African influence on American cuisine has been going on for so long, you may not even realize some of your favorite foods are of African origin. For example, if you have enjoyed a hot cup of coffee or savored a juicy piece of watermelon on a warm summer afternoon, then you have experienced African food. According to National Geographic, the centuries-long backstory of African dishes in the United States has recently moved into the forefront, causing the National Restaurant Association to add African flavors to their top 10 trends of 2017.
Africa is a big place so to help you sort through the huge number of countries and cuisine, we have pulled out a select set of dishes, commonly used spices, and tips for ordering African dishes at your next event.
Chef Paul Friedman of Peli Peli in Houston cooks South African dishes. He says that South African food is “very similar to the US. It is a melting pot with flavors from all over the world.” And, while his grilled sausages and kabobs will be instantly familiar to many Americans, it is a traditional dish called bobotie that fully expresses the rich culinary tradition of the southernmost country on the continent. Chef Friedman says this African dish of mincemeat and baked egg topping, is a blend of Dutch, English and Zulu flavors; “think of an English cottage pie,” Friedman says, but Friedman’s bobotie is more deeply flavorful and expressive of his native land. “The French taught us how to make pastries, Indians brought their curry. So I make bobotie with curry and top it with a mash of carrots, leeks, and potato and a dollop of mango peach chutney on top to represent the Dutch influence.”
Meats, especially grilled iterations, are an important aspect of many African dishes, including Ghanaian. Goat, chicken, beef, and fish kebabs, known as chichinga, are a robust part of the country’s street food scene. A traditional beef chichinga is seasoned with ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon- spices more familiar to Americans in desserts like apple pie. But throw in a bit of garlic and ground peanut and, not only does the dish instantly speak of western Africa, but the seasonings’ aromatic savory note will shift anyone’s thinking about these spices. Try the kebabs at Washington D.C.’s Appioo African Bar and Grill. The spice blend, known as suya, also seasons kebabs at New York City’s Jaa Dijo Dom.
Stew and Jollof Rice
Stretching meat by adding it to soups, stews, and rice is not unique to but certainly a hallmark of African cooking. Stew is a common African dish across the continent and it is perfect for serving a crowd. In Senegal, Maffe Stew is thick with sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, and often lamb. Try it at Yassa African Restaurant in Chicago. Jollof Rice, a rice dish native to western Africa, is commonly seasoned with tomato, curry powder, Bay leaf, and thyme. Ral’s Fine Catering in Houston serves an “Out to Africa” menu that includes suya-seasoned beef kebabs and jollof rice. Chicken stew and jolloff rice are two of the most ordered dishes at Buka in New York City.
A compliment to stew, Chef Pam Drew of Amawele’s South African Kitchen in San Francisco notes the importance of bread and Indian roti to South African cuisine. Amawele’s Bunny Chow, a dish of vegetable, beef, or chicken curry, is served in a hollowed out bread bowl. “It comes from Durban,” says Drew, who notes the ease of eating the dish with your hands as part of its popularity. Bunny Chow and other African dishes hearken back to the apartheid era in South Africa, when people of color were not permitted to dine in restaurants. “They would fold the dish into newspaper and eat it outside,” says Ward.
Though there is enough meat and fish in African cuisine to make every paleo and pescatarian happy, vegetarians will not feel left out when eating African dishes. Plantains, a low sugar cousin of the banana, are a vegetarian staple and black-eyed peas and lentils show up on menus from Kenya to Namibia. Wasota African Cuisine in Austin serves up both in a single dish, their Ultimate Vegan Sandwich. Or try the Black-eyed Pea Fritters. And in Boston, The Red Lentil serves Red Lentil Spring Rolls and a Vegetable Pakora with chickpeas, among other vegetarian African dishes.
The African diaspora is immense and includes a melting pot of influences. To experience the unique flavors of African cuisine, look no further than the nearest big town. To order catering for your office, Drew suggests calling the caterer or restaurant and inquiring about which dishes are most popular. “They know how to pair the food and can make tweaks to make the dish seem familiar,” she said. “Our Cape Malay curry is not exactly the same as Thai curry but if the customer knows curry, they may be willing to try it.”
Food makes a great jumping off point for understanding African food.