Author: Chef Afrik

For the love of African teas

As an immigrant, there are traditions you carry over with you to the new country and there are many more that you leave behind in the old country.

In my case, the old country is Kenya and the new is America.

The strongest expression of my old country in my life in the US today is in the form of food. The recipes my grandmother passed on to my mother and my mother to me have survived the proverbial crossing of the ocean. It doesn’t get more Kenyan than the tradition of Afternoon Tea.

Afternoon Tea is a British tradition that was carried over to many of the country’s colonies. Introduced in England in the early 1840s, it is a tea-related ritual that includes a small meal to help stem hunger between lunch and dinner.

Kenya took on this tradition – so well that I would dare to say that tea is the most important drink in Kenya (though many may argue it’s our national beer, Tusker). The country is currently the largest producer of tea in Africa. You can find a physical manifestation of this dominance in Kericho, the town where most of the country’s tea crop is grown.

Kenya has quadrupled its tea exports over the last decade, according to the Kenya Tea Board. (Yes, we have a Kenya Tea Board.)

The afternoon tea ritual itself is quite simple. Around 4pm throughout the country, people pause from their day to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea, often served with milk and sugar, or taken “strungi” (black). Finger foods include simple bread, sandwiches, a slice of cake or pastries. It is a shared meal with people often gossiping about politics – a national past-time and news of the day – before finishing off the latter part of their workday.

As much as I would like to think of Kenyans as the great influencers of all things to do with tea on the continent,  the ritual of tea is enjoyed throughout Africa. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), tea production in the East African region contributes 28% of the world market supply. Considering the fact that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water, with an estimated 18 to 20 billion cups of tea consumed every day, this is a major industry.

Other tea-growing African countries include Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

As a tea aficionado, I enjoy various blends from across the continent. These are my favourites:

Kenyans drink black tea often taken with milk and sugar, though there are those who prefer it “strungi” or just black. My family enjoys the ginger-flavoured (Tangawizi in Swahili) variety of tea, a popular option that has a great kick to it. You can buy some online here.

I was first introduced to Somali “shaah” two years ago, and it has since become my favourite type of tea. I was drinking it daily at one point. The spice makeup of this tea is just delicious: nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger with black tea all crushed together for an incredible aroma. Make it yourself using this recipe.

South Africa
There are many names for Rooibos (“red bush” in Afrikaans) tea including red rose tea, red clover tea, and red diamond tea. It is made from the rooibos plant found in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Dutch settlers are said to have turned to the drink as an alternative to expensive imported black tea from Europe.

The popularity of the tea has grown worldwide now making up 10% of the international herbal tea market and about 0.3% of a global tea market that has an estimated value of US$ 23 billion, according to the South African department of agriculture. The country exports 6000 tonnes of rooibos tea per year with annual exports quadrupling in the last 13 years. This is a good thing for tea growers in South Africa, but has also led to a number of legal issues abroad due to cultural appropriation – as seen in this case with a French tea company trying to trademark the word “Rooibos” in France.

Green mint tea is traditionally a North African and Middle Eastern drink, widely popular in Tunisia. My go-to recipe is from the Crimetcondiment blog, and includes a dash of pine nuts for flavour.

Green mint tea. (Pic: Chef Afrik)
Green mint tea. (Pic: Chef Afrik)

Green tea actually comes from the same crop as black tea. However, its leaves undergo minimal processing – which allows the tea to retain most of its antioxidants –  while black tea goes through an oxidation process.

The art of making a good green mint tea is in the foam/froth. To produce the froth on the surface, the tea is poured from a height out of a special pot with a long slender spout. You can also recreate this process yourself using two pots.

I am not the biggest fan of green tea but it is a delicious drink.

There is also a large tea-drinking culture in West Africa especially in Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania. These countries prefer a green mint tea similar to the Tunisian recipe above. The difference is that the Senegalese prefer a much sweeter affair and add a good amount of sugar to their tea.

The drinking of tea is an elaborate three-round process known as “Ataya” in Wolof; Ataya is also the name of the tea. The first round of tea is always strong and bitter, the second more sweet with a little mint, and the third, very sweet.

Why three rounds? There are various reasons, all folk legend, but my favourite is this: “The first cup is the love of your mother. The second is the love of your friends. The third is the love of your love.”

Adhis is a journalist who blogs at Chef Afrik where she is currently cooking her way through Africa one country at a time. She writes about food, travel and culture on the continent. Connect with her on Twitter

How to write about African food

This post is inspired by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s acclaimed “How to Write about Africa essay, published in the Winter 2005 edition of Granta. As a food blogger who reads and writes about African cuisine, the amount of nonsensical articles I’ve come across on the topic have left me exasperated, annoyed, amused, bemused – and with enough material for this piece.

If your editor assigns you to review a restaurant serving African food, the following instructions will prove helpful*:

It is best practice to include the word “Africa” plus a positive descriptor in your headline. If you must be more specific, whole regions like West Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa or Central Africa will do. Always keep the headline of your article broad, even when writing about the food of a specific country. Examples: “Tasty South African Food Now in Eastham” or “Africa’s Exotic Delights“.

Exceptions for use of specifics are allowed only when talking about Moroccan or Ethiopian food. Note that it is also okay to mix interchange Ethiopian and Eritrean food.

Insert yourself into the story: you are a writer for a local publication and you have decided to write about a Ghanaian restaurant. You did not make it to the restaurant opening three years ago, but emphasise that you have spent those three years fantasising about trying out the food there.

Mention that the first time you tried Cameroonian food was many years ago. Doing so indicates your expertise and allows for some form of comparative analysis. Other reasons for your expertise include having a Cameroonian roommate in college and enjoying a homemade feast during his graduation celebration.

Comment on the growth of the Somali community in your area in recent years. Give some statistics and bring up the most famous local Somali. A quote from him/her is good, but not necessary. Have said local discuss the population growth of “his people” in your area.

Refute any stereotypes the reader may have about African food. Some of the stereotypes to disclaim: African food is oily; it is difficult to eat; it is not popular; it is hard on the taste buds; African food is bland; it is hard to find; Africans are starving so their food does not offer room for complexity, etc.

Remind the reader that Africa is not a country, but still do not offer specifics.

Quote the African and African American studies professor at your local university.

Mention Marcus Samuelsson.

Marcus Samuelsson is an Ethiopian-born chef, owner of Red Rooster Harlem in New York City and three other restaurants, and author of two cookbooks and a memoir. (Pic: AFP)
Marcus Samuelsson is an Ethiopian-born chef, owner of Red Rooster Harlem in New York City and three other restaurants, and author of two cookbooks and a memoir. (Pic: AFP)

Describe the restaurant. Make full use of your senses and description skills. Note the traditional furnishings (wood carvings, basket stools) and the merriment of the clientele. Take a photo.

Remark that from the sights and the smell of the delicious food to the foreign language being spoken over rhythmic music in the background, you could very well be in Dar-es-Salaam. You have never been to Dar-es-Salaam, but you are sure this is what it would be like. After first reference, call it “Dar” – like the locals do.

Interview some customers, preferably a local taxi driver. He eats his lunch here every day. He is from Rwanda. He is drinking Tusker. Quote him once.

Highlight the four to five white people in the restaurant and emphasise the diversity of the place. Include that this is a place suitable for the adventurous. Quote the few patrons profusely.

Mention Marcus Samuelsson again.

Introduce the owner of the restaurant. If male, he moved to the country 10 years ago and learned to cook by working in the restaurant of a hotel. Another option is that he had no idea how to cook upon arrival and taught himself everything he knew after a bout of severe homesickness. His name is Chuck.

If female, she is a motherly figure who walks round greeting customers as if they were family. Think Mother Africa. She has a twinkle in her eye. She is plump. Everyone calls her Mama O.

Ask Chuck or Mama O why they chose to open a restaurant. Ask about the name of the restaurant and what it means.

Discuss the menu and gloss over the regular dishes (remember, you ate this at your friend’s graduation). Focus on the most exotic-sounding foods.

Point out that Mama O brought out a knife and fork for you, but you endeavored to go ahead and eat with your hands. Mention that you cleared your plate. Don’t offer criticism.

Conclude with your general sentiments of enjoyment. Do it in a way that subliminally tells your readers, especially the adventurous, that it is okay to come eat here. And note that it was only when you walked out the door  that you were reminded that you were back in Seattle.

Visuals are always a plus. Along with the photos of the restaurant’s interior, take photos of the food you ate.  There will be little if any food styling to ensure the reader views the food in its authentic state.

*These instructions will prove helpful even outside of writing restaurant reviews. Use them in whatever context African food is mentioned. This may also be especially useful for the foreign volunteer blogging about his/her food experiences in an African country, as this is a very popular sub-culture of African food writing.

Adhis is a journalist who blogs at Chef Afrik where she is currently cooking her way through Africa one country at a time. She writes about food, travel and culture on the continent. Connect with her on Twitter

Adventures in African cuisine

Have you ever considered what a culinary tour through Africa would be like?

My curiosity to find out led me to start my own African cuisine and travel blog, Chef Afrik. Since 2011, I’ve been indulging in exciting gastronomic adventures. Food from the continent is unimaginably diverse. The flavours we enjoy have been passed from mother to daughter (and sometimes son), mixed with influences from foreign sources. While African cuisine may not be all the rage in major international cities and gourmet magazines, you will always find it within the warmth of every African home.

I’ve discovered:

the sumptuous olives and olive oil monoculture of Tunisia

a sweet cup of mint tea in Morocco

the peanut butter flavour of maffe tiga in Senegal and Guinea

the aphrodisiac oysters of Namibia

the cocoa beans of Côte d’Ivoire

the incomparable palm oil flavors of Nigeria

the fragrant spices of a cup of Somali tea

the hot and fast life of the Ugandan street food “rolex”

the mysterious Mopani worm dishes of Zimbabwe

and the internationally recognised South African wines.

And this is barely a glimpse of the continent’s offerings. Starting with this inaugural foodie post for Voices of Africa, I’ll be exploring the history, culture and lifestyle of a country through the cuisine eaten there.

Take, for example, the strong Vietnamese culture in Senegal. With both countries colonised by the French in the early part of the 20th century, Senegalese men were sent to Vietnam as soldiers. A number of them took Vietnamese wives and brought them back to Senegal.  You will find Vietnamese influences in Senegalese food, or even in the streets of Dakar where the oldest Vietnamese restaurant is called “Le Dragon”.

Or how about the Arabic influences in Somali cuisine? All one has to do is look at the number of spices used in Somali tea – nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and black tea. No surprise that these spices made their way to Somalia from the Arabic peninsula through trade and, at times, empire domination.

What is not included in a country’s cuisine is just as important. In Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest grower and exporter of the cocoa bean, chocolate doesn’t feature much in traditional cuisine. What does this say about the country and its relationship to the cocoa bean? You’ll have to keep reading this blog to find out.

I’ll also be sharing a recipe with you in each of my posts. This time I’ve chosen a recipe from a country that was in a region the Romans named Africa in ancient times. The word eventually came to describe the immense continent beyond this country’s borders. I’m talking about Tunisia.

Harissa, an all-purpose condiment and marinade, is a red hot sauce Tunisians commonly eat with bread as an appetiser. To me, it tastes very similar to the East African chili sauce kachumbari. These sauces are usually much hotter than Tabasco sauce.

I used Aliya Lee Kong‘s recipe but adapted it to my liking. If you’re trying this out and want a sauce that’s a deep red in colour, use sun-dried tomatoes instead of regular ones.

3 New Mexican / Anaheim medium-sized dried red chilies
4 Guajillo medium-sized chilies
2 tsp crushed red pepper or Urfa Biber chilies (If you can’t find this, use any two types of hot chilies)
1 tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
Pinch of saffron (optional)
1 ½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 sundried tomatoes, packed in oil or rehydrated (I used a regular tomato)
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil
Lemon juice

Remove seeds and ribs from the dried chilies and place in a heat-safe bowl. Pour boiling water over chilies and let them soak for 15 to 20 minutes until softened.

Flavours galore: chilies.
Flavours galore: chilies.

(Though Aliya recommends removing the seeds in the chilies, I leave them in because my mum reckons that’s where the flavour comes from. I also did not soak the chilies as I did not want to dilute the heat.)

Blend the crushed red peppers or urfa chilies, caraway seeds, fennel seeds and saffron. Add ground coriander, turmeric, salt, sundried tomatoes, and garlic cloves. Add chilies from water and blend. (Mash and mix if you do not have a blender).

Pulse adding olive oil, a tablespoon at a time, until a thick paste is achieved and all of the chilies have been ground up. Add lemon juice to taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Transfer to a jar and cover the harissa with a layer of olive oil to preserve it. Keep refrigerated. It will keep for up to a month in the fridge.

The end result: perfect harissa.
The end result: perfect harissa.

Adhis runs the Chef Afrik blog which focuses on African food, travel and culture. She is currently preparing for ‘Eat, Pray, Africa’, a food tour starting in 2014. Follow her adventures and connect with her on Twitter.