Africa is a colorful and diverse continent. From its scenery to its wildlife. From its people to its food. African cooking is full of surprises, magical flavors, and the fantastic elements of different cultures — Arab, European, Asian and Black African. The continent’s cuisine is diverse, delicious, and at times decadent. From the humble maize/grain porridges and root vegetables that form the basis of so many diets to grand feasting dishes like tagines, stews, and aromatic curries, African foods offer something for every palate.
Here are my top picks for African foods you should try on your next holiday, the next time you are dining out, or even for the menu at home.
1. Fufu, Ugali, Sadza, Nshima, Posho, Pap, Etc.
This thick porridge is a staple in many households across the continent. It can be made from maize (corn), sorghum, millet, cassava, yams, and more.
Cornmeal in Africa is known as maize meal or mealie meal and is hugely popular in Southern and East Africa. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa consumes 21 percent of the maize produced in the world. What is known as ugali in East Africa, sadza in Zimbabwe, and pap in South Africa is called nshima in Zambia, where I live. To make it, maize meal is boiled with water, and a bit of salt added. It’s then stirred and folded to the desired texture. A quick, cheap, and easy dish. To be honest, nshima is pretty bland and tasteless. It’s usually eaten with a savory stew or sauce made of meat or vegetables, occasionally with sour milk, or fermented and served at breakfast as porridge.
Similar in consistency to the maize meal porridge in East and Southern Africa, fufu (also known as foo-foo, foufou, or foutou) is popular across western and central Africa. Fufu is made from yams, pounded into flour, and then cooked on a stove with hot water. Cooking pounded yam to a smooth, mashed potato-like texture requires quite a bit of arm strength, and once it’s cooked it’s usually served surrounded by stew, soup or sauces.
A Nshima Recipe For 4
- Pour about 3 ½ pints of water into a pot and bring it almost to a boil.
- Throw in four handfuls of maize meal.
- Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the maize meal thoroughly mixes with the water.
- Let it thicken and wait for the mixture to start bubbling.
- Cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat.
- Then add another four handfuls of maize meal while continuously stirring.
- When the mixture reaches its desired thickness, cover the pot and switch off the stove.
- After about two minutes, scoop it out and eat.
2. Jollof Rice (West Africa)
Jollof rice is prepared throughout West Africa, though it’s hard to pin it down to a specific country and there’s a fierce rivalry between Nigerians, Senegalese, and Ghanaians as to who makes the best version, each claiming theirs to be the finest. Being one of the most popular western African dishes, jollof rice is something you must try.
Like many popular foods, there is no one way to make it. Typically it’s made with rice, tomatoes, tomato paste, and numerous meats, spices, and vegetables. Jollof rice is usually reserved for festive celebrations, but since it’s so popular and delicious, there’s really no limit as to when it can be made. Some think jollof rice may be the origins of Cajun jambalaya.
Where to taste it: In Nigeria, this spicy, one-pot dish is often served with egusi soup (made with ground melon seeds and bitter leaves), fried plantains, and pounded yam (called iyan or fufu). For authentic jollof rice, egusi soup, and other traditional dishes, Yellow Chili in Lagos Nigeria is highly recommended.
3. Muamba De Galinha (Angola)
When in Angola, do as the Angolans do, and eat Muamba de Galinha. Otherwise known as Chicken Muamba, this is a spicy, somewhat oily stew made with palm oil or palm butter, garlic, chili, and okra. Being so rich and spicy, Chicken Muamba is a good accompaniment to those traditional African starchy porridges of fufu and ugali. The dish is considered one of Angola’s national food treasures and demonstrates the strong influence of Portuguese cuisine on this former colony.
Variations of Chicken Muamba, such as Poulet Moambé, can be found all over the Congo River region, where it’s usually served with cassava leaves and rice. Another variation, Nyembwe Chicken, is the national dish of Gabon, where it is usually made with palm or macadamia nuts.
Where to taste it: When visiting, Angola head to the busy beach restaurants on Ilha de Luanda, a small island just off Luanda, for some of the best Muamba de Galinha around.
4. Nyama Na Irio (Kenya)
Ask any Kenyan what’s their favorite food, and you’ll usually get the response “Irio!” without much hesitation. This popular dish was initially a Kikuyu staple but has spread throughout Kenya. It’s made of mashed potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and onion and is often served with spiced roasted meat to make a delicious dish called nyama na irio.
Where to taste it: K’Oswe Ranalo Foods in Nairobi is where the locals go to feast on Irio and other traditional dishes.
5. Koki/Bean Cake (Cameroon)
If you happen to find yourself in central Africa, particularly Cameroon, then do not let this delicious appetizer pass you by! With cowpeas as its primary ingredient, koki is made when cowpeas are mashed, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed. Koki has a characteristic bright red color and flavor which comes from the red palm oil it is cooked in, as well as the other condiments, such as crayfish, pieces of fish, and chili peppers, that are usually served with it.
6. Pastilla Au Pigeon (Morocco)
Tagines and couscous dishes are well-known Moroccan dishes, but pastilla au pigeon (also known as b’stilla) is one dish you won’t find in your average cookbook. This is a pie made of shredded cooked squab (or chicken, when pigeon proves hard to find), thickened with an egg sauce and interspersed with layers of paper-thin pastry and nutty, spicy filling. It’s a complex and flavorsome feast dish; sweet and savory, substantial and delicate. No grand celebration in Morocco would be complete without pastilla au pigeon, and it’s usually reserved for feasts because it is so labor-intensive to make.
Where to taste it: Pastilla au pigeon can be found on menus throughout Morocco, but for a truly unforgettable gastronomic experience, head to Pepe Nero in Marrakesh.
7. Dumboy (Liberia)
Dumboy is the national dish of Liberia. To prepare it, fresh cassava is peeled and boiled, and the fiber from the center removed. The cooked roots are then placed in a mortar and beaten with a heavy pestle, before being shaped into balls. This pounding requires quite a lot of experience and skill, so if dumboy is prepared by a novice, it will more than likely be rather lumpy and inedible. Before serving, meat stock or hot pepper soup is poured over the dumboy, as well as some vegetables. A word of warning, the sticky dough adheres to just about anything if it’s not consumed as soon as it’s made.
8. Bobotie (South Africa)
Often referred to as the national dish of South Africa, bobotie is a sweet and spicy dish that consists of curried minced meat, baked with fruit (like raisins) and a creamy, egg-based topping. The origins of bobotie stem apparently from using up the leftovers from the Sunday roast. It’s not my cup of tea at all, but thousands of South Africans would disagree with me!
9. Mandazi (Tanzania)
Mandazi always reminds me of Mt. Kilimanjaro, as it is regularly on the menu when I take climbers up the mountain. Mandazi is an East African version of a doughnut and I love them, particularly at breakfast time. It is typically made with water, sugar, flour, yeast, and milk, with some recipes calling for coconut milk to give them a slightly sweeter taste. Some street vendors add a bit of a spice like cinnamon or nutmeg, but it’s not overbearing. If you are lucky, you’ll get your mandazi topped with grated fresh coconut, coconut flakes, and/or powdered sugar. You can also dip them into various sweet or savory sauces.
10. Piri Piri Chicken (Mozambique)
Mozambique’s cuisine is a heady blend of African, Portuguese, Arab, and Oriental flavors; think lots of fragrant spices, hot piri piri, and creamy coconut sauces, with hints of cashews and peanuts. Seafood is often the first choice for visitors to Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo, but don’t miss the iconic Galinha à Zambeziana, chicken cooked with lime, pepper, garlic, coconut milk, and piri piri sauce. It’s generally known simply as piri piri chicken by tourists and is traditionally served with matapa (cassava leaves cooked in peanut sauce).
Where to taste it: If in Maputo, head to the aptly named Piri Piri, an unpretentious restaurant with an interesting crowd of customers.
11. Bunny Chow (South Africa)
The last on my list is the rather oddly named bunny chow. No one’s quite sure how bunny chow got its name, especially as there are no bunnies involved whatsoever! What I can tell you though, is that this hollowed-out, half a loaf of white bread, filled with a blistering-hot curry, is one of South Africa’s iconic street foods. The curries that fill bunny chows were introduced to South Africa by Indian indentured laborers, brought to South Africa in the 19th century to work on the sugarcane fields.
Where to taste it: Bunny chow is available as takeaways in all major South African cities, but the best bunnies are said to come from Durban, and the best in Durban, I’m told, are at the Britannia Hotel.
Can’t get enough? Here are more food and other African delights to consider: