IDIOT’S GUIDE: The Cuisine of Sub-Saharan Africa
Sub-saharan Africa comprises the countries in the African continent that lie below the Sahara Desert. This area is vast, and one can no more generalize what characterizes cuisine in this area than one can define American food as burgers and soda. One thing is certain, however, and that is the underrepresentation of African cuisine in mainstream food journals. Commenters have noted that the topic of African food is usually inflected by a focus on politics or economics, instead of being appreciated and studied as a gustatory asset in and of itself.
I interviewed several students from the region to get a sense of what they feel characterizes sub-saharan cuisine. Emotional descriptors like “unforgettable” and “exotic” emerged while culinary observations of “starchiness” and “heartiness” were made.
The starchiness comes from the liberal use of vegetables like manioc (aka cassava), African-style yams, Indian corn, cocoyam and most famously, plantains. These starchy plants comprise the base of many meals, in the form of flour, and are grown all over the continent. Flour is boiled with water and cooked into a stiff pudding which has different names including ugali (Eastern Africa) and fufu (Western & Central Africa). Stews or soups are eaten along with the cooked flour which is shaped by hand to expertly scoop up delectable portions. For example, pounded yam is paired with egusi soup, which uses the seeds of this member of the gourd family to make highly nutritious stews. These seeds pack 30% unadulterated protein and 50% edible oils into their tiny bodies, combining deliciousness and nutrition!
When the main dish is not a starchy ball of flour, it is often jollof rice. Think of jollof rice as being to West Africa (Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea and its 13 other neighbors) to what paella is to Spain. It gets its red color from tomato purée and its interesting combination of spicy, savory and sweet flavor profile from ingredients such as sweet okra, coriander, chili paste, peppers, garlic and ginger. As with any beloved dish, it has many regional variations that use other ingredients like carrots, smoked shrimp, peas, thyme and tea-bush leaves.
While vegetables, beans and lentils remain the most popular staples in Africa, animal products are also used. More often than not, they are used more to enhance the overall flavor of meals, as opposed to being the focus of a dish. To pick a sizzling example, suya is a dish similar to the shish kebab, but more flavorful because of the spice-saturated marinade. Barbecued meat is seasoned with paprika, cayenne pepper, ginger and onions, and served alongside the main dish.
Biltong, or cured meat, is also popular in South Africa as a snack or a soup stock. Meat like beef, ostrich, chicken, shark, or game like springbok and kudu is marinated and spiced with vinegar, rock salt, brown sugar and black peppers, creating a tangy flavor. It is similar to jerky meat, but much thicker and more flavorful.
Last but not least, a comfort food that remains a firm favorite of many within and outside the African continent: fried plantains! Plantains are the longer, starchier and more calorie-dense cousins of the banana. They actually have more vitamins A and C and potassium than bananas, too. Unlike the banana, however, it is not usually eaten raw, unless it is extremely ripe. It also has a lower glycemic index and tastes less sweet, which makes it less likely to spike your blood sugar.
Plantains can be cooked in a multitude of ways, and with many different ingredients. Inventive online recipes have them baked with coconut, battered and stuffed, sliced and fried as chips, and even mashed to make cheese-guava-plantain balls. In its simplest and equally satisfying form, it is deep-fried and consumed as the main course or side dish. Don’t let its size fool you, this is one filling and highly nutritious treat.
The cuisine of sub-saharan Africa is influenced by what ingredients are available locally, as well as by the influx of foreigners from Asia (China, India, the Middle East, etc.) and from Europe (Portugal, France, Britain). There are many more outstanding dishes from the region, but this article can only introduce you to a few and hope that you will seek out more on your own. Happy eating ☺︎.
-Min Yi Tan