The popular uprisings that are drawing the world’s attention to North Africa evoke memories of another exciting time in the continent’s recent past. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and later elected president, the winds of change blowing through the land inspired chefs to explore the notion of Pan-African cuisine.
Their aim was to establish a culinary style that combined the sophisticated skills of Tunisian pastry chefs with the robust barbecues of the Boers, the spicy stews of Cape Malays and the palace cuisine of the kingdoms of the Maghreb.
With the toppling of iron-fisted regimes in North Africa, the moment seems right for a spirit of culinary unity to return to the fore.
Despite the vastness and biological diversity of Africa, a common gastronomic tradition can be found along its old trade routes, where merchants once transported spices to satisfy a craving for flavor that Europeans shared with Africans. With the discovery of the New World, Africa also received maize and other staples in a triangle of international commerce now described as the Columbian Exchange.
During the colonial period, all that Europeans knew of African food came from the reports of a few intrepid explorers. Their culinary experiences were not like the luxurious safaris of today, where a proper chef prepares dinner in a comfortable camp. For big-game hunter Frederick Selous, campfire cuisine was more likely to be elephant trunk (tender and glutinous, he notes, a bit like well-stewed pig’s trotter). Artist Thomas Baines, author of “Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life,” gives detailed instructions on how to construct an earth-oven out of a termite mound. And missionary David Livingstone gives an account of the biter bit: Being half-eaten by a lion, vegetarians may be relieved to hear, feels rather dreamlike and not at all painful.
On my visit to South Africa’s Kruger Park in 1998, chef Liesel Roos of Makalali Camp recommended the dishes that follow as suitable for a Pan-African feast by the campfire. Presentation, she advised, is best kept simple — not least because service can be interrupted by thieving gangs of zebra cropping through the guests’ rondavels (thatch-roofed huts), or by a rhino making its way through the kitchen by the shortest route to the waterhole.
Serves 4 to 6
This is a spicy white-cheese dip of North African origin to eat with flatbread while you’re waiting for the coals to heat up for the barbecue. In South Africa, public picnic areas often have braai (barbecue) pits equipped with do-it-yourself metal pans for charcoal, a precaution against setting the veldt alight.
- Put all the ingredients in the food processor and process to a smooth puree.
- Taste and add pepper — salt only if necessary.
- Serve in a bowl, drizzled with the chile oil and finished with the olives.
Serves 4 to 6
This garlicky puree made with plain-cooked beans (navy, lima or fava) or chickpeas is a favorite dipping sauce throughout North Africa. It’s usually eaten as a mezze with bread or raw vegetables, but is just as a good as side dish with a vegetarian main course such as msamba (recipe below) and rice.
- Tip the first set of ingredients into the food processor or blender and process till smooth.
- Mix thoroughly with the remaining ingredients in a bowl, taste and season.
- Stir in the chopped olives, cilantro, chile and scallions.
Serves 4 to 6
This can be with made with any greens from the wild (you need to know your gatherings), though cultivated varieties will do. African cooks appreciate many New World vegetables — such as pumpkin, squash, sweet potato — for their leaves as well as their roots or fruits. To serve as a vegetarian main course, accompany with soft polenta (putu-pap) or plain-cooked white rice.
- Cook the spinach in a tightly lidded pan in the water that clings to the leaves after washing — sprinkle with salt to encourage the juices to run.
- As soon as the leaves collapse and soften, remove the lid and add a layer of chopped tomatoes and chopped scallion. Sprinkle with the powdered peanuts, but do not stir.
- Turn down the heat, lid loosely and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the tomato flesh has softened in the steam.
- Stir, lid loosely again and simmer for another 15 minutes.
- Remove the lid and bubble up fiercely at the end to evaporate the juices — the dish should be juicy rather than soupy.
- Serve with chile sauce.
Chicken Masai Mara
Serves 4 to 6
The sauce for the chicken is thickened with walnuts, a legacy of the Ottoman Turks, a major influence on the culinary habits of both Africa and Europe. For a taste of the wild, make this with guinea fowl (an impossible bird to tame, even in captivity).
- In a large bowl, toss the chicken pieces with the chopped lemon, oil and salt. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature (longer if in the fridge).
- Either barbecue the chicken pieces, or roast them in the oven at 350 F for 25-30 minutes, turning the pieces regularly, till cooked right through and beautifully browned.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce. Set the halved peppers, hollow-side up, in a roasting tin and drop a little oil in each hollow. Roast in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the flesh has begun to soften. Turn them over and roast for another 15 minutes, until the edges begin to blacken. You can do this on a barbecue, if you prefer — in which case, tip out and reserve the oily juices before you turn the peppers.
- Meanwhile, dry roast the walnuts in a heavy pan for a few minutes, until lightly toasted — don’t let them burn — or allow them 10 minutes in the oven.
- Transfer all the sauce ingredients to the food processor or blender, adding in any juices from the chicken joints, and process to a puree.
- Fold the sauce into the chicken and provide plenty of bread for mopping sticky fingers.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.