When it comes to international food, African cuisine unfortunately receives the least attention stateside. While it’s true that African food does not have the bold flavors of Indian Curry, the sweet flakiness of a European pastry, or the robust warmth of Mediterranean shawarma, it still deserves attention and a taste. Come with me on a tour of the cuisine of East Africa and discover more to African cooking than meets the eye.
My Burundian friend used to watch me with fascination at the lunch table in our college cafeteria. He couldn’t believe I was actually eating what he called “raw leaves”, and what I called a salad. “We don’t eat them like that in Africa,” he told me, “We always cook them, because raw leaves are disgusting. That’s what rabbits eat.” When I visited Africa the next year, I found this was true. In Tanzania, greens were cooked into mchicha, which seemed a bit to me like cooked spinach, but a little more bitter. Sometimes, daga, or tiny little fish, were mixed into the greens. It looked a bit weird to my American eyes, but I liked best it that way.
It may surprise you to learn that in East Africa, oranges are not orange. They are green. So are lemons. Until I visited Africa, I was under the impression that lemons and limes were the same fruit, just in different colors. Just in case you were wondering, that is false. It took me a bit to get used to the green citrus, but I was thrilled to try fresh coconuts, starfruit, passionfruit, several varieties of banana, and papaya. During the rainy season, mangos practically drip from the trees into the hands of eager children, who quickly become a happy, sticky messes.
Pretty much every culture in the world has its own version of fried bread. In the U.S. we eat pancakes; in parts of Europe, waffles are popular; American Natives cook frybread; Indians love their chapatti, and Latin peoples eat tortillas. Africa is no different! African chapatti is likely based on the food of the same name that is enjoyed in India, but it is cooked very differently. While Indian chapatti is thin and flexible, African chapatti is thick and chewy. It takes a while to make, but it is very much worth it. Burundians in particular enjoy dunking it in tea, although the rest of East Africa also eats it this way. Another popular breakfast food is called mandazi. It’s like a mini doughnut without too much sugar. In Tanzania, it is small and round. In Burundi, it is usually larger and square-shaped.
Of course, rice is a staple in East Africa. It is usually served with beans or a generous helping of spiced sauce, the latter especially if meat is on the menu. Besides rice, ugali is very popular. This food is a thick white paste made from ground cassava or maize. On its own, it is extremely bland, but it makes an excellent base for dipping into sauces. For journeys, East Africans ferment the ugali and wrap it in banana leaves. They call it uburobe.
Beans are the main source of protein for East Africans, but nuts are also part of the typical diet. Fish is a favorite meal in lakeside areas. Less frequently enjoyed is meat, which is quite expensive. On special occasions, people in East Africa will kill a goat or sheep. One delicious way this is eaten is in a sauce over rice or served with ugali. Many people also eat guinea pigs, birds, and other small animals. Chicken is popular, but usually more expensive than goat. Pork is not often eaten in East Africa, and cows are too valuable to kill for meat.
Of course, this is the cuisine for just one region of Africa! In all aspects, the continent is a kaleidoscope of cultural, from food to language. Travel north from East Africa, and you’ll find the spicy tastes of Ethiopia. Travel to West Africa, and you’ll learn a dozen new ways to eat peanuts. Wherever you go in Africa, you’ll be sure to enjoy a surprising array of new foods that you never imagined exist! If an Africa trip is not in the near future for you, I challenge you to get your Google on and find a new African recipe. Alternatively, you can check out the excellent book: “The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa.” After all, the first step to appreciating a culture is tasting its food. Bon appetite!