingredients of their countries and colonies. Those included garlic, onion, orange, chicken, coconut, pig, and rice.
  • Because of their close proximity, the cooking techniques and foods from India and the Middle East easily integrated with local ingredients and customs. The Ottoman Empire introduced Islam and its food restrictions and rituals to the north.

Even though each of the 54 sovereign countries have their own unique cuisine, they can be more generally understood when grouped into 5 distinct geographical regions: North, East, West, South, and Central.

East African Cuisine

East African cuisine varies from country to country and region to region. On a whole, East African cooking tends to focus on grains, slow-cooked stews and vegetables, curries, and dairy. It can be divided into three general cuisines, each a result of its unique geography, history, invaders, trade partners and neighboring countries:

  • Inland Savannah – the traditional cuisine of these cattle-keeping peoples is distinctive in that meat products are mostly absent. Cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were considered to be a form of currency and wealth that’s not to be consumed as food. Some areas drink milk and blood, but rarely use the meat. Elsewhere, farmers grow a variety of grains and vegetables. Ugali, made with home-grown maize (corn) is the predominant staple eaten with stews. Uganda’s main starch is matoke made with steamed steamed green plantains.
  • Horn of Africa – dominated by the similar cuisines of Eritrea and Ethiopia, traditional dishes are tsebhis (stews) served on-and with injera (spongy flatbread) and hilbet (legumes paste) and spiced with bibere. Dinners tear a piece of injera to scoop up on of the many stews piled in front of them. Traditional Ethiopian dishes do not include any pork or shellfish as they are forbidden in the predominant Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox Christian faiths.
  • Swahili Coast – around 1,000 years ago, merchants from Oman and Yemen introduced Middle Eastern influences to the countries under the “Horn” that bordered the Indian Ocean. Persian style foods like steamed rice perfumed with saffron, cloves, and other Middle Eastern foods dominated for centuries until the British and Indians came and introduced foods such as chapatis, spiced vegetable curries, lentil soups, and all kinds of pickles. Foods in the region now include oranges, lemons, limes, chili peppers, maize, tomatoes, pomegranates, and strawberries.

Notable East African dishesBeyenatu (Ethiopia – stewed vegetable dish served over ingira), Pweza wa Nazi (Zanzabar – octopus curry), Mandazi (Tanzania – deep-fried “donuts”), Samosas (Kenya – deep fried meat or vegetable pastry), Nyama Choma (Kenya – grilled meats), Matooke (Uganda – mashed green plantain), Rolex (Uganda – chapati wrapped vegetables and eggs), Kitfo (Ethiopia – Spicy raw minced meat), Doro Wat (Ethiopia – famous chicken stew), Malawa (Somalia – sweet thin pancake), Niter Kibbeh (Ethiopia – spiced clarified butter), Ugali (Kenya – cornmeal porridge), Kachumbari (Burundi – condiment of chopped tomatoes, onions, lemon and chili pepper).

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West African Cuisine

West African cuisine represents dozens of distinct regional and ethnic cuisines set in 20 different nations with climates ranging from desert to tropical. Although there are obvious differences between each, there are also commonalities defined by local ingredients and forged by the slave trade between Europe, the Americas, and West Africa. A typical meal in the region is made with a starchy staple like fufu (pounded cassava root) and can contain meat or fish along with various spices and herbs. In addition to indigenous foods and eating customs, two major periods and cultures brought ingredients and techniques that ultimately defined West African cuisine:

A millennium ago, West Africans exchanged goods with Arab traders who travelled vast distances over the dessert in camel-drawn caravans. They brought with them many ingredients from the Middle East, including rice and cinnamon. A few centuries later, slave ships from Europe brought black eyed peas, okra, yams, rampant disease, and 10 million+ enslaved West Africans to the New World (Americas) and returned with chili peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, corn, cassava root, and plantains. These ingredients combined with indigenous techniques and Arabic flavors helped to create the cuisine that is uniquely West African.

Notable West African dishes – Palm Butter (Liberia – thick boiled and ground palm nut sauce), Plasas (Sierra Leone – stew of leafy greens, meat, peppers, peanut sauce), Yassa Poulet (Senegal – lime marinated chicken in a rich onion sauce), Efo (Nigeria – spiced greens with meat and onion cooked in palm oil), Egusi (Nigeria – pounded melon seed stew), Jollof Rice (Ghana/Nigeria – heavily spiced tomato rice dish), Suya (Niger – spicy meat kabobs), Shito (Ghana – chili pepper and dried shrimp condiment), Cachupa (Cape Verde – stew of peas, sweet potato, beans, corn, carrots and fish), Groundnut Stew (Ghana – spicy peanut stew and okra), Waakye (Ghana – traditional cooked rice, black eyed peas, and red millet leaves), Moi Moi (Nigeria – staple of steamed black-eyed peas, onions and peppers).

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Southern Africa Cuisine

The cooking of this region is often referred to as “rainbow cuisine”. The south of Africa is the land of diversity. Its people, landscapes, cultures, and languages offer a melting pot of culinary complexity. The cuisine of Southern African is a unique fusion of many different external cultural influences.

At its foundation, it is a mix of two indigenous cultures; one of which is the Bantu speakers, who only arrived in the region about 2,000 years ago and introduced crop cultivation, animal husbandry, and iron tool making with them. They grew grain crops and raised cattle, sheep, and goats as well as pumpkins, beans, milk products, and leafy green vegetables. They eventually absorbed the original hunter-gathers that roamed the region 10,000 years ago who’s techniques for preserving and grilling meats over an open fire (Braai) live on.

These indigenous cuisines later coupled with the ingredients and flavors of Dutch, German, French, Indian, and Malaysian traders. One of the earlier and more significant influences were the Dutch that settled in South Africa during the 1600’s. They were soon joined by French Huguenots as well as a number of Germans. This combination led to what is today known as the Afrikaans style of cooking. Because these folk traversed the country in search of places to settle, and had no sort of refrigeration devices, they were known for their dried meats and liberal use of spices and salts for the preserving foods.

Another very important influence is that of the Malays. These Eastern peoples were brought to South Africa as slaves for the European settlers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. They brought with them the secrets of their marvelous cooking and added spices to the previously bland Afrikaans diet. Toss in British cuisine and the spicy hot dishes of their Indian indentured servants and you pretty much have the Southern African “rainbow cuisine” of today.

Notable dishes from Southern Africa Caranguejo (Mozambique – coconut crab curry), Bunny Chow (South Africa – curried meat in hollowed out bread loaf), Seswa (Botswana – pounded beef and goat), Caldeirada de Cabrito (Angola- goat meat and potato stew), Mogodu (South Africa – classic tripe dish), Kapenta (Zimbabwe/Zambia – small dried freshwater fish cooked in a savory tomato sauce), Mufete (Angola – grilled tilapia with beans, boiled plantain and sweet potato), Romazava (Mozambique – beef, pork, greens, onions, tomatoes, and garlic soup), Mealie Bread (Zambia – warm sweet corn bread), Biltong (South Africa – dried cured meat), Mealie Pap (South Africa – sweet corn meal porridge), Bobotie (South Africa – layered lamb stew with rice, bananas, raisins, coconut milk), Boerewors (South Africa – smoked beef sausage).

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North African Cuisine

North Africa made up of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. Its cuisines is dramatically different than the rest of Africa, having been heavily influenced by centuries of traders, travelers, invaders, and immigrants. The massive Sahara Desert also separated the countries of the north from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Egypt even includes dishes that reach all the way back to to African antiquity.

The ancient empires of Phonetia brough sausages while the Carthegenians introduced wheat and its by-product semolina. Olives and olive oil was introduced to North Africa early on. From the 7th century onwards, the Arabs of the Middle East introduced important fragrant spices like saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. The Ottoman’s brought sweet pastries and other baked products from Turkey. The Europeans brought back tomatoes, zucchini and chili peppers from the new world. The foods of northern Africa are based on these and other local flavors. There isn’t a clearly defined North African cuisine as there are distinct differences between the sophisticated, full-bodied flavors of Moroccan palace cookery, the fiery dishes of Tunisia, and the humbler, simpler cuisines of Egypt and Algiers:


“To develop a great cuisine, a nation must have four attributes – an abundance of fine ingredients, a variety of cultural influences, a great civilization, and the existence of a refined palace life.” – Paula Wolfert, The Food of Morocco. The cuisine is considered to be one of the top ten cuisines of the world. Foreign invasions from the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire, introduced fragrant spices and lemons to the Moroccan royal court along with pastries of phyllo dough, honey, and nuts. Sitting right on the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea provided the skilled Moroccan cooks an abundance of seafood and vegetables.

Notable Moroccan Dishes – Couscous (fragrant steamed semolina grain), Bisteeya (classic sweet & savory pigeon pie with phyllo-like werqa leaves), Mechoui (pit-roasted whole lamb), Djej Emsmel (chicken, olive and lemon tagine), Tagine (Moroccan fragrant slow-cooked stews of meats, fish, and/or vegetables, fruits, nuts), Preserved Lemons (lemons pickled in salt), Kaab el Ghazal (“gazelle horns”- pastry filled with almond paste and topped with sugar).

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This ancient land sits on the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Although it has a culinary tradition that combines the cuisines from many countries, it is more similar to Middle Eastern foods than its North African neighbors. Stewed fava beans and mezes of hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, and other vegetable salads are eaten with flatbreads.

Notable Egyptian Dishes – Ful Medames (cooked fava beans), Ta’meya (spiced fava bean falafel), Koshari (layered rice, macaroni, lentils and chickpeas with caramelized onions and garlicky red vinegar sauce), Mashi (vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs), Fattah (crispy bread, rice, meat in a vinegar/tomato sauce).

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Stretching between Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria is the largest country in Africa. Like its North African neighbors, it a culture heavily influenced by occupiers and numerous dynasties throughout its long history. Romans, Spaniards, Arabs, Ottomans, and finally the French all played a part in forming the cuisine of Algeria.

Notable Algerian Dishes Mhajeb (baked semolina pastry filled with spicy hot tomato & onion mix), Bourek (fried pastry filled with mashed potatoes, olives, parsely, onions and egg), Ghrayef (semolina crepes topped with butter and honey), Tajine Lahlou (sweet, thick caramelized meat and fruit stew flavored with orange blossom and cinnamon).

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Tunisia has a cuisine so entirely its own that it will never be mistaken for the cooking of its neighbors. Tunisian cuisine is very healthy with a strong emphasis on grains, fresh fruits, fish and vegetables. With millions of olive trees lining its coast, olives and olive oil are used everywhere. Different from its neighbors, Tunisian food exceptionally spicy and peppery hot. Throw in lots of fresh vegetables and you’ve got the essence of Tunisian cooking.

Notable Tunisian Dishes – Tunisian Tagine (Egg, lamb casserole, more like an Italian frittata than a Moroccan tagine), Harissa (fiery cooking paste of sun-dried hot red peppers, spices, and garlic), Egg Brik (thin pastry-wrapped triangles of egg, parsley and tuna), Kefta (fried mini-meatballs in tomato sauce), Khobz Mella (crust flat loaf of bread cooked over embers).

Central African Cuisine

Central African cuisine is typically basic but flavorful. The cuisine stayed free of outside influences until the late 1500s when the Atlantic slave trade returned new ingredients like cassava, peanuts, chili peppers, and others. These ingredients were integrated into traditional dishes and rituals to form the cuisine of Central Africa. Most meals center around large portions of a starch, usually made from ground manioc, cassava, plantains or corn. The starch is surrounded by a wonderful combination of fruits, vegetables, and meat or fish. Central Africans eat almost anything garnished with sauce and have created some great sauces and dishes as a result. People of Central Africa are very fond of hunting. For their survival they need to hunt and this game meat is cooked and sauced as a part of their meal.

Notable Central African dishesPonu (Congo – stew of cassava leaves, onions, chili, palm oil), Ndole (Cameroon – spinach, bitter leaf, stewed nuts), Nsaka Madesu (Congo – cooked cassava leaves and beans), Mwambe Chicken (Congo – chicken in palm butter), Makara (DRC – cassava flour fried bread), Kanda ti Nyma (Central African Republic – beef meatballs in peanut butter stew), Karkanji (Chad – hibiscus flower tea).

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