How the Flavors of Africa are Spicing up African-American Palates

If variety is the spice of life, the good news is: the growing number of African immigrants to the U.S. is changing the way we eat. By way of diversity and numbers, “out of Africa” restaurants are growing just as fast as Jack’s beanstalk.

Meanwhile, the origins of soul food as a cuisine go back millennia, to pre-colonial Africa. Crops brought directly from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade include rice, okra, tania, black eyed peas and kidney and lima beans. Want an eye-opening read? Check out the contribution of enslaved Africans to agriculture.

While the distinctive delights of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine (essentially the same eating experience) are now pretty much mainstream in the U.S. in terms of restaurant options nationally, countries like Liberia and Ghana — places one perhaps hadn’t thought about in terms of food — are moving in. In the first place, eateries are opened to create a home-from-home for immigrant brothers and sisters. Beyond that, they become new dining possibilities offering exposure to new flavors, cultural roots and traditions for anyone with an interest in the African continent and food.

Massachusetts musician, foodie and media maven, Kenneth Yarbrough, who works with the City of Boston as chief communications officer for Councillor Charles Yancey, started his website African Dinner — the most comprehensive source of African restaurants in the U.S. (also Canada and England) I could find online — in 2011.

“I started the site (he gives listings and does reviews) due to my knowledge of healthy eating, my enjoyment of African cuisine — and my concern for promoting African restaurants.

“I was fortunate to have a roommate, Izetta, from Liberia, West Africa, while I was completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts/Boston in the 1990s. For two years, I devoured spectacular Liberian cuisine on a daily basis. It was heaven! Various dishes — stewed over garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes and habanero peppers and sautéed in olive oil — included okra, eggplant, watercress, butternut squash, mustard and collard greens, as well as chicken or smoked fish. The dishes were healthy, spicy, and delicious.”

An exciting part of visiting African restaurants, he says, is learning about their owners. “For instance, Sabina Jules, founder of Motherland Kitchen & Spices in Marietta, Georgia, served as a successful IT executive before becoming a restaurateur. Samad Naamad, owner and executive chef of Tangierino Restaurant in Charlestown, Massachusetts, is an actor and filmmaker. Ernest Harmon, co-owner and manager of Zoewee’s Restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, operated Zoewee’s in Liberia, West Africa, before it was obliterated during Liberia’s 11-year civil war.”

Besides the “travel through Africa via your own backyard” experience of eating globally locally, Yarbrough believes “African cuisine is the solution to reducing the prevalence of poor health conditions in African-American communities. Personally, my weight fell from 187 pounds to 142 pounds in 12 months without fasting or additional exercising while I was eating Liberian cuisine on a daily basis.”

He was also inspired to eat and promote authentic African cuisine by personal experience. After a good friend died of cancer, he found a book on her shelves about the low rates of cancer in African nations where food is less processed.

“After reading the entire book, I began to understand circumstances that may have instigated Barbara’s death (and the deaths of many others). Barbara and I had often consumed typical American junk foods loaded with calories, potassium, preservatives, saturated fats and artificial ingredients.” That has been extra motivational on his African food journey.

When you start researching online, you’ll see there are as many cuisine subtleties as there are regions and tribes in Africa. For starters, join me on a little taste journey through a sampler portion of eight of them.

Eight Africa Countries = Eight Unique Culinary Styles

1. Cameroon

I want to go to Cameroon to eat. I have read many times that Cameroonian cuisine is one of the most varied in Africa due to its location on the crossroads between the north, west, and centre of the continent; added to this is the profound influence of French food, a legacy of the colonial era. See more on Cameroonian food and specialities on Wikipedia.

And see a simple recipe for ndolé, the national dish. It’s a stew with nuts, fish or beef and ndoleh, bitter leaves indigenous to West Africa.

2. Côte d’Ivoire

I have a very fond memory, and a photograph illustrating a travel article to prove it, of sitting at a table groaning with food at a beach near Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire. There were French flavors (former French colony) and some Greek specialties (my friend I joined there was Greek) and assorted traditional local fare (keep reading). In the background are two women with carrying tin basins.

One basin is filled with bunches of bananas; the other with pineapples. I remember being presented with something I later learned was sheep’s testicles in a restaurant cum nightclub with belly dancers. I have fonder memories of picking succulent grilled fish flesh off bones. Call me chicken (yes, I ate some good chicken dishes there) when I confess I am happy I was not subjected to what I read is an Ivorian speclialty as in huge land snails “which are very appreciated, commonly grilled or eaten in sauce.”

The traditional cuisine of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is based on tubers, grains, chicken, seafood, fresh fruit, veggies and spices. Slow-simmered stews are a staple. Kedjenou is a type of spicy stew consisting of chicken and vegetables slow-cooked in a sealed pottery vessel known as a canary. The country is one of the largest cocoa producers in the world — not always happily. (See Chocoholics Unite: Know This About Chocolate.)

See the Global Grazers recipe for Côte d’Ivoire grilled fish here.

3. Ghana

As with any culture, food is central to Ghanaian life — world wide. Chop bars (casual eateries) can be found on every corner of Ghana’s towns and in some major cities Ghanaians live, including London and New York.

I haven’t been to Ghana but researching what’s cooking there, I recommend the following links:

Wikipedia on Ghanaian cuisine.

Recipes on Ghana Nation.

Time Out: Accra for restaurant listings.

4. Ethiopia

This has been one of my best U.S. culinary discoveries. The subtle spices, the exotic stews both for the carnivore (I’m hooked on kitfo, their version of steak tartare, which is not strictly a stew given that that the minced beef is served raw, but infused with its unique Ethiopian spicings and served at room temp, to me it qualifies) and also for the vegetarian (the grains and pulses cooked to flavor-perfection); the bubbly porous injera “bread” — and eating with my hands, sharing the meal with friends (because like many out-of-Africa meals, it’s made to share).

That Ethiopian cuisine should be such a treat came as a surprise when I arrived in California from South Africa. I was one of the many children (is it generational?) brought up to the “eat everything on your plate — think of the starving children in Ethiopia” mantra.

If you research African cuisine, you see Ethiopian is now ubiquitous throughout the US (along with Moroccan food — different, equally delicious — to me more Middle Eastern, somehow, than African). In sheer number-of-restaurants, Ethiopian is now “mainstream.”

Spice is the life of Ethiopian cuisine. The flavorful aromatic dishes can be simple to make if you have the correct medley of essential herbs and spices prepared in the right way, says Fetlework Tefferi, chef-owner of Oakland’s Café Colucci restaurant and author of Ethiopian Pepper & Spice, a cookbook inspired, Tefferi says, by a desire to document and preserve authentic flavors remembered from her childhood.

“I wanted to document the cuisine, where it comes from and how it is sourced,” she says.

“To do this I knew I had to focus on the spices and the blending.”

Once the essential nature of the spice blend has been preserved, Tefferi says, there can be fusion and a lot of California chefs are infusing Ethiopian spices into their vegetarian dishes. “They can be used to enhance and give a new twist — in fact, even to the barbecue.” In other words, authentic African-American culinary fusion in action!

See Ethiopian recipes on Food Mesob Across America.

5. Kenya

I had the toughest chicken I ever tried to bite into at a roadside eatery in Kenya.

But also some very tasty nyama choma (grilled meat – usually goat or sheep) cooked over an open fire at a roadside stop. And, not surprisingly, five-star luxury cuisine at Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara game reserve. Plus a never-to-be-forgotten breakfast with bacon, eggs and bubbly: a table set in the middle of a great Masai Mara plain, encircled way in the distance by game, dropped off there by a hot air balloon.

Enough from me! See 20 of Kenya’s best dishes.

6. Liberia

I’d thought of Liberia in terms of war, bloodshed, a flag of convenience for ships, US colonization, freed slaves  — but never in terms of cuisine until recently. Now I learn that traditional food includes the grains, fruits, veggies and spicy stews typical to West Africa. There is a tradition of baking imported from the US. And in the capital, Monrovia, very good restaurants serve Mediterranean, Italian, French and American specialties.

Take a Liberian Tour With Fork (and Fingers) here.

7. Mozambique (plus Portugal and South Africa)

Nando’s Peri-Peri is a name you might well know. It’s a South African restaurant and take-out chain — popular in South Africa — that has its roots in colonial (Portuguese) Mozambique.

Also see Mozambique’s Unique African Fusion Cuisine Will Spice Up Your Life.

8. Senegal

Senegalese food has flavors of France, Portugal and North Africa and representative restaurants are proliferating world-wide, not least in the US. See more about Senegalese cuisine and specialty dishes on Wikipedia.

Oaklander Kamala Leslie, who paid her first trip to Senegal last month, gives some first-hand memories of some of her dining experiences:

“Meals are served and eaten family style. You take your shoes off and sit on the floor around the big platter. People eat with their right hand or a fork and spoon. Rice and root veggies are common in all the dishes. The fish or protein (fish, chicken, lamb, goat — no pork as it’s a Muslim country) is always served in the middle of the family-style platter.

“The national dish is thieboudienne, which means rice and fish though people say “fish and rice.”

A famous meal-like dessert she enjoyed was lakh. “Yogurt with couscous, I believe. They poured condensed milk onto the couscous halfway through the meal. That was amazing.”

Go to the menu section on the San Francisco’s Bissap Baobab website for examples of popular Senegalese dishes.

See Afro Fusion Cuisine’s thieboudienne recipe.

See Leuk Senegal’s lakh recipe.

The beauty of this abundance for Afrophiles is that for many of us in the U.S., traveling to Africa is as close as the nearest authentic African eatery.

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.