The vast African continent, with distinct cultural and religious practices from east to west, north to south, is finally being more widely recognized for its cuisine. As immigrants and cooks continue to travel across borders, mainstream food audiences in the West have increasingly embraced the incredible wealth of African ingredients and dishes.
American chefs such as Grace Odogbili (who runs the catering service Dining with Grace)and Ethiopian-born, New York-based Marcus Samuelsson (who runs a string of restaurants, including Red Rooster in Harlem) have played a role in helping African cuisines to become more visible to their diners.
The variety of food options is as vast as the continent, distinguished into north, west, east, central and southern zones, each with its own prevalence of vegetables, starches, protein and fruit. While it’s widely acknowledged that much-loved African-American ‘soul food’ with its okra, rice, black eyed peas, fried chicken, fish, grilled meat and collard greens, has its roots in Africa, flavours from Africa are getting to enjoy their moment in the Western spotlight.
American Chefs Consider African Cuisine Highly
The American National Restaurant Association, in its annual food trend forecast for 2017, polled 1300 chefs, 66% of whom thought African food will increase visibility on menus. African food that has traveled across to the United States is deemed to be authentic when served from African-run kitchens and it’s this authenticity, coupled with hearty, satisfying portions that diners are curious about.
Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association says that cuisine from across Africa will continue to make an impact in the United States and worldwide. “We are in fact talking about a multitude of flavors and traditions. While, for example, Moroccan and Ethiopian cuisines have already been part of the American and the international dining scene, other African culinary traditions are starting to appeal to consumer tastes, and are becoming familiar thanks to their specialties”.
Stews, curry dishesand tagines contain a wealth of spice mixes, such as harissa, dukkah, ras el hanout, tsire, curry powders, chili peppers and peri peri (piri piri) from the stretch of the East Coast of the continent. Many of these mixes are appearing in food television programs of celebrity chefs who are providing their “quick and easy’ versions, thereby proving the popularity of African spice mixtures in mainstream kitchens. Kenneth Yarbrough, a communications expert based in Boston, started his website African Dinner in 2011, detailing African restaurants in the United States, Canada and England, because of his firm belief in the value of gastronomic diversity and the health benefits of various African cuisines, particularly Liberian and West African foods.
One Continent, Many Traditions
African food ambassadors such as Samuelsson, Senegal-born Pierre Thiam, South Africa’s Dorah Sithole and Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika have led the way in educating a foreign market about their food traditions and food ways. This has resulted in more American and European chefs experimenting with African ingredients and cooking techniques.
Many African dishes are seen as versatile and cost-effective. Take the tagine for instance, which not only enables you to cook an almost unlimited variety of ingredients (from vegetables to meat) but is also an energy-efficient means of preparation, using very little water.
And consider the humble peanut, a popular ingredient in some African cuisines. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has popularized the Senegalese peanut soup in the US - creamy, delicate and generously spiced with curry powder, black pepper, ginger cayenne pepper.
The Upswell of African Flavors Around the World
African dishes are now available at restaurants around the globe. From New York to Berlin and Madrid, there’s an encouraging upswell of African eateries.
They range - just to name a few – from Africa Kine serving West African comfort food and Madiba serving South African grilled meat and peri peri prawns in New York, to trendy cocktail bar-pub Comptoir Gènéral in Paris or the restaurant Waly-Fay, offering Senegalese cuisine with French, Portuguese and North African influences. In Madrid, you can taste authentic Ethiopian cuisine at Nuria. Massai, in Berlin, serves dishes of manioc (from the western side of Africa), injera (Eritrean crepes made from teff flour, a typical grain from the east), couscous (predominant in the north), ostrich or kudu meat (from the boundless savannahs in the south).
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.