It’s only February, but many 2018 food trend predictions have cited African cuisine as something to look out for in the months to come. From countries in Europe to right here in our own backyard, flavours from the African continent are inching their way onto mainstream menus, leaving food enthusiasts to ponder why it’s taken so long in the first place.
According to Mohamed Diagne, a Senegalese man who has owned multiple African restaurants across Sydney (including Kilimanjaro in Newtown), this newfound appreciation for the cuisine is borne from diners looking to expand their palates. “People get tired of eating the same thing all the time – Thai, Indian, Italian,” he tells SBS. “They’re after something different, and something healthy.”
Diagne has been a restaurateur in Sydney for more than 30 years. He currently owns and runs Lat-Dior African Eatery in Enmore, and he’s noticing an uptick in patronage in recent years as people become more familiar with African dishes, like Yassa chicken (chicken off the bone marinated with mild spices) and nbambe (tomato, brown lentils, kidney beans and vegetables steamed with spices). “Our connections in Africa tell us African food is becoming a big hit in Europe,” he says. “It’s just the beginning – it’s definitely coming up in Sydney.”
As far as umbrella terms go, ‘African’ is a large one. The continent comprises a multitude of countries, cultures and regions – the food is as diverse as the continent itself. If you’re in West African countries like Senegal, Nigeria or Ghana, you’re eating plate loads of jollof rice, an everything-but-the-sink staple that can be made with rice, tomatoes, onions, nutmeg, ginger and cumin.
Cuisines in Central African countries remained almost entirely free of outside influence until the 19th century, and lean heavily on starchy foods, plantain, cassava, beef and chicken. Diagne says dishes based on cereals, grains and greens (like beans and watercress) feature heavily in the continent’s bevy of cuisines.
Adelaide restaurant Africola takes cues from The Maghreb, which spans the north-western countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. According to head chef Duncan Welgemoed, this region offers an expansive palate of flavours to work with.
“I don’t like talking ’bout trends because they generally fizzle out,” he says. “But I do think the potential for more households to draw the influences of African food into their own repertoire is immense. More people will start eating African food, because it’s vegetable and grain-heavy and packed with flavour.”
Welgemoed sees restaurants like Africola as the frontlines of changing diners’ perceptions of African food – too spicy, too basic, or not basic enough. “African food is still seen as home cooking, so it’s suffered in regards to gastronomy because of the hardships the continent has faced,” he says. “It’s slowly reclaiming its culinary heritage, so there’s a real potential for educating people about African food at the moment.”
Jollof rice, potjiekos (a South African dish, literally translating to ‘small pot food’), Banga soup(made with a type of palm fruit) and Cameroon-style ekwang (a stew made with taro, smoked meat, fish, crayfish, and spices) are all Africola menu stars. “We take these humble dishes and reinterpret them with local produce and refined techniques, which in my opinion makes people consider African cuisine to be world class.”
Just quietly, while we’re talking about spice, Diagne says that contrary to popular belief, African food is actually on the milder side.
“African flavours are tangy, but not very hot,” he says. “If you’re interested in making it hot, we have house-made harissa at Lat-Dior. The way it’s made [with vegetables, hot chillies and oil blended together] – it just melts into your mouth.”
London and Paris have always been certified hotspots for African cuisine; if Australia’s burgeoning appreciation for jollof rice and yassa chicken continues, we might be able to claim that title sooner rather than later.