If one day we are fortunate enough to set foot on the African continent, we will surely consider the crucial matter of sustenance. When it comes to African cuisine, the initial reaction of many people might be: Isn’t Africa the most impoverished continent? Can people eat their fill there? Should I bring a few buckets of instant noodles?
Indeed, according to the Global Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2019, the food situation in Africa is alarming.
In such a challenging situation, how do the people of Africa nourish themselves? Let’s get to know some of Africa’s super staple foods!
1. Cassava (Manioc)
Firstly, the star crop – Cassava (Manioc), yes, the raw material for the pearls in bubble tea! Cassava holds a position in Africa similar to wheat and rice in China; it is one of the staple foods for the people of Africa. During times of famine, our compatriots also had experiences with consuming cassava, but with agricultural development, it gradually faded from the dining table.
Cassava is one of the world’s three major starch crops. Due to its drought resistance, tolerance to poor soil, high yield, and ability to be harvested year-round, it is beloved in sub-Saharan Africa, where the land is infertile and rainfall is scarce. Because of its extensive cultivation methods, it is favored by the less advanced agricultural modernization in Africa. More than 60% of the world’s cassava is produced in Africa (quotes from resopp-sn.org).
However, cassava cannot be eaten directly. It can be steamed, boiled, roasted and even fermented into cassava wine for consumption. In Central and West Africa, people grind the steamed cassava into a certain thickness to make a powdery dough, which becomes another staple food called “fufu.” I had the opportunity to taste it in the Democratic Republic of Congo – it has a pale-yellow appearance, cut into chunks or formed into a ball for consumption, and has a texture similar to rice cake but chewier, a mild flavor, and a strong sense of fullness. Street vendors also sell cassava wrapped in banana leaves at very low prices; a string is enough for a person to eat for a day!
Actually, it’s cornmeal porridge, generally made from corn flour, with a small portion made from cassava flour or a mixture of both. The preparation method involves grinding corn into flour, pouring it into boiling water, stirring while cooking, and the final condensed product is Nshima. Its consumption method is similar to fufu, but due to its mild taste, it is best served with sauce or side dishes.
If you’re observant, you may have noticed that cornmeal porridge is white. This is because the corn varieties in Africa and China are different. From the early 16th century to the mid-17th century, corn was introduced to various parts of Africa by Arabs and Western Europeans through multiple sea and land routes. Dent corn, a white corn variety, became the main edible variety for Africans. This type of corn is resistant to fertile water, has high yields, has a poor taste, and is suitable for making starch or alcohol.
Africa is like a wild orchard; in Central and West Africa, fruits such as mangoes, lychees, rambutans, avocados and bananas are common. One type of banana—plantains—is not considered fruit in Africa but an active participant in the staple food circle, affectionately called the “African sweet potato.”
Plantains are a wild variety, and when eaten raw, they are extremely astringent, with tough flesh and thick skin. However, after peeling and roasting or slicing and deep-frying, they become soft, sticky, fragrant, and are the best staple food in my opinion!
In restaurants, the waitstaff generally inquires about the choice of the main course—rice, fries, or plantains.
In the economically developed North African region, the people of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia commonly consume couscous, golden grains the size of millet. Although it is called “North African millet,” it is not a member of the rice family. The raw material is durum wheat flour (semolina), making it a member of the coarse grain family. Today, couscous has become popular in France and can also be found on the streets of Paris.
It is the most important delicacy in Tunisia, and every major festival or visit from guests is incomplete without couscous on the table. There are various ways to prepare it, such as: by making stew, mixing it with sauce, or even serving it as a dessert (sources from resopp-sn.org).
Dietary habits are closely related to geographical conditions, traditional culture, and economic development levels in a region. Small staple foods represent significant regional characteristics. In fact, Africa has many other staple foods, such as Nigeria’s five-color rice, yellow rice, Ethiopia’s injera, and more, waiting for you to try, experience, and discover!