Article: A Taste of Regional African Cuisine -- May 2009
Africa is the second largest landmass on earth. The culture and cuisine in many of this continent’s countries are as diverse as the geographical regions in the U.S. From a culinary perspective, this large continent can be divided into three regions--Northern, Central and Southern.
Northern African Cooking
Northern countries, such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt, have cooking techniques and flavors that are similar to Mediterranean cooking, which is a combination of French, Spanish and Arab influences. Moroccan is the most popular North African-style of cooking in the U.S. Nearly every large U.S. city has at least one Moroccan-themed restaurant. It is not uncommon to find a display of lentil salad (made of vegetable broth, lentils, garlic, tomatoes, oregano, cilantro, turmeric, cloves, cumin and paprika) in the deli cases of large grocery stores. Grocery retailer Whole Foods Markets has been promoting and selling North African-inspired food products in their stores for years. This has been an excellent way to educate and expose its customers to global flavors. There is a North African Grilled Vegetable Salad recipe (made of sliced, grilled eggplant, extra virgin olive oil, grilled green bell peppers, red onions, mixed lettuce, parsley, chickpeas, couscous, black olives, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin and harissa vinaigrette [a fiery chili paste]) on the company’s website that is similar to a salad product sold in their stores.
Trader Joe’s produces a popular, refrigerated prepared (16oz) meal called Moroccan Grilled Chicken with Pine Nuts Tabbouleh and Spicy Carrots, under its World’s Fare Heat & Serve Brand. According to the retailer, this product was inspired by the cuisine of Morocco, which is a mixture of several cultural cuisines of North African and Middle Eastern influences. It is made with grilled chicken breast, rice wine vinegar, flavored chicken stock, tabbouleh, raisins, carrots, honey, shallots, Dijon mustard, saffron threads, parsley, paprika, apple cider, canola oil and spices.
The most popular beverage in North Africa is mint tea, which is served as a sign of hospitality and friendship. In many restaurants and households, mint tea is served every day, throughout the day. Some of the popular beverages that have started showing up on American Moroccan restaurant menus are saffron milk and Moroccan-spiced coffee. Saffron milk is made of warm milk, sugar and saffron threads. Moroccan-spiced coffee is made with instant coffee, milk, water, cinnamon, cumin and black pepper.
Moroccan-born celebrity chef Hassan M’Souli owns and operates the restaurant, Out of Africa, located in Sydney, Australia. The restaurant’s fare is a melting pot of North, Central and Southern African flavors. Out of Africa was nominated by the Catering Association as a finalist of Sydney’s Best Restaurant Awards for six straight years--one of Australia’s highest culinary awards. In 2004, chef M’Souli published Moroccan Modern, a book of 100 of his favorite recipes, including one for the popular beverage, almond milk. It is made of milk, sugar, whole blanched almonds, water and orange blossom water. The ingredients are heated, cooled, blended in a blender, strained through a sieve and served over chilled ice.
Many Influences in Central African Cuisine
Central Africa covers a large portion of the continent, from eastern Somalia to western Senegal to northern Mali and the southern Congo. There are Spanish, British, Portuguese, French and African influences in the cooking techniques and ingredients used. Grains of paradise, sorghum, pilau spice, egusi and groundnuts (peanuts) are common ingredients used in many Central African dishes.
Grain of paradise (melegueta pepper) comes from the herbaceous perennial plant. The seeds have a peppery taste and are used as a spice to flavor African stews and soups.
Sorghum is a grass raised for grain in Africa and used mostly for syrup or molasses in the U.S. However, sorghum flour is gaining popularity in the U.S., because the flour milled from the grain sorghum contains no gluten. This is important to the increasing number of consumers allergic to gluten.
The pilauspice is a mixture of ground cinnamon, ground cardamom, cloves and saffron strands, and it is used to season rice dishes and meats. In Kenya, there is a popular, one-pot meal dish called pilaumade with rice, beef or chicken, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, tomato paste, tomatoes, pilauspice and coconut milk.
Egusi (dried melon seeds) are used to thicken soups. They are usually sold in the marketplace, sometimes packaged ground and toasted. The flavor of these seeds adds a nutty taste to soups. They are very oily, which causes them to turn rancid quickly, if not stored properly. In 2006, Senegalese-born chef Pierre Thiam opened the restaurant Grand Dakar. He designed his menu around his culinary travel experiences, creating a reflection of Senegalese, French, Vietnamese and Moroccan flavors. One of the signature items on the menu is egusisoup (palm oil, ground pumpkin seeds, cassava leaves--served over fufu). His version of fufu is made from fermented cassava dough. This starch-and-water-based product (an alternative to baked bread) can also be made from yams, plantains, green bananas, rice, millet, cornmeal and sorghum. A familiar version of Senegal’s national dish on Pierre’s menu is called yassa chicken (grilled chicken, served with lime and onion confit). Other popular items include accara (black-eyed pea fritters), pastel (Thai curry and lime, served with yucca fries) and thiakri (sweet millet couscous and yogurt). Chef Thiam has a cookbook called Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal. Like his restaurant, this cookbook highlights cuisines inspired by international French, Vietnamese, Moroccan and Senegalese flavors.
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has made a big effort to expose Americans to African cuisine by opening Merkato 55. This restaurant (named after the world’s largest open-air market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) offers foods indigenous to all the regions of Africa. Menu highlights include an assortment of freshly baked benne (sesame) and mealie (sweet corn) breads, and za’atar (a mixture of herbs and spices that can be used to flavor breads, yogurt, pitas, meats and other foods). Central African Sweet Prawn Fish Stew is fragrant with coconut broth, North African chick pea dumplings (spiced-butter fava peas) and an ice cream dessert made with Madagascar vanilla, smoked dark chocolate and toasted coconut.
In October 2006, chef Samuelsson released his fourth cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavor of Africa. The book celebrates the food and culture of Africa through recipes, personal stories and images that capture the continent’s soul. Chef Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but raised in Sweden, where he learned to cook from both his grandmother and through attending the Culinary Institute in Goteborg, Sweden. He is the host of his own television show, Inner Chef, on the Discovery Channel, where he visits different homeowners in each episode and helps them overcome their fears of cooking in the kitchen. His second television show, Urban Cuisine, is shown on the Jazz Channel. This show highlights food, lifestyles, music, celebrities and culture.
Rainbow, or Southern Cuisine
Southern African cooking is often called the rainbow cuisine, with immigrants coming from India, Indonesia, China and Europe, and bringing their cultural traditions with them. Malay cuisine is the most recognized Southern African cooking in America. It is a melting pot of European, Asian and African cooking. Some examples of Malay ingredients and foods are curries, chutneys, pickled fish, fish stews, lamb kebabs and peri peri sauces. The American company, The Kalahari Pepper, makes a peri peri sauce under the African Rhino brand. Peri peri is known as Africa’s hottest chili pepper. It is used as a condiment or marinade to season beef, seafood, poultry, and vegetable or egg dishes. For years, one of South Africa’s largest companies, Nando’s Peri-Peri, has distributed its large line of hot sauces and cooking sauces across the U.S. In May 2008, this company opened its first Nando’s Peri-Peri Chickenland restaurant in America; there are already over 700 locations worldwide. pf
Wilbert Jones is the president of Healthy Concepts, a food and beverage company that provides menu, recipe and product development consulting services. He has authored four cookbooks, most recently Smothered Southern Foods. He attended Paris’ École de Gastronomique Française Ritz-Escoffier and was a food scientist for Kraft General Foods. For more information, call 312-335-0031 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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