Whether it's a group of Kenyans gathering in a nyama choma (barbecued meat) shop to consume hunks of grilled meat, or Ghanaians dipping balls of fufu (pounded yam or cassava with a doughlike consistency) into a steaming communal bowl of stew, there are two things all Africans have in common – they love to eat and it's almost always a social event. African food is generally bold and colourful, with rich, earthy textures and strong, spicy undertones.
Staples & Specialities
Each region has its own key staples. In East and Southern Africa, the base for many local meals is a stiff dough made from maize flour, called – among other things – ugali, sadza, pap and nshima. In West Africa millet is also common, and served in a similar way, while staples nearer the coast are root crops such as yam or cassava (manioc in French), served as a near-solid glob called fufu.
In North Africa, bread forms a major part of the meal, while all over Africa rice is an alternative to the local specialities. In some countries, plantain (green banana) is also common, either fried, cooked solid or pounded into fufu. A sauce of meat, fish, beans or vegetables is then added to the carbo base. If you're eating local-style, you grab a portion of bread or dough or pancake (with your right hand, please!), dip it in the communal pot of sauce and sit back, beaming contentedly, to eat it.
Habits & Customs
- In Islamic countries, food is always eaten, passed and touched with the right hand only (the left hand is reserved for washing your bottom, and the two are understandably kept separate).
- Water in a basin is usually brought to wash your hands before you start eating – hold your hands out and allow the person who brings it to pour it over, then shake your hands dry.
- It's customary in some parts of Africa for women and men to eat separately, with the women eating second after they've served the food.
- In some countries, lunch, rather than dinner, is the main meal of the day, and everything stops for a couple of hours while a hot meal is cooked, prepared and consumed.
Where to Eat & Drink
Food Stalls & Street Food
Most African towns have a shack-like stall or 10 serving up cheap local staples. Furniture is usually limited to a rough bench and a couple of upturned boxes, and hygiene is rarely a prime concern. However, this is the place to save money and meet the locals. Seek out these no-frills joints at bus stations or markets. Lighter snacks include nuts sold in twists of newspaper, hard-boiled eggs (popular for long bus journeys), meat kebabs, or, in some places, more exotic fare such as fried caterpillars or baobab fruits. Street food rarely involves plates or knives – it's served on a stick, wrapped in paper, or in a plastic bag.
Most towns have cheap cafes and restaurants where you can buy traditional meals, as well as smarter restaurants with facilities such as tablecloths, waiters and menus. If you're eating in cheaper places, you can expect to be served the same food as the locals, but more upmarket, tourist-oriented establishments serve up more familiar fare, from the ubiquitous chicken and chips to pizzas, pasta dishes and toasted sandwiches.
Colonial influences remain important: you can expect croissants for breakfast in Dakar, and Portuguese custard tarts in the bakeries of Mozambique. Africa also has its share of world-class dining, with the best restaurants brilliantly fusing African culinary traditions with those of the rest of the world. Less impressively, even smaller towns are now succumbing to the fast-food craze, with greasy burger and chicken joints springing up frequently.
In much of Africa, a celebration, be it a wedding, a coming-of-age ceremony or even a funeral, is an excuse to stuff yourself until your eyes pop out and you beg for mercy. In non-Islamic countries, this eating-fest could well be accompanied by a lot of drinking, followed mostly by falling down. Celebration food of course varies widely from country to country, but vegetarians beware – many feasts involve goats, sheep, cows or chickens being slaughtered and added to the pot.
If you're lucky enough to be invited to a celebration while you're in Africa, it's polite to bring something (litre bottles of fizzy drink often go down well), but be prepared for a lot of hanging around – nothing happens in a hurry. The accepted wisdom is that it's considered very rude to refuse any food you're offered, but in practice it's probably perfectly acceptable to decline something politely if you really don't want to eat it, as long as you eat something else with gusto!
Vegetarians & Vegans
Many Africans may think a meal is incomplete unless half of it once lived and breathed, but across Africa many cheap restaurants serve rice and beans and other meals suitable for vegans simply because it's all the locals can afford. For vegetarians, eggs are usually easy to find – expect to eat an awful lot of egg and chips – and, for pescetarians, fish is available nearer the coast. Be aware that in many places chicken is usually not regarded as meat, while even the simplest vegetable sauce may have a bit of animal fat thrown in. Expect to meet with bemusement when you announce that you don't eat meat – the idea of voluntarily giving up something that's seen as an aspirational luxury is hard to understand for many people.
Tastes Like Chicken…
In many parts of Africa you'll find the locals chomping with gusto on some unusual foods. If you're brave in heart and stomach, why not try some of these more adventurous snacks:
- Giant cane rat About the size of a rabbit, this ratlike creature frequently turns up in West African stews and markets, where it's roasted over coals and sold on skewers. In some areas it is also known as a 'baby grasscutter'or by the misnomer 'agouti'.
- Land snails Described as having a texture like 'stubborn rubber', giant land snails are eaten in parts of Nigeria.
- Mopane worms These are actually not worms but caterpillars – the emperor moth's green and blue larvae, which make their home in the mopane trees of Southern Africa. These protein-rich critters are boiled and then dried in the sun before being eaten.
Tea and coffee are the standard drinks, and countries seem to follow the flavours of their former colonisers. In (formerly British) East Africa, tea and coffee tends to be weak, grey and milky. In much of (formerly French) West Africa, tea is usually served black, while the coffee from roadside stalls contains enough sugar and sweetened condensed milk to keep you fully charged for hours. In North Africa and some Sahel countries (the Sahel is a semiarid region which stretches from Mauritania, the Gambia and Senegal to Chad), mint tea and strong Arab-style coffee are the local hot beverages of choice. Other variations include chai or coffee spiced up with lemon grass or cardamom in East Africa, or flavoured with a woody leaf called kinkiliba in West Africa.
International soft drinks are widely available, while many countries have their own brands that are cheaper and just as good (although often owned by the big multinationals too). You can also get locally made soft drinks and fruit juices, sold in plastic bags, or frozen into 'ice-sticks', but avoid these if you're worried about your stomach, as the water they're made from is usually unpurified. Alcohol allegedly kills the bugs…
In bars, you can buy local or imported beer in bottles. Excellent wines and liqueurs, from South Africa or further afield, may be available in more upmarket establishments. Traditional beer is made from millet or maize, and drunk from huge communal pots with great ceremony at special events, and with less pomp in everyday situations.
West Africa's most popular brew is palm wine. The tree is tapped and the sap comes out mildly fermented. In other parts of the continent, alcohol is made using bananas, pineapples or other fruit, sometimes fermented overnight. This homemade alcohol is often outrageously strong, can lead to blindness or mental illness, and is often illegal in some places. You have been warned!
It's rare that you'll need to book your restaurant table in advance throughout much of Africa, but the most obvious exceptions are top-end restaurants, particularly on weekends and in countries like South Africa and Morocco.
- Restaurants Most cater to a wealthy local and expat clientele, with cheaper places possible in areas with a large backpacker scene. Often French, Lebanese and/or Chinese tastes on offer alongside local ones.
- Bars Some serve food, but more often roadside stalls set up right outside.
- Supermarkets Well stocked but pricey in larger cities; basic and extremely limited elsewhere.