Foods

With a range of climates and growing conditions, the ingredients for African cuisine are diverse. However, certain foods are common to many regions.

Food in the North

CouscousThe food of North Africa has been heavily influenced over the centuries by the ingredients brought by traders, invaders and migrants.

The Arabs introduced spices such as saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Sweet pastries and other baked foods were brought by the Ottoman Turks.

Wheat and its by-product, semolina, were introduced early on. The nomadic Berbers adapted semolina into couscous, one of the main staples of the region.

Olives are an important local harvest in North Africa and olive oil is frequently used in cooking.

Food in the South and East

Cattle are regarded as a symbol of wealth across much of Africa. So while farmers may use them for dairy products, often the animals are not used for their meat. Many people in the South and East rely mainly on grains, beans and vegetables, with fish providing protein in coastal, lake or river regions.

The domestic pig was originally introduced by the Portuguese from their Asian colonies.

UgaliGround maize or corn (called 'sweet corn' in the UK) is used as the basis for many meals. Maize flour is cooked with water to form a stiff porridge (called ugali or nsima in certain countries). Sometimes it's made into a dough. This starchy staple is served with sauces or stews.

'Rainbow Cuisine'

South Africa's food blends the traditions of many cultures and influences. Maize and soured milk were historically key components of the diet. As Europeans arrived, South African cuisine began to include meat dishes such as sausages and pies. Malays and Indians brought curries and spices.

Arabic influences can be seen in East African cuisine. For example, steamed rice is served with spices such as saffron, cloves and cinnamon. Indian workers and immigrants also brought their foods with them, such as spiced vegetable curries, lentil soups, chapattis and pickles.

Oranges, lemons and limes are frequently used in cooking, while other fruits such as mangoes, papayas and pineapples are eaten for dessert.

Food in the West

The cuisine of West Africa tends to rely on heavy starchy foods (known as carbohydrates), which provide energy. Typically, West Africans will give their meals taste with hot spices and chilli peppers, or sauces such as peanut.

An example of a typical starchy food is Fufu. This is made from root vegetables such as yams, cocoyams, or cassava. It is normally accompanied by sauces or stews.

A man frying fishThe staple grain varies from region to region, but maize/corn is common in many areas. Rice dishes are also widely eaten in the region, especially across the dry Sahel belt.

Along coastlines, rivers and lakes, fish are an important source of protein.

And to drink?

Palm wine and locally brewed beers (made from a variety of native plants or crops) are popular beverages. However, water also has a very strong ritual significance in many African nations (particularly in dry areas) and is often the first thing an African host will offer his/her guest.

Cattle, goats and sheep are raised (varying by region), though meat is often a luxury for poor families.

Food in Central Africa

Many parts of Central Africa have remained true to their traditional foods, perhaps because until the 19th century, there weren't many external influences on the cuisine.

Plantains (a variety of banana picked unripe and cooked as a starch) and cassavas continue to form the basis of many meals. Starchy staples are often served with meat, bean or vegetable stews.

Meat from livestock can be costly and where they can, families use 'bush meat' from wild animals such as monkey, antelope and wild pigs.

Bambara is a common dish in Zambia. This is a porridge made from rice, peanut butter and sugar.