The History of Black Foods in Africa

by Rianna Wilson

Photo courtesy of @anniespratt

We all love food, right? Eating it, cooking it, even watching other people cook it. But have you ever thought about the history of the food you love to eat?

Today we are going to look at Black foods in Africa, mainly focusing on West Africa but we will take a quick trip around the rest of the continent too. When you think of (West) African food, what comes to mind? Jollof rice? Stew? Plantain? Pounded yam?Moi Moi? Egusi soup? Waakye? Cassava? Or Cassava Leaf stew? Let’s think about where these foods came from and why they are so important to the continent.

“African cooking is a part of

the universal human experience.

James C. McCann

As James C. McCann notes, ‘African cooking is a part of the universal human experience. Sauces, oils, herbs, and spices add flavour and texture to primary ingredients and remove food “from the state of nature and smother it in art.”A cuisine is thus a collection of dishes and meals that mark a distinct culture much in the way that styles of dress, music, or dance do. Cuisines behave like language families in that they are bodies of knowledge and practice “mutually intelligible” between several societies, locations, and ethnic identities.’

To fully explore  African foods and cuisines, we first have to establish our  geographical context. The first thing we know is that Africa has a warm and tropical hot climate. This of course has an effect on what can be grown and produced. Farmers have to base their harvests on the rainfall patterns and so they have to work smart and hard. Root vegetables and grains such as rice, yams, and cassava are staples in African dishes as they are easy and low-cost to grow. Peanuts are also a big part of West African cooking, often used to make soups and stews. Peanut oil is also used often as an alternative to palm and coconut oils. The grasslands found in these countries allow farmers to rear animals – cattle, goats and chicken, which is why these proteins are often in your favourite soups and stews.

The basis of almost all dishes are tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers. If you have not started your cooking prep with these three things, you are almost definitely not doing it right! We don’t make the rules, we are just here to enforce them. 😉

Jollof Rice
Photo courtesy of @simshomekitchen

The great debate, who’s jollof rice is better? Ghana or Nigeria? It’s a debate as old as time but did you know the dish does not even originate from either of these countries? Jollof rice can be traced back to the 14th century Wolof Empire, which was made of what is now Senegal & Gambia. It is believed that the dish then spread to other countries thanks to the far reaching Mali Empire.

Remember I told you about the three most important base ingredients of African cooking? No matter what country you’re from, your jollof must start with those three ingredients. Recipes start to differ after this; different countries use different rice grains (long grain versus  basmati), and some countries add extra vegetables  such as carrots and green peas. Regardless of how the dish is prepared, everyone can agree it tastes amazing!

Feel like trying out Senegambian jollof? Here’s a recipe you can use, make sure to let us know how it goes!

“West Africans have always had to be resourceful with their cuisine. Innovative and easy is the main theme throughout West African dishes but that does not mean that flavour has to be limited.”

Photo courtesy of @evablue

Kelewele (Ghana), Alloco (Ivory Coast), Dodo (Nigeria), Makemba (Congo). 

These are some of the various names for fried plantain across Africa. Served as a snack, starter, or side dish; plantain is a staple in African food. There’s an art to plantain, different cuts for different dish types, Ghanaians add spices to make Kelewele, Nigerians pair it with gizzard to create Gizdodo.

It’s a simple but tasty food which is easy to prepare and is the first stove top dish that many West African children learn to cook alone. 

Photo courtesy of @puffpuffministry

Also known as Bofroat (Ghana), Mikate (Congo), Akara (Sierra Leone), and Mandazi (Uganda). 

It is made of flour, yeast, sugar, butter, salt, and water. These little balls of dough bring joy with every bite. They can be eaten as a breakfast food or as a snack or sometimes even as a side dish. However you choose to eat them just know that one certainly will not  be enough.

Photo courtesy of Specialty Produce

Fondly known as the ‘King of Crops’, yams are known for their large size, distinctive taste and ability to feature in everyday dishes. The food is so revered that the Igbo people and other West Africans hold annual celebrations called The Yam Festival. During the festivities, which take place between August and September, farmers give thanks for a bountiful harvest and discard old crops, making space for new ones to be grown. Many rely on farming as their sole source of income and so this ritual is an integral part of life. In some cultures yam is also seen as a sign of fertility and is used as part of wedding ceremonies. 

I could go on forever about Black foods in Africa but the main point is this. West Africans have always had to be resourceful with their cuisine. Innovative and easy is the main theme throughout West African dishes but that does not mean that flavour has to be limited. It’s also interesting to realise that many dishes are the same around the continent with just the slightest of alterations. And finally, if you take nothing else from this blog post, always remember – onions, tomatoes, and peppers are a must!!

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