Six traditional delicacies to try on your travels in Africa.
By: Isimeme Ughele
Travel restrictions have eased, vaccine passports are official, and the world has returned to the familiar sounds of boarding announcements at airports, the rolling wheels of suitcases, the intermittent roars of airplane engines and the chitter-chatter of passengers.
It feels good to travel, meet new people, explore different cultures and visit fresh places. My first post-pandemic trip evoked another benefit of travelling: the urge to tickle my taste buds and explore traditional cuisines of foreign destinations. Biting into my first exotic food kindled how much I had missed culinary adventures and treats.
These are my recommendations from my travels across Africa:
Nigerian jollof rice
Possibly the most popular meal that transcends various ethnicities within the country. Indeed, the debate keeps raging as to the origin of the dish and who makes it the best. Privileged to have consumed the same meal in two other African countries, cut me some slack to err on the side of patriotism – Nigerian jollof rice is clearly the best.
The dish is made of rice, tomatoes, pepper, onion and an assortment of spices. It is usually served with chicken, beef, fish or fried plantains or mọi mọi (bean pudding). The popular ‘party jollof’ is one that stands out the most, cooked in large local iron pots over open wood or charcoal fire. The intense smoky heat from the fire gives the rice a unique, irresistible taste that leaves guests asking for more.
It was love at first bite for me with yassa au poisson (yassa with fish). Senegal is often described as a seafood-lovers’ haven. Yassa is a simple dish prepared with caramelised onions, garlic, marinated fish or chicken, lemon juice and/or mustard.
The ingredients are cooked into a sweet yet spicy sauce to pair with rice or similar grains. I had yassa at Huîtres de Sokone (a local riverside restaurant featured by the late Anthony Bourdain of CNN’s Parts Unknown), and it was simply lip-smacking.
On a work trip to Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan, a colleague introduced attieke to me. Pronounced “acheke”, it is a traditional side dish made of grated cassava roots. The meal has a semblance and texture to couscous and is often served with grilled or fried fish and garnished with tomatoes, onions, peppers and lime.
One may have it at any time of the day – for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Tasty and tantalising, the meal has found its way to other parts of West Africa. Thou shalt not depart from Côte d’Ivoire without trying attieke.
Ghanaian banku with soup
I can’t recall the exact soup I had mine with, but I was completely sold on this meal on the first try. Banku is a delicious and nutritious Ghanaian delicacy made of fermented cornmeal and cassava root molded into smooth balls. It has a sour taste that couples nicely with spicy soup or stew.
It’s a popular breakfast staple but, as with any other meal, it’s no crime consuming it any time of your choosing. My reaction after my first dig at the meal echoed a line from the Nigerian Afrobeat/dancehall singer Wizkid’s song Azonto that goes “why I no go chop banku?” (why won’t I eat banku?).
Motswana bogobe le morogo
A wholesome national dish of Botswana, the dish is processed from lerotse melon (a fruit similar in appearance to watermelon), sorghum, sour milk, mayonnaise (optional) and water. When fully cooked, it gives a porridge-like consistency and may be combined with oxtail stew and/or morogo (a kind of stewed spinach greens).
A mélange of flavours, it has a unique but subtle taste. In fact, after only a few spoonsful my palate could testify that I had never had anything like the sumptuous bogobe le morogo. Usually a home meal, but it’s often a regular at weddings, funerals and similar ceremonies.
A must-eat on visit to the Kingdom of Morocco. On a fine Saturday afternoon, I had dashed into a restaurant, requested the dish, salivating. A friend had me feasting on couscous the day before. But to my surprise, I was instead schooled by the waiter that the traditional dish only makes the menu on Fridays.
Typically, families and friends, after returning from Jumu’ah prayers at the mosque, would sit together to have the meal for lunch, in community style – eating from the same plate. Couscous is a North African spicy pasta concocted from semolina or other grains crushed into granules, steamed to a fluffy texture, and embellished with assorted vegetables (pumpkins, turnips, etc.), beef, chicken or lamb. A side bowl of broth with pepper, ginger and turmeric partakes in the exhibition. I can say it again: yummy!
Food is an integral part of every culture and to me, an important aspect of the travel experience. If you are one who visits foreign lands and is content with simply plying the nearest restaurants for your accustomed cuisines, you are likely cheating your taste buds. On your next trip within Africa, I encourage you to try some traditional dishes, relish the exploit, and thank me later.