Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Foods in Africa


Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and sheep’s milk, taken plain or soured or in the form of curds and whey, are used as available. Most often they are used for infants and young children as part of soups, gruels, and puddings. The Masai herdsmen are known to drink a beverage of milk and animal blood. Soured milk is preferred by adults in some areas. Farmers use dairy products less often than the nomadic tribes, who prefer to take dairy products in the form of soups and buttery sauces.


Fresh fruits are eaten in season everywhere as they are available, whether wild or cultivated. Especially plentiful are varieties of mangoes and bananas, used green or ripe, to be eaten as they are or used in sauces. Other fruits include the whole range of tropical and sub-tropical fruits such as melons, hacha, baobab, mushange, hwakwa (African orange), onde, wild plums and berries, wild figs, dates, wild or kafir oranges, coconut, papaya, avocado, pineapple.

Most popular vegetables include plantains, green bananas, pumpkin, okra, yams, cocoyams, spinach, cress, mustard greens, and fresh corn. Cultivated vegetables include many varieties of beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. To these must be added the many local varieties of wild and indigenous roots, tubers, bush greens, and mushrooms.


In most of rural Africa meats from any source are an infrequent part of the usual diet. It will likely be the highlight of a special occasion or given to special guests. Most meats and fowl are tough and stringy and require long, slow cooking with moisture, so are most often used in soups or stewed or braised dish-es. It should also be noted that most African women are experts at preserving whatever meat may be avail-able by methods of salting, drying, pickling and/or smoking. In rural areas where cattle are still considered a sign of wealth and status, beef is seldom used for food, but it may be included in the urban diet. Some forest animals, pigs (not used by Muslims), goats and sheep, antelope, elephant, and oxen may be used for food. Many varieties of mice are eaten in season and there is also seasonal use of black and red ants and caterpillars as well as some types of grasshopper. Many taboos surround the eating of offal, chicken, and eggs, and care is taken to avoid a guest’s particular taboo or superstition.

Fish and seafood are commonly only eaten close to their sources, such as in coastal areas, or near lakes, streams or rivers. Yet many experts have expressed strong feelings about the urgency and importance of improving fishing methods and storage and transportation facilities since this is an abundant resource that could greatly increase the general protein food supply.

There is a very wide variety of pulses used every-where that form an important part of the diet. Peas, beans and lentils of many varieties are readily stored and easily cooked into soups, sauces, side dishes, in combination with vegetables, or mashed and fried as cakes.

Varieties of nuts and seeds are used depending on local preference and availability but most popular are groundnuts, the African name for peanuts. They are used in soups, stews, and sauces, and as garnishes. Groundnut butter is used as a seasoning.


The staple African food, fufu or ugali, prepared from almost any available starchy plant source, forms 80 percent of the daily calories consumed, while the aver-age European diet contains only 30 percent calories from breads or cereals. It must be stressed that the general African diet is high in fiber and carbohydrates, with proteins and fats forming only a small part. Principal sources for flours and fufu/ugali preparation are: maize, manioc, sorghum, millet, wheat, and rice. Plantain, green bananas, and yams are the favorites for fufu. Many varieties of bread are made from the flours and these are further varied by including recipes for breads that are both leavened and unleavened. Some flours are allowed to ferment first to improve taste.

Swahili yeast is the leavening agent prepared by mashing ripe plantain with a little water, sugar, and wheat flour, and allowing it to ferment in a warm place. It not only leavens the dough but adds a sourdough-type flavor to buns, breads, and fried cookies.


The most-used fats are oils prepared from vegetables, seeds, or coconut. In some areas olive oil or palm oil is used, as available. Groundnuts are some-times used for their oil but the nuts themselves are more important; the pulp mash left after the oil extraction is also used as food.


Desserts are mainly fresh fruits in season and as they are affordable or available. They are also nibbled as snacks. More recently there is a large increase in the use of sweetened tea and coffee as well as sweetened commercial soft drinks. An occasional snack or dessert may be of spiced and sugared fried pancakes or cookies; frying is more popular than baking because not everyone has an oven. Some honey and preserves are used as sweetening agents.


Blends of spicy, sweet, and various degrees of hotness in curries are widely used all over Africa. Many varieties of chilies and hot peppers are savored. Ground sesame seeds (plain or toasted), melon seeds, cotton seeds, as well as fresh and dried types of mush-rooms, are also used. Special seasoning pastes are prepared from seeds that have been dried in the sun, then steamed and fermented. Small amounts of the resulting paste are used as a flavoring. One such is called ogilie.

It should be noted that all foods are not only hotly seasoned but well salted. Salt is obtained by burning certain grasses or tree harks and the resulting ash passed through calabash sieves, then boiled in clay pots until a residue of whitish salt is formed. Another salt source was from certain soils where animals are observed licking; the watery residue from repeated washings of such soil is boiled and leaves a salty residue.


Although the exact names may differ from one region to another, soured milk (from cow, sheep, goat, or camel), low-alcohol beer and wine made locally are all familiar beverages, as is the ever-present hospitable tea and coffee. Coconut milk and juices from fruits are also widely used both as drinks and as cookery ingredients. Commercial soft drinks are now increasingly used, but a wide variety of herb teas are also enjoyed everywhere in Africa.

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