Africa is the world’s second largest continent and is also number two in terms of being populous. It is largely accepted as the place of origin of the great apes from which we humans probably evolved around 200,000 years ago. The African continent is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean as well as by the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Did you know that Africa is the only continent that is spread on both sides of the equator as well as stretches from the north temperate region to the south temperate region and hence experiences a wide range of weather?
As the region is such a vast and varied one, so are the food choices of the millions of people inhabiting it. In some of the regions we might see the dominance of a vegetarian diet with a great deal of stress on the consumption of milk and milk products, whereas in others there might be a fine balance between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food.
Another important factor that has shaped African cuisine is the slave trade. People who came to the continent hunting (there hardly is another word for the kind of treatment meted out to slaves and the method employed to subjugate them) for slaves brought their food and eating habits to the continent which was often adopted by the natives. For example the Arabs brought with them spices such as nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. When the slaves were taken to different parts of the world by traders and invaders they took with them their habits and their traditional food, for example the introduction of Okra to the Americans.
One of the basic foods eaten in almost every North African home has become the darling of dieticians all over the world. Meet couscous. It is a dish of semolina made out of durum wheat cooked by steaming and is served with meat and vegetable stew.
In East Africa, cattle heads are considered a symbol of wealth. This is a region where meat does not feature predominantly in the diet of its residents. They depend on grain, fruit and vegetables and generously use spices as well. Here the colonisers from Portugal and Spain brought chillies, corn, peppers and tomatoes among a host of other things from their country and their colonies in Asia and America. They also taught the natives techniques such as roasting and marinating.
The part of the continent that contributes exquisite meat dishes to the dining table is Central Africa. Here antelopes, crocodiles, monkeys and warthogs are hunted and cooked occasionally. This is a remote and inaccessible place and has stayed traditional in terms of food to a large extent.
In West Africa people consume carbohydrates in large quantities via starchy foods. Root vegetables like yam and cassava are hugely popular. Meat is almost absent from their diet but the flavours are hot. In West Africa they love to eat their food as spicy as it can be and they have their own homegrown native seasoning Guinea pepper to thank for it.
South African cuisine is the one that shows the maximum influence of all the cultures that ever waded across the Africas. So much so the cooking in South Africa is at times called the rainbow cuisine. Seafood is also consumed here with great relish and one can often find it mixed with other game. Fresh fruit such as banana, papaya and mango is grown locally and is the favourite dessert all over.