African cuisine: Lands of plenty

Africa's food is as unimaginably varied as the continent is vast, and we are witnessing ever more interplays between between tradition and reinterpretation

By Anthony Sharpe
Published 6 Jun 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:43 BST
African cuisine: Lands of plenty
Photograph by Getty Images

Last year was widely heralded as the moment when African food finally arrived in the foodie capitals of the world. But what exactly is African food? Is it the no-frills heartiness of South African pap en vleis with chakalaka, the boundless variety of piri piri-imbued seafood served up in Mozambique, the sponginess of slightly sour injera soaking up a variety of Ethiopian stews, or the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink inclusiveness of jollof rice? Africa's food is as unimaginably varied as the continent is vast, and we are witnessing ever more interplays between old and new, between tradition and reinterpretation. We've zeroed in on four food destinations worth a plane ticket.


What to get
Talk about Mozambican food and you'll probably find yourself talking about seafood. With more than 1,500 miles of coastline abutting warm, tropical waters, Mozambique is paradise for lovers of fishy dishes, and is known particularly for prawns of colossal proportions.

Where to get it
Fine specimens can be found everywhere, but Costa do Sol has been serving them up alongside lashings of good vibes and mellow Latina music for eight decades, so that's a good bet. Unsurprisingly, the country's aquatic abundance makes for killer sushi — among the classic tuna and salmon offerings at fine-dining eatery Zambi you'll find langoustine ceviche. For something a little more down to earth, visit the Maputo Fish Market, where you can browse mountains of fresh seafood to either take to your own kitchen, or get cooked at one of the kiosks across from the market (don't worry, the chefs will likely find you).

While you're there
You may not, however, have heard about the staple matapa. Carlos Graça, executive chef at Hotel Cardoso, is probably the country's most recognisable chef, and he wants to make matapa the country's most recognisable dish. While many of the country's best-known dishes are influenced by four centuries of Portuguese occupation, matapa is uniquely Mozambican — ground cassava leaves cooked with garlic, coconut milk and ground peanuts, often with the addition of shrimp. It's found across the country in every home, restaurant and street stall, and Graça wants to see it being served in high-end restaurants as a delicacy.


What to get
Ethiopian cuisine is notoriously resistant to change. As one of just a few African countries not affected by a lengthy colonial occupation, Ethiopia didn't get the influx of external ingredients and techniques that have influenced food across the continent. Ethiopian cuisine revolves around injera, a large, spongy, slightly sour pancake made from teff flour that's piled with various stews and torn off into chunks — part serving dish, part eating utensil. This isn't to say there isn't variety. Take, for example, berbere, the ubiquitous spice mix that gives so many dishes their distinctive flavour. Ground chillies, cloves, ginger, fenugreek, pepper, cardamom and korarima typically form the base, but it may include up to 30 different spices. The best place to find your ideal mix is at the sprawling Berbere Tera spice market in Addis Ababa.

Where to get it
While some Ethiopian spots catering to fusion-friendly palates in Europe and the US are serving up injera tacos and pot pies filled with doro wat (chicken stew with egg and Ethiopian butter), most of Addis Ababa's restaurants, from upscale Antica to the mid-range Kategna, play it straight.

While you're there
Coffea arabica, the species that makes up most of the world's coffee production, originates from Ethiopia. It's a great place for a cup of coffee, particularly if said cup is the product of a coffee ceremony, an elaborate custom performed thrice daily across much of Ethiopia. Get comfortable though — the grounds are brewed three times and it's considered rude to retire before the third cup.

South Africa

What to get
The bunny chow is basically a half or quarter loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. It's believed to have originated in 1940s Durban. KwaZulu-Natal's biggest city is home to the largest concentration of Indian communities in Africa, and the bunny chow was devised as a means by which these immigrants (who were banned from whites-only restaurants under apartheid laws) could get their food on the go.

Where to get it
Popular opinion has it that Durban's Sunrise Chip 'n Ranch serves the best, while Cane Cutters serves a relatively decadent prawn bunny in smarter surrounds. In Johannesburg's Braamfontein neighbourhood, The Hill Café dishes up a tasty lamb bunny made with sourdough bread.

While you're there
Waterblommetjiebredie is something you're unlikely to sup upon outside of South Africa, because the key ingredient in the dish is Aponogeton distachyos, or waterblommetjie, an aquatic flowering plant that grows in the dams and marshes of the Western Cape. Cooked with lamb, onions, potatoes and Cape pond weed, it's your aunty's go-to comfort stew.


What to get
Jollof rice is a one-pot rice dish found across West Africa — its base ingredients typically comprise long-grain parboiled rice, stock, onion, pepper and tomato paste. It's a home-cooking staple, served on its own or with anything and everything. Nosa Oyegun and Folayemi Agusto, creators of the restaurant blog Eat.Drink.Lagos and a biannual food festival of the same name, held an entire festival dedicated to reimagining jollof in 2017. The results included burritos with jollof rice, smoky ofada jollof and jollof gnocchi.

Where to get it
You can't swing a cat in Nigeria without knocking over a plate of jollof rice, but Terra Kulture is regarded as one of the best Nigerian restaurants in Lagos. Their generous jollof rice should sate the most ravenous of appetites, but if you're still hungry you can top up on culture at the on-site gallery or theatre.

While you're there
The sweet, simple and evocatively named puff puff (or kpof kpof) is a ubiquitous Nigerian snack. Made from a yeasty dough, deep fried until golden, and rolled in sugar or spices, puff puffs are sold on street corners across the country (and in other West African states).

Published in National Geographic Traveller — The Africa Collection 2018


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