Part of traveling well is not only taking our own interests seriously by immersing ourselves in the people, places, and stories but also experiencing new flavors and dishes we have never tried before. The tenet of travel is just that uncovering and experiencing unfamiliar territories and sometimes, a place just speaks to you, opening your mind and your palate to a variety of experiences you’ve never encountered.
Considering Africa is the continent that can arguably claim to have invented cooking based on the findings of Francesco Berna, an archaeologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, and his colleagues found ash of burnt grass, leaves, brush, and bone fragments in sediments 30 meters inside the Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape province. The cave is one of the oldest known sites of human habitation, showing traces of having lived almost two million years ago. This arguably makes sense since Africa is the birthplace of humankind.
Moreover, given that the first “barbecue” might well have taken place in Africa, it goes to say that African dishes are under-represented on the world culinary scene. Yet, everyday Africans are eating dishes that are freshly made but most important is the freshness of the produce vegetables, fruits, meat dishes, and seafood. The catfish, bluefish, shrimp, crab, or oysters you are being served for lunch or dinner were just bought from the market which was caught by the fishermen in the early morning. As more and more people are becoming more conscious about the food they eat, as a result of making the shift from processed foods to authentic, home-cooked, and wholesome meals, traveling to Africa can make us appreciate the value and immense importance of a healthy meal.
Most African dishes are usually gluten-free and high in plant-based protein, and the diet predominantly consists of ancient grains like fonio, teff, millet, sorghum, and ingredients like kola nut, ginger, yam, cassava, plantain, moringa, black-eyed beans, okra peanuts, as well as scotch bonnet, a variety of spices among others. 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 food scene offers something for every palate. We explore 15 countries whose cuisine deserves more than a clarion call demanding you to get out there and learn what you don’t know but more so to allow your taste buds to experience something new, interesting, and palatable. We hope that these dishes fill you with the urge to pack a bag and take off.
1. Benin, West Africa
Benin’s cuisine is one of the healthiest in Africa and they are quite delicious. Yams are the main staple in northern Benin and are also often served with peanut- or tomato-based sauces. Popular dishes includes Igname Pilé, Sokoura or Fufu (mashed yams formed into a paste). Garri (a popular dish made from cassava tubers). Moyo (a sauce usually served with fried fish, consisting of tomato sauce, onion, and peppers). Ñam Pilé (mashed yams with tambo chili, tomatoes, onion, chicken consome, and peanuts with beef meat). Atassi or Wakye (mixed rice and beans).
To explore Benin food scene while you are in Benin be sure to visit Chill N Grill restaurant. Founded by Sedjro Ahouansou who as a kid growing up in Benin, loved eating a traditional dish called piron, a starchy accompaniment made of cassava flour that’s served with meat and savory foods. Now a chef, Ahouansou serves the dish at his restaurant Chill N Grill in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city – only he’s reinvented it as a Japanese-style dessert. He adds fluffy white coconut flakes to the piron, shapes it like a maki roll, and fills it with warm fried pineapple.
Ahouansou was featured in the Netflix documentary series High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, which explores the African roots of African American food. But there’s another theme: the renaissance of African food on the continent. Ahouansou is part of a movement of chefs and restaurateurs in Benin who are elevating and celebrating the country’s traditional cuisine. Diners benefit – and so does the economy. There’s an emphasis on cooking with ingredients from local farmers and vendors.
Other local chefs, like Valerie Vinakpon, a Beninese chef and cookbook author also featured on High On The Hog, hope these new recipes will get Beninese excited about their own food. At her restaurant, Saveurs du Benin in Cotonou, she focuses on novel presentation of Beninese dishes. Carrots are arranged into a vase of flowers; a salad is shaped into a nest of shredded vegetables with blooming boiled egg flowers.
2. Senegal, West Africa:
Senegal cuisine according to chef Pierre Thiam’s cookbook, Yolele “cooking is a celebration in Senegal; of how we have gloriously melded the old with the new, the native with the global.” This is evident in the country’s flavorful soups, stews, rice dishes, salads, and fritters both savory and sweet, in which ingredients like seafood, peanuts, hot peppers, and tropical fruits and vegetables abound. Popular dishes are; thiéboudienne (jolof rice) – The national dish, Poulet or Pousson Yassa, Maffe. Popular fresh juices are made from bissap (sorel juice), ginger, buy (pronounced ‘buoy’, which is the fruit of the baobab tree, also known as “monkey bread fruit”), mango, or other fruit or wild trees (most famously soursop, which is called corossol in French). Desserts are very rich and sweet, combining native ingredients with the extravagance and style characteristic of the French impact on Senegal’s culinary methods. They are often served with fresh fruit and are traditionally followed by coffee or tea. There are countless restaurants in Senegal most of them are good. It all depends if you are looking for a more traditional type of dishes like thiéboudienne, chunks of fish stuffed with herbs, served on a bed of rice and vegetables. Senegal cuisine is filled with taste sensations, exotic spins on rice and other familiar ingredients, and foods indigenous to Senegal, such as fonio.
3. Nigeria, West Africa:
With so many groups and cultures, foods vary. But traditional meals are often based around a starchy staple. In southern parts, this can be made from maize/corn, yams, cassava/manioc or plantains. These are dried and then ground into flour to make a thick paste or dough. In northern areas, grains such as millet and sorghum are used to make a porridge-like staple. Ugba Sauce (Ukpaka sauce) is known as an exclusive and expensive ingredient.
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. Morocco, North Africa:
One of the great cuisines of the world, Moroccan cooking abounds with subtle spices and intriguing flavor combinations. Think tart green olives paired with chopped preserved lemon rind stirred into a tagine of tender chicken, the surprise of rich pigeon meat pie dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar, or sardines coated with a flavorful combination of coriander, parsley, cumin and a hint of chili. Influenced by Andalusian Spain, Arabia and France, Morocco’s cuisine is a delicious combination of mouthwatering flavors that make it unique.
Moroccan tagines and couscous dishes have earned their glory on the world’s culinary stage in recent decades, but this is one dish you’ll not find in an average cookbook. A complex and many-faceted feast dish, pastilla au pigeou (also known as b’stilla) is sweet and savory; substantial and delicate. It’s a pie comprising shredded cooked squab (or, more often, chicken, when pigeon is hard to find) thickened with egg sauce and interspersed with paper-thin pastry and layers of nutty, spicy filling.
No grand celebration in Morocco would be considered complete without b’stilla, and it is usually reserved for feasts because it’s so labor intensive to make. Where to taste it: Pastilla au pigeon can be found on menus throughout Morocco, but for an unforgettable gastronomic experience, there is no better place to try it than Pepe Nero 17 Derb Cherkaoui, Rue Douar Graoua, Marrakech; +212 524 389067
5. Zimbabwe, Southern Africa:
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 street food in many places in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and also in more upscale restaurants
6. Ethiopia, East Africa:
Ethiopian cuisine is distinct, and unique and consists of vegetable and often very spicy meat dishes. The cuisine follows the culture, formed and informed by millennia of trade and exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. Amidst this storm of positive culinary influence, acquired spices blend with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients. Popular dishes include: Doro Wat (a thick Chicken Stew, served atop “injera”, a large sourdough flatbread). Injera (This spongy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia) is fundamental to every Ethiopian meal). Berbere (is composed of ground semi-spicy chili peppers (which themselves are called berbere to further confuse) mixed with upwards of 20 individual herbs, spices and ingredients including garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fenugreek)
Ethiopian food is very ideal for vegetarians. There are numerous selections including salads, vegetables, pulses, and vegetarian sauces devoid of meat and dairy products. This is meant to accommodate devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, which have 196 fasting days in a year where they do not eat meat or any dairy product. Meat lovers can also enjoy Ethiopian food as there are several dishes made up of beef, lamb, and chicken. Along with the traditional Ethiopian meal, it is customary to drink either t’ej, a type of honey wine, or a local beer called t’ella. Ethiopia also produces its own wine.
7. The Gambia, West Africa:
The Gambia is a tourist hub largely due to its beautiful beaches and rich culture and friendly people and peaceful atmosphere. The Gambia gloats of different delicious local meals. Domoda (peanut or groundnut stew), the national dish – is a hearty stew that’s super-easy to make and great for peanut butter lovers. Can be made vegetarian or with chicken or beef or goat meat. In a pinch, feel free to use vegetables such as bitter tomato. Domoda is also potent with anti-cancer ingredients as shown in the Doctor’s show due to it’s components of tomato, peanut butter, and bitter tomato. Since The Gambia and Senegal share the same culture, Thiéboudienne also known as Benachine is also a staple dish. Afrah (grilled lamb or beef seasoned with spices), Supakanja (okra stew), Chere (couscous type millet), Chicken Yassa (fried chicken in onions), Chew i Kong (catfish stew), Chakery (is a pudding made from couscous bathed in a sweet mix preparation), Bissap or Wondo (hibiscus flower drink).
Although The Gambia is a very small and narrow country – it has always been a very popular fishing holiday destination, boasting a large variety of species caught from boats, beaches, and rivers. One of the best fish you will ever taste in Africa are in The Gambia. Sea and river fishing is good all year round. As an added bonus, the numerous sandy bays, shallow reefs, and rocky outcrops provide the opportunity to try out different methods of fishing. The many fish varieties include, Guitarfish, Jack, Captain fish, Grouper, Rays, Snapper, Barracuda, Butterfish, Threadfin Salmon, and Ladyfish are just some of the species to be found in the coastal waters of The Gambia.
Are you an angler who enjoys the excitement of fishing? In countries that provide a cultural and colorful experience, then you have come to the right place.
8. South Africa, Southern Africa:
In South Africa, you’ll find dishes influenced by the indigenous population, along with the Dutch, French, Indians, and Malaysians and as such it offers a vibrant cuisine that will excite your palate. Cape Malay curry, Chakalaka & pap, Biltong & droewors, Braai/Shisa nyama, Boerewors, Bobotie, Malva pudding, Amarula Don Pedro, Melktert. 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 as 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
9. Malawi, Southern Africa:
Cuisine in Malawi, features Tea and fish with maize as a staple crop. Popular dishes includes: Chambo (Fish Curry), Nsima ( Cornmeal Porridge), Kachumbari, a type of tomato and onion salad, Thobwa, a fermented drink made from white maize and millet or sorghum, Kondowole, made from cassava flour and water. Lake Malawi is home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world. 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.
10. Namibia, Southern Africa:
Cuisine in Namibia is influenced by two primary cultural strands: Cookery practiced by indigenous people of Namibia such as the Himba, Herero, and San groups. Settler cookery was introduced during the colonial period by people of German, Afrikaner, and British descent. The traditional dishes such as braaivleis (meat barbeque) is a tasty meal, as is potjiekos, a spicy stew of meat, chicken, and fish. Traditional German-style confectionery includes classics such as; Schwarzwälder, Kirschtorte, and Apfelstrudel as well as the renowned Springer chocolates produced in Windhoek. Fresh game coming up. 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.
There are 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
11. Angola, Southern Africa:
Cuisine in Angola is a combination of traditional and Portuguese influences. The Angolans’ use of certain spices and methods of cooking were greatly influenced by Portugal. Angolan cuisine is remarkably tasty and aromatic. The usual ingredients include fish, chicken, cassava, beans, okra, and other types of vegetables. To say the least, Angolan cuisine is nourishing as well as appetizing. Muamba de Galinha, is a popular dish you’ll want to return for. This dish, like the popular Caldeirada de Peixe (fish stew), reveals the strong influence of Portuguese cuisine on this former colony and is considered one of Angola’s national food treasures.
Also known as chicken muamba, this is a spicy, somewhat oily stew made with palm oil or palm butter, garlic, chilis, and okra. Variations of chicken muamba, such as poulet moambé, are to be found all over the Congo River region, where it’s often served with cassava leaves and white rice. Another variation, nyembwe chicken, is the national dish of Gabon, where it is made with palm or macadamia nuts. Being so rich and spicy, chicken muamba is a good accompaniment to central African starchy porridges considered bland by western palates: funge, fufu, and ugali.
Caldeirade de Cabrito is another of Angola’s favorite dishes; this goat or kid stew is cooked with potatoes, wine, and tomatoes and is often eaten to celebrate Independence Day on November 11. Where to taste it: Visitors to Angola usually make a bee-line for the buzzing beach restaurants on Ilha de Luanda, a small island just off Luanda.
12. Tanzania, East Africa:
Cuisine in Tanzania is as rich as the diversity found in the country – a fusion of diverse cultural influences. Tanzanian cuisine is based on three main ingredients: Coconut and its derivatives are used to cook most of the dishes; Plantains; and Beans. Every Tanzanian meal contains one or a combination of these ingredients. Also, groundnuts are used as spices to add some flavors to the dishes. Popular dishes includes Coconut Bean Soup; Pilau (or Pilaf); Ugali (The National dish); Nyama Choma; Ndayu; Ndizi Kaagan. In stone town Zanzibar, the seafood scene is insane. If you watched Parts Unknown on CNN by Anthony Bourdain, then you most likely remember his famous line about the sea scene food in Zanzibar. “Say you’re going to Zanzibar and people will tell you about the seafood. It’s pretty impressive. In Stone Town’s Forodhani Gardens, every night vendors set up an insane variety of every iteration of seafood snack.”
13. Egypt, North Africa:
The old recipes are often the best. According to Egyptian-born cookery writer Claudia Roden, full medames dish is pre-Ottoman and pre-Islamic, and probably as old as the Pharoahs. In her classic work “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” Roden quotes an Arab saying: “Beans have satisfied even the Pharoahs.” They’re still satisfying Egyptians today. Ful Medames is one of the country’s national dishes, comprising fava beans simmered with spices and olive oil. The dried beans are often cooked overnight and served for breakfast in the morning with eggs and pita bread. It’s ideal for a filling breakfast if you’re traveling on a tight budget and need to fill up with sustaining food to last you through the day.
Where to taste it: At street stalls and restaurants all over Egypt, with a special recommendation for Mohamed Ahmed Restaurant, 17 Shokour St., Off Saad Zaghloul Street, Alexandria. Tel: +20 3 487 3576
14. Kenya, East Africa:
Kenya cuisine is a mix of traditional food as mixed and diverse as it’s tribe’s, history and landscapes. Each tribal area has its own specialties. Common dishes includes: Ugali combined with Sukuma Wiki (ugali is made from cornmeal and Sukuma wiki is collard greens or a form of kale); Nyama choma (is roasted or grilled meat); Irio (boiled green peas and mashed and whole kernels of maize (corn) are added to give the mash some extra starch and texture.); Pilau and biryani (Pilau is rice cooked with flavor bursting spices like cumin, cardamon, cinnamon, and cloves and Biriyani is another form of spiced rice); Wali wa nazi (White rice is cooked with grated coconut milk, best enjoyed with a serving of fish or chicken curry, some vegetables, or even bean stew); Samosas (small triangular pockets of spiced meat or vegetables put in a pastry wrapper and deep fried).
15. Ghana, West Africa:
Some of the world’s most dynamic chefs are electrifying the international culinary scene with innovative interpretations of Ghanaian cuisine, but Ghana’s capital remains the motherlode of taste. The cuisine of Ghana has perfected the art of transforming everyday ingredients into sublime dishes that are eternal staples of the Ghanaian diet. It’s little wonder that chefs around the world are tipping their hats to their ingenious Ghanaian brothers and sisters, who are upping their culinary game, serving up dishes that are as highly photogenic as they are downright mouthwatering.
Fufu is the best known and the most popular type of puree in the south and tuo-zafi mostly popular in the north. Fufu is made from a mix of cooked cassava and plantain, mashing the fufu is an extravagant ritual and hard work. Tuo-zafi is made out of millet flour. Other well-known types of puree are kenkey and banku. The later is made from corn. Even rice is something turned into a kind of puree called omo tuo; this dish is considered to be a delicacy. When it comes to soup, foreigners will favor groundnut soup. Other popular dishes are red-red, which is fired plantain with beans, jollof rice (a kind of risotto), and grilled tilapia, a freshwater fish that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Beans plus rice equals the perfect protein—and in the hands of Ghanaian cooks, they are even more than the sum of their parts. Ghana’s chefs artfully combine legumes and grains into the dish known as waakye, which is served with accompaniments such as spaghetti, avocado, plantains, and meat. The street food stall with the most reliable street cred is Auntie Muni Waakye, which helped to popularize Waakye as a staple food of Accra, and also makes it available all day, for breakfast, lunch, or supper. Care for a side of live jazz with your waakye? Head to Chez Afrique on Friday and Saturday. If you crave waakye and would like some delivered to your hotel, dedicated delivery services, such as Waakye Queen and Waakye ALL DAY, are happy to oblige
For a nocturnal adventure, visit the Osu Night Market on Basel Street. There, you can sample local ingredients and see Ghana’s famed street-food staples prepared beneath the market’s brightly colored lights. Just try to resist Ghana’s decadent twist on fish and chips, fried seafood served with hot pepper sauce and a side of kenkey (yet another staple delicacy, made by forming fermented corn dough into balls, wrapping them around dry corn leaves, then boiling them).
We may have to do a top 25 list – there are so many more countries with great cuisine.