Given that the first “barbecue” might well have taken place in Africa, this is a continent that can arguably claim to have invented cooking.
But African dishes – especially those south of the Sahara – are still woefully under-represented on the world culinary scene.
From the humble maize/grain porridges and root vegetables that form the basis of so many diets, to grand feasting dishes such as breyanis, tagines, stews and aromatic curries, Africa’s favorite foods offer something for every palate.
This article focuses on regional dishes that you might enjoy in the some of the more popular tourist destinations.
1. Pap en vleis/Shisa nyama, South Africa
Barbecued meat and maize porridge is a combination dearly beloved across many cultures in Southern Africa, and particularly in South Africa, where the braaivleis is a treasured institution and practically a national sport.
“Pap en vleis” (literally, “maize porridge and meat”) is a colorful umbrella of a term that encompasses virtually any combination of starch and braaied or stewed meat, with an obligatory side-serving of spicy gravy, relish or chakalaka.
Shisa nyama, meaning “burn the meat” in Zulu, has come to refer to a festive “bring-and-braai” gathering; Shisa nyama restaurants are often located next to butchers’ shops so patrons can select their own meats and have them cooked to order over fiercely hot wood fires.
Chops, steak, chicken, kebabs and boerewors – a spicy farmer’s sausage – are accompanied by maize porridges in many different forms including phuthu and stywe pap, krummelpap (crumbly porridge), and suurpap (soured pap).
Add a local beer, and there you have South Africa on a plate.
Where to taste it: Popular Shisa nyama-style eateries include Chaf Pozi, Orlando Towers, Corner Chris Hani Road and Nicholas Street, Soweto. Tel: +27 81 797 5756; and Mzoli’s, Shop 3, NY115, Gugulethu, Cape Town. Tel: +27 21 638 1355
2. Piri piri chicken, Mozambique
Mozambique’s cuisine is a heady blend of African, Portuguese, oriental and Arab flavors – think fragrant spices, hot piri piri and creamy coconut sauces, with hints of cashews and peanuts.
Sizzling, spicy prawns and seafood are often a first choice for visitors to Maputo, but don’t miss the iconic Mozambican dish Galinha à Zambeziana, a succulent feast of chicken cooked with lime, pepper, garlic, coconut milk and piri piri sauce.
It’s generally known simply as grilled chicken piri piri by tourists, and is traditionally served with matapa, a dish of cassava leaves cooked in a peanut sauce.
Where to taste it: Head downtown to the aptly named Piri Piri, an unpretentious eatery with a charming atmosphere and an interesting crowd. Avenida 24 de Julho, Maputo
3. Jollof rice and egusi soup, Nigeria
It’s not easy pinning down a national favorite dish for Nigeria, because this is a vast country with many distinct regional cuisines.
But one dish you shouldn’t leave Nigeria without eating is jollof rice, a great favorite all over West Africa, and one that is thought may be the origin of the Cajun dish jambalaya.
A simple, spicy one-pot dish comprising, at its most basic, rice, tomatoes, onions and pepper, it’s often served at parties and other festive gatherings, along with other Nigerian favorites such as egusi soup (made with ground melon seeds and bitter leaf), fried plantains and pounded yam (iyan or fufu).
Other dishes to try in Nigeria include thick, spicy broths made with okra and flavored with chicken or meat, and suya, which are spicy Nigerian shish kebabs (similar to Ghana’s chichinga) cooked over braziers by street vendors.
Where to taste it: For authentic jollof rice, egusi soup and other traditional dishes, locals recommend Yellow Chili, 27 Oju Olobun Close, off Bishop Oluwole Street, Lagos. Tel: +234 809 962 3614. For excellent suya, the place to go is University of Suya, Allen Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos.
4. Bunny chow, South Africa
No one’s quite sure how bunny chow came to be named, but what is certain is that this hollowed-out half- or quarter-loaf of white bread filled with a blistering-hot curry is one of South Africa’s most treasured street foods.
The meat and vegetable curries that fill bunny chows were bought to South Africa by Indian indentured laborers who came to South Africa in the 19th century to work on the sugar-cane fields.
Available as takeaways in all major cities, but the best bunnies come from Durban.
Where to taste it: Durbanites agree that the finest bunnies are to be found at the Britannia Hotel, 1299 Umgeni Road, Durban. Tel: +27 31 303 2266; and Gounden’s Restaurant, 39 Eaton Road, Umbilo, Durban. Tel: +27 31 205 5363
5. Kapenta with sadza, Zimbabwe
A heap of crisp-fried kapenta is the culinary highlight for many visitors to Zimbabwe.
Kapenta, comprising two species of small freshwater fish native to Lake Tanganyika, were introduced to Lake Kariba and now are a much-loved source of protein for lakeside populations of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Like many African dishes, kapenta is often accompanied by a mountain of delicious maize porridge, known in Zimbabwe as sadza. Kapenta is available both dried and fresh, and is also stewed with tomatoes, onions and groundnut powder, and served with fresh greens.
Don’t pick up a knife and fork to devour your kapenta: the traditional way to eat this dish is to scoop up the sadza with your hand and to dip it or roll it in the accompanying fish and relishes.
Another must-try dish when visiting Zimbabwe is fresh bream or tilapia from Lake Kariba, grilled or fried with plenty of lemon butter.
Where to taste it: You’ll find kapenta sold as a street food in many places in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and also in more upscale restaurants such as The Boma, Victoria Falls Town, Victoria Falls. Tel: +263 13 43211 20. For fresh Kariba tilapia and bream, try La Fontaine Restaurant at Meikles Hotel, Jason Moyo Avenue, Harare. Tel: +263 4 251 705
6. Chambo with nsima, Malawi
The eyes of Malawians away from home may well fill with tears when you say the word “chambo” to them – it’s the most popular and best-known fish found in Lake Malawi, and a great national favorite.
It’s served grilled along the lake shore, usually with nsima (a stiff porridge very similar to South Africa’s pap and Zimbabwe’s sadza) or with chips.
A plate of chambo is not complete without ndiwo, a delicious relish made of pumpkin or cassava leaves, tomatoes and groundnut powder. Both nsima and ndiwo are revered staple foods in neighboring Zambia, along with Ifisashi, a dish of greens in a peanut sauce.
7. Namibian venison, Namibia
Good venison can be sampled all over Southern Africa, but Namibians will insist that the very best gemsbok, kudu, zebra, warthog, ostrich and springbok is to be found at restaurants and game lodges across their country.
Namibian cuisine shows strong German and South African influences, with traditional German delicacies such as sausages, cured meats, sauerkraut and Eisbein rubbing shoulders with South-African style potjiekos, biltong and braaivleis.
Try your venison with traditional staples oshifima (maize porridge) or mahangu (pearl millet) and, of course, a hearty tankard or two of fine Namibian beer.
Where to taste it: Tuck into traditional German and Namibian favorites at popular Windhoek institution Joe’s Beer House, 160 Nelson Mandela Avenue, Windhoek. Tel: +264 61 232 457; or Swakopmund Brauhaus, The Arcade 22, Sam Nujoma Drive, Swakopmund. Tel: +264 64 402 214