It is no secret that food plays a key role in our overall health, in addition to our desired physical aesthetics. We have Keto diets, to Paleo diets, Vegan or Vegetarian diets, and the Mediterranean diet. Most of the popular diets today guide us in living a healthier lifestyle as prescribed by global cultures. With the popularity of the endless list of diets we have today, the African diet is one that seems to have not made the cut.
People of African heritage from natives of the continent to the greater diaspora have cultivated an array of dishes that have been overlooked and/or unfairly categorized as unhealthy. Similar to most diets, the African diet is influenced by cultural beliefs, religion, and medical requirements. Today I would like to take an elementary look at the fundamental makeup of the African diet to explain why this notion could not be further from the truth.
The African Diet: Unpacked and Indisputably Healthy
Although vegetarianism is not necessarily celebrated in the vast African culture, it is the foundation on which most cuisines on the continent are built. From a variety of locally grown rice, cassava, yam, sweet potatoes, leafy greens; cuisines such as Nigerian or Ghanian consider dishes made with these plants as the entree. On the contrary, meat dishes are served as sides. These days there is plenty of research showing that diets high in meat increase the chances of disease (especially diets high in red meat consumption).
The Normalization of Open Markets, Farm-to-table, and Slow Foods in Africa
Commonly known to those who have the privilege of traveling around the Mediterranean, fresh fruits and vegetables rot quite quickly. This is because preservatives (chemicals) have not been used on produce. The same can be said for most African countries. Although prevalent, fast food takes the backseat in African diets. Movements that we now know as “farm to table” and “slow food” are the core of most African cultures to this day.
The core of most African food culture is one that focuses on creation rather than consumption. For example, the bi-product of one dish can play a key role in another dish. When there is a waste, it is typically used to replenish the soil for the growth of new crops or used in the production of animal feed.These elements often get layered into a meal.
Consider the False Accusations Against Palm Oil
Palm oil is an ingredient criticized with arguably good intentions in the Western hemisphere. These criticisms however are often based on ignorance. The consumption of Palm oil outside of Africa is based on exploitation and several other concerns, which you can read about almost everywhere.
I am here to tell you about the raw, rich, and vibrant Palm oil that I and many other Africans grew up on. The Palm tree in most West African countries produces nutrient-rich Palm fruit, which yields a delicious extract used in soups. From this same extract comes Palm oil and then the Palm kernel oil from the seeds. You can say it’s a triple threat of good deliciousness!
The palm oil used by Africans is just as I have described – rich, raw, and vibrantly red. There is another, however extremely processed, refined, and bleached version which most people (non-Africans) refer to as palm oil. This is cheaper and more plentiful, hence why it is used in the production of some of our most loved products. such as chocolate spread, mayonnaise, creams, and various condiments. Basically, Palm oil in its truest raw form is nothing to be scared of. Unrefined and unbleached palm oil is a nutritious source of many vitamins. It holds great value in the African diet, not just for its flavor and richness but also for its medicinal properties.
Let’s Get Into Legumes (and Cereals)
The Legumes family is one of the highest consumed food groups in Africa. Lentils, Black-eyed peas, Cowpeas, and Bambara nuts, are just a few. The range of legumes and the dishes they are made with is one that is very similar across several African countries. This is the same for cereals such as maize, tapioca, and millet.
Let’s Debunk the African Diet Bias: Try Your Own Millet Pap Porridge Recipe
A popular breakfast cereal across Africa is ‘pap’. It is a porridge that can be made from either maize or millet. It can be made into a smooth consistency or gritty, depending on what culture. The dish also has different names across countries, with the most common being pap.
Pap can be referred to as ‘Ugali’ in East Africa as a hot dough made from maize as an accompaniment to soups. Pap can also be referred to as ‘Akamu’ or ‘Ogi’ which is a smooth runny porridge made from fermented maize or millet in Nigeria. Simple pap in South Africa typically refers to a thick gritty porridge made from millet. Below is an easy and healthy recipe combining the flavors, styles, and shapes that pap takes across the African continent. Using locally sourced items here in Italy to recreate a widely loved African dish.
Pap Recipe Ingredients:
- 1/3 cup millet
- 1 1/4 cup water
- 3/4 cup coconut milk
- 1/2 a lime
- 1/2 mango
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tbsp coconut flakes
Pap Recipe Instructions:
- Pour the millet into a saucepan with water and coconut milk. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cover with a lid to simmer for 15 minutes.
- Prepare to cube the mango. Slice off the side of a large mango. Place it with the skin down on a flat surface, then make several long slits lengthwise without cutting through the skin. Turn the mango at 90 degrees and make several long slits perpendicular to the first set of slits made.
- Once the millet is cooked, serve in a bowl. Using a spoon, scoop the flesh of the slitted mango, then place the cubes of mango into the bowl of millet.
- Zest half a lime and set aside for later. Squeeze the juice of the lime over the mango and miller.
- Top the bowl with the coconut flakes and the lemon zest. Finish with a drizzle of honey and enjoy!
Continue to Embrace The African Diet
We hope you enjoyed this sweet treat! At the end of the day, is baffling as to why the African diet is not as prevalent across its borders. As with so many things, Africa has influenced the world’s food culture as we know it today. However, the continent is not recognized what it brings to the table. It is should be mentioned that Palm oil, avocados, and nuts are a huge part of the African diet. Especially peanuts (popularly known in Africa as groundnut), and cashew nuts.
Many are surprised to learn that Africa has a history of fermentation being used as one of the oldest forms of food preservation. Fermented foods are high in probiotics which aid in digestion. Foods like Garri from Nigeria and Guedj from Senegal go through a fermentation process that aids their taste and long shelf life. There are plenty of rich things to learn about this diet and we are so happy to share them with you.
Let us know how you choose to broaden your palette in the comments. What other cultural ties to food you’d like to hear more of? Until next time, Pretty Birds!