A Journey into East African Food
A Food Lover’s Travelogue Through East Africa
East Africa might not yet be an essential stopover on the food lovers’ trail, but Jo Keohane still discovered some wild and wonderful treats among the obligatory bush tucker trials…
Blood drawn from the neck veins of livestock. Dried caterpillars. In fact, all manner of dried flesh from elephant to antelope. Washed down with a communal cup of smoked banana beer. If you had to list your favourite food destinations its fair to say East Africa might not find its way into the top ten. But after a recent trip I would have to disagree. Yes, it’s predictably full of the weird, but also the wonderful.
It’s generally accepted that if you travel to Africa the focus is on viewing game rather than eating it. But you’re definitely missing a culinary trick if you don’t seek out some of the more unusual delicacies this amazing continent has to offer.
When it comes to Africa’s most famous snack – the mopane worm – you can relax, it’s not really a worm at all. It is, in fact, a brightly colour caterpillar (if this makes you feel any better about trying it!). It comes from one of the world’s largest moths, the Emperor, which lives in big swarms on the leaves of the mopane tree. The worms are hand picked or shaken off the tree and their guts are squeezed out. They’re then boiled and left out in the hot sun to dry. Once you get past the thought of them, the finished product tastes fairly inoffensive – if a bit fishy. With three times the protein and far less fat than beef, could we have a contender for new celebrity snack trend?
“To get your bananas ripe you must first dig a hole”
Next up is the Maasai milkshake. Not for the faint-hearted, this is the ceremonial drink made by the famous nomadic Maasai warrior tribe living in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s made my nicking the jugular vein of a cow to draw some warm blood, which is then mixed with milk. Once you’ve got over the trauma of drinking warm blood you’ll be pleased to hear the animals apparently survive this process reasonably unscathed – even if you haven’t.
If you need to steady your nerves the next drink is the one for you. Home brewed banana beer is served all over East Africa. The bits floating in this ale would give home made west country scrumpy a run for its money. But aside from the barnyard smell it’s better than plenty of pints I’ve had over the years. And at over 4.5% quite a decent strength brew.
More often than not banana beer is served from a communal cup,. This passes around the village ‘pub’. I am amazed to be told that everyone pays the same. Although some clearly drink more than others they cheerfully report that it usually ‘evens itself out’. Now there’s an idea to try down your local on a Friday night.
Before you head off to Tesco to load up with bananas to start brewing – it’s a fairly complex process. To get your bananas ripe – not to mention smoky – you must first dig a hole and set fire to them (try explaining that one to the neighbours.) The bananas are then kneaded until they’re soft and the juice is filtered out. To ferment the beer you add sorghum millet (maize flour to you) and 24 hours later you have alcoholic banana brew.
“Cooked plantains are in curries, side dishes and fried into chips”
Whether or not you have the stomach for these African delights, what is refreshing in the global age of eat anything, anywhere cuisine is to try something. Even if it’s just once. Something you have never even heard of.
Other East African Staples
Ugali – this is a thick dough flour, which forms the basis for many East African meals. It varies in consistency depending on how it’s cooked but it’s usually served with a meat or vegetable sauce.
Matoke – or cooked plantains are also everywhere, in curries and side dishes, as well as fried into chips.
Biltong – meat from animals ranging from cattle to antelope and even elephants is cut up into pieces, seasoned and hung up to dry.
Mishkaki – are marinated meat kebabs.
Seafood – all along the coast of East Africa and near its many lakes there is fantastic seafood, often cooked in coconut milk curries.
Swahili Spice – strong Arabic and Indian influences mean that food is boldly seasoned with a wide range of spices (many of which were originally brought to Africa by Arab traders) such as cumin, turmeric and tamarind.
Two African Recipes
Livingstone Island Bush Satay Sauce
400 mls coconut milk
100 mls chicken stock
juice of half a lemon
2 tbsps smooth peanut butter
Chopped coriander or parsley
Boil ingredients together for 10 minutes until sauce reduces enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Stir through herbs at the end. Serve with chicken or beef.
Ndizi – Fried Plantain
8 whole plantains (or green bananas), peeled
brown sugar (optional)
2 oz butter
Melt the butter in a frying pan. Cut and quarter the plantain, then dip the pieces in the lemon juice and place them in the pan on a medium heat. Lightly brown, drain on paper towels and sprinkle with nutmeg and sugar.