The average American may only have a passing familiarity with African cuisine and might not even know that different regions have incredibly diverse palates and ingredients.
However, that’s starting to change. Americans may not yet see Africa as a major food destination, but the culinary exploration that marked the pandemic years has led to greater interest and appreciation of African flavors.
The major drawback for many consumers is the difficulty of obtaining traditional ingredients and spices used in African cooking.
While popular spice blends like harissa and za’atar are starting to pop up in specialty food stores and even chain grocers, consumers won’t find it as easy to obtain ingredients like baobab, dawadawa, or atieke, for example.
Companies like Yolélé are looking to change this by importing staples like pilaf, chips, and fonio-based flours, but there’s a long way to go before average consumers can whip up traditional African recipes at home.
Still, restaurateurs and food manufacturers have greater latitude to obtain ingredients and create the options consumers are clamoring for. What’s trending now in African foods?
Indigenous African Grains
The recent uptick in gluten intolerance has spurred a growing fascination with any number of grain alternatives.
Ancient grains, or those that haven’t significantly changed or been modified over the centuries, are of particular interest. These grains include now-familiar options like quinoa, millet, and amaranth, as well as ancient grains indigenous to Africa, like fonio, teff, and sorghum.
Some of them aren’t easy to lay hands on stateside, but there are companies trying to change that, like South African-based Local Village Foods. They sell pre-packaged African grains, and their goal is to reach markets across Africa, Europe, and the U.S.
West African Cuisine
Even those familiar with West African food may be limited to knowledge of items like jollof rice. That said, dishes from this region have started to gain popularity, thanks to complex flavors and a combination of fruits, veggies, and grains that elicit all the appeal of comfort food.
Ingredients like plantains and yams are common, as are veggies like okra, eggplant, and leafy greens. Peanuts and peanut sauces are not unusual, and many dishes take the form of soups and stews. The use of cassava and its derivatives (like gari flour or sticky fufu) is also commonplace.
Perhaps the main selling point for this regional cuisine, however, is its warm spice combinations. With blends that include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and turmeric, many dishes offer an enticing blend of sweetness and heat.
Kan Kan Kan
This West African spice blend, popular in Burkina Faso, may not have achieved the level of awareness that harissa enjoys yet, but with a combination of peanut powder, chili powder, allspice, and bouillon, this spicy, salty, savory concoction makes for a great addition to all kinds of dishes.
The powder can be used as a rub for grilled meats or easily sprinkled in soups and stews to bring a bit of heat and savory appeal.
With interest in both North and West African cuisine on the rise, East African cooking is the odd man out, but that may not last long. Herby za’atar is already making waves in American markets, and alluring blends like berbere might not be far behind.
Frequently used in Ethiopian cuisine, berbere is a combination of well-known spices like chili, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic, and ginger, as well as slightly more exotic ajwain, fenugreek, and nigella. Made into a powder or a paste (when mixed with oil), this flavorful blend is often used to add depth and heat to stews and meat dishes.
Explore the Flavors of Africa
With so many flavor profiles to explore and dishes that deliver an aura of comfort, it’s not hard to see why Americans are starting to lean into the vast range of African cuisines.
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