This article was written for submission in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Recipe Book. The book is an amalgamation of recipes from the university’s very international group of students. Themes of recipes were submitted from all corners of the world, and were organized according to continent. My written submission introduces the section on foods from Africa. It was a challenging and daunting task to do justice to the foods from such an incredibly diverse continent. The words started to flow for me on the bus between Arusha and Nairobi, and I finally recently finished it for the book. I hope the beauty in the complexity of the food found in Africa comes across. I would never normally want to clump “Africa” together in any sort of overarching statement, but given the task, the following is what I have encountered from my journeys in different countries in the east and the west of Africa, from my encounters with people from all different parts of the continent, and from my education in food studies. I hope you enjoy! When I get the link for the recipe book, I will gladly share with you all (can’t wait for it to come out!).
To think of recipes from Africa conjures an imagery of the dynamic and diverse peoples that inhabit a breathtaking continent, and its diasporas. As with any region, there is no way to simply “define” its people or its food. In Africa, food choices and the methods of producing, gathering, preparing, cooking, marketing and consuming vary across a rolling landscape with mountains, flat plains, sandy deserts, luscious forests, sprawling lakes and rivers, bustling cities, quiet villages, and a vast coastline.
Fields of wheat and rice, or maize, cassava, and yams often provide basic starchy staples—such as fufu that’s found in parts of western Africa, or ugali in parts of the east. Plantain (with its many local names) serves as a delicious main ingredient whether fried, baked, roasted, pounded, or mashed and is combined with various localized flavours. Groves of trees yield juicy mangoes, pawpaw (papaya), gigantic avocados, young and ripened coconuts, and a plethora of other fruits and flavours.
One flavour that tends to dominate the landscape (though not in all places) goes by many names. It can be combined with tomatoes, onions, beans, meats, and even fruits. It can burn the tongue, and it can warm the soul. It is the wondrous pili-pili, peri peri, piri piri, shito, piment, pepe. This fiery flavour is hot pepper. It comes raw and fresh, dried and ground, in chunks and as powder. It is the pièce de résistance for many important dishes and sauces that pack a potent punch.
Lentils, beans and nuts are fundamental sources of protein for many people across the continent. Other proteins are found in meats such as beef, goat, pork, chicken, and guinea fowl, deliciously enjoyed when roasted, simmered, or stewed; or adamantly prohibited for religious or personal reasons. Eggs can be turned into omelets served with freshly baked bread, or can be added to stews, fried with French fries, or boiled for a quick snack when dunked in hot pepper sauce—best purchased for a long journey on a bumpy bus ride across (or between) countries.
The “cuisines” of Africa have been shaped by the important reproductions of food that are tied to the confirmation and transformation of identities and ethnicities. Foods of Africa have as much to do with nutrition and biological necessity as they do religious symbolism, constructs of self and other, and community building. Sharing food is an especially important ingredient to building and maintaining human relationships. This is evident across various parts of Africa as sharing from the same bowl, pot, or plate is an enjoyable and easy way to demonstrate camaraderie. Inviting someone to your meal is an essential way to acknowledge others, and the subsequent dipping of right (not left) hands into the same delicious dish satisfies a hunger for companionship and social cohesion.
Dynamic and shifting tastes and cultures across Africa reflect an ever-evolving relationship between humans and our food. The inter-culinary influences of Africa could be considered as far back as the growing food preferences of our early human ancestors, to inter-tribal interactions, and to ever-evolving trade routes. Today, pre-packaged and preserved foods found in cans, bottles, plastics, crates, sacs and any other container imaginable are imported from around the world, and are sold, cooked and consumed in innumerable ways. Expatriates from all over the world span the continent, bringing their food preferences with them, and firmly established diaspora groups have influenced the availability and desire for ingredients that warrant combinations of old and new methods of preparation.
In Africa, the production and distribution of food can be bountiful and rewarding, but can also be sparse and devastating. Yields are dependent on changing seasons, the content and quality of the soil, migration patterns (both human and animal), and an ever-fluctuating global market. It is essential to consider the realities of food insecurity, as far too many people suffer the consequences of unequal access to safe and nutritious food. The need for sustainable and sufficient food practices should remain in our hearts throughout our celebration of the flavours and joys that emanate from the cuisines of the continent.
The celebration of African foods can be all consuming. We can find joy through food in the most basic of everyday encounters. A bustling bus station teams with vendors selling freshly cooked specialties for the weary traveler. Along the road, individuals balance trays on their heads, topped with carefully and highly stacked food items (which could be anything from fruit, to freshly made crisps, to packages of crackers or gum), navigating their way through rows of big busses, mini busses, motorcycles, and cars, they offer a brief diversion for passengers stuck in typically heavy and chaotic traffic. One can easily get lost in the intricate, colourful, and noisy mazes of people and food that make up the daily local markets that dominate any African city. And yet that experience of disorientation is coupled with awe at the proximity of seemingly never-ending little details that make up a highly functional system of livelihood. At dusk, the rhythmic sound of your neighbours expertly pounding fufu (a delicate task that requires strength, agility, teamwork and trust) fills the air with the immediacy of the time for families and friends to gather together and find satisfaction of the belly, and of the spirit. Whether you’re buying, selling, cleaning, cutting, cooking, eating or sharing, the enjoyment that can be derived from food is profound and limitless.
Global trends in consumption greatly affect local diets and food practices across Africa, just as local diets and the production of foods in Africa affect global food options and changing food choices around the world. This section of our SOAS recipe book welcomes you to try a mere sampling of the deliciously diverse foods to be had from an enticingly diverse continent. Bring these new flavours and tastes to your own kitchen, and don’t forget to invite a friend to share!