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Friday, April 2, 2010

African Cuisine

When we think of Africa it is usually of a dark, mysterious continent, safaris and excitement around every bend but what about the cuisine.... Africans use a combination of locally available fruit, cereal grains, vegetables, milk and meat products. The traditional African diet consists of milk, curd and whey. Different parts of Africa have their own distinctive food and cooking styles.

Central Africa stretches from the Tibesti Mountains in the north to the vast rainforest basin of the Congo River. Along with the slave trade during the early 1500s arrived cassava, peanut and Chile pepper plants which had a large influence on the local cuisine. The basic ingredients are plantains and cassava. Cassava is a woody shrub native to South America which is cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions for its edible starchy tuberous root and a major source of carbohydrates. Flour made from the root is called tapioca. Fufu-like starchy foods (usually made from fermented cassava roots) are served with grilled meat and sauces. Dishes like spinach stew are made with tomatoes, peppers, chilies, onions and peanut butter. Peanut stew is also prepared containing chicken, okra, ginger and other spices. There is Bambara a porridge of rice, peanut butter and sugar. Favored meats are beef and chicken but game meat like crocodile, monkey, antelope and warthog are also served occasionally.

In East Africa cattle-keeping people regard cattle, sheep and goats as a form of currency and a store of wealth therefore meat products are absent from their cuisine. Traditional people may consume milk and the blood of cattle. Farmers grow a variety of grains and vegetables. Maize (corn) is the basis of ugali, the East African version of West Africa’s fufu. Ugali is a starch eaten with meat or stews. In Uganda steamed green bananas called matoke provide the starch filler for many meals. About 1000 years ago when Arabs settled in the coastal areas of East Africa they brought along their own type of cuisine which is reflected in the Swahili cuisine of the coast. Steamed cooked rice is spiced in Persian style using saffron, cloves, cinnamon and other spices as well as pomegranate juice. Several centuries later when the British and the Indians came they brought with them their food. Indian spiced vegetable curries, lentil soups, chapattis and a variety of pickles. Before them the Portuguese had introduced techniques of roasting and marinating turning a bland diet into aromatic stewed dishes. The Portuguese also brought from their Asian colonies fruit like oranges, lemons and limes and from their New World colonies exotic items like chilies, peppers, maize, tomatoes, pineapples, bananas and the domestic pig.

North Africa is lies along the Mediterranean Sea including countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt (these cuisines will be looked at separately). The roots of North African cuisine can be traced back over 2000 years. Phoenicians of the 1st century brought sausages, the Carthaginians – wheat and its byproduct, semolina, the Berbers adapted this into couscous. Before the arrival of the Romans olives and olive oils were introduced. The Arabs arrived with spices such as saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. The Ottoman Turks brought sweet pastries and other bakery products and from the New World North Africa got potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chilies.

South African cuisine is a blend of many cultures such as African, European and Asian (the dishes of this cuisine will be looked at separately). The people of South Africa are divided into two groups and several sub groups. The largest group are Bantu speaking and their descendants are considered "Black South Africans" and may identify themselves by various sub-group names. The Bantu speakers grew grain crops and raised cattle, sheep and goats. They grew pumpkins, beans and leafy greens.

The Bantu speaking people ate dishes of grain, meat, milk and vegetables, as well as fermented grain and milk products. The Khoi-Khoi ate meat and milk and the San hunted wild animals and gathered wild tubers and vegetables. Today, Black South Africans enjoy not only beef, but mutton, goat, chicken and other meats as a centerpiece of a meal. Most meals are served with vegetables such as pumpkin, beans and cabbage. The Malay influence has brought spicy curries, sambals, pickled fish, and variety of fish stews. The Indians have introduced a variety of sweets, chutneys, fried snacks such as samosa and other savory foods. The Afrikaners have their succulent potjies or stews of maize with tomato and onion sauce, with or without rice. There are many European contributions like Dutch fried crueler or koeksister and milk tart. French Huguenots brought wines as well as their traditional recipes.

A typical West African meal is heavy on starchy items, meat, spices and flavors. Fufu is often made from starchy root vegetables such as yams, cocoyams or cassava as well as cereal grains such as millet, sorghum or plantains. Banku and Kenkey are maize dough staples, and Gari is made from dried grated cassavas. Rice-dishes are also widely eaten in the region, especially in the dry Sahel belt inland. Examples of these include Benachin from the Gambia and Jollof rice, a pan-West African rice dish similar to Arab kabsah, with its origins from the Wolof people of Senegal (Gambia and Senegal dishes will be discussed further).

Seeds of Guinea pepper (Aframomum melegueta; also called grains of paradise or melagueta pepper) a native West African plant, were used as a spice. West African people were trading with the Arab world and spices like cinnamon, cloves, and mint were not unknown and became part of the local flavorings. European explorers introduced the American Chile, or chili (Capsicum), to Africa sometime soon after Columbus sailed to America, and both chilies and tomatoes have become ubiquitous components of West African cuisines. Cooking techniques of West Africa are changing. In the past people ate much less meat and used native oils (palm oil on the coast and shea butter in sahelian regions). Baobob leaf and numerous local greens were every day staples during certain times of the year. Today diet is much heavier in meats, salt, and fats. Many dishes combine fish and meat, including dried and fermented fish. Flaked and dried fish is often fried in oil, and sometimes cooked in sauce made up with hot peppers, onions and tomatoes various spices (such as soumbala) and water to prepare a highly flavored stew. In some areas, beef and mutton are preferred, and goat meat is the dominant red meat. Suya, a popular grilled spicy meat kebab flavored with peanuts and other spices, is sold by street vendors as a tasty snack or evening meal and is typically made with beef or chicken. It is common to have a preponderance of seafood and the seafood, as earlier stated, is sometimes also mixed with other meat products. Guinea fowl eggs, eggs and chicken are also preferred. By Rasma Raisters

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