5 African ingredients that'll knock your socks off with their bold flavours
These amazing foodie finds from around the continent will help you raise your culinary game
I’ve been privy to many a aha moment in my food life, but few have been quite as pivotal as the day a copy of Eat Ting: Lose Weight, Gain Health, Find Yourself by Anna Trapido and Mpho Tshukudu landed in my big old lucky lap. I have read this tremendously well-researched cookbook cover to cover many times and learn something new about the history of food in SA each time I open it.
Discovering this wonderful, detailed account of cooking and eating like our ancestors elevated my cooking. I learned to simplify the way I cook, add less, do less, manipulate the ingredients less. I also became interested in the origins of African ingredients and where I could easily access these peculiar, gorgeous and bold flavours locally.
For a time, I lived in Johannesburg working as a freelance recipe developer, and I soon realised the streets are really where it’s at if you’re looking for the ingredients required for authentic African cuisine.
I lived in the city’s (infamous) CBD, a world that was wide awake and hooting, screeching, breathing, chirping by 5am. Before long, I happened upon the busy, bustling, beautiful (and ungentrified) food activity.
In the vicinity of Kerk Street, I bought entire shopping bags full of sweet, fresh brinjals for under R50; plastic bottles of giant raw peanuts from Zimbabwe; teff flour from Ethiopia; plantains the size of your arm from Ghana; raw honey with waxy bee bits still floating about in it; jugo beans; madumbe; delicious, bruised, ripe guavas for jam and some things I tasted once but whose names I never got to know.
In celebration of that time, I’ve listed five things I love to cook with to this day that you’ll probably love too.
Although not all of us are able (or willing) to make it to the CBD, some of these ingredients are available from various African food markets in the suburbs or even some specialised grocers.
Make sure to snap up the following when you can:
1. RED PALM FRUIT OIL
This fruity, flavourful oil, which is indigenous to Abydos, Egypt, and has spread to West and Central Africa, is one of my favourite ingredients of all time.
The red, beta-carotene-packed oil is popularly used in atama soup, a delicious, hearty cross between beef stew and soup, enriched with peanut butter. It’s gorgeous as a base for a lot of really good, old-school African dishes.
2. MONKEY NUTS
I discovered these delicious little speckled beans with a subtle peanut taste at a friend’s home. They had made it there by way of Zimbabwe.
Use them to make a creamy avocado and groundnut hummus – replacing the chickpeas with the legumes with amazing results. Soak these bad boys in boiling water overnight and then boil for three to four hours or until they have fluffy, mashed potato-like texture on the inside.
3. CRAYFISH POWDER
Many of my fellow cooks’ food politics is put to the test by this oh-so-very-acquired, powerful flavour maker. Crayfish powder is one of the best-loved pantry staples in West African cooking – equal in importance to chilli.
The distinctly fishy preparation, made from small crayfish which are dried and ground into flakes, adds a welcome bit of umami to every dish it touches.
Many of us already know this is as morogo, a southern African staple, especially in rural communities. But what you might not know is the impressive list of health benefits this dark-green, leafy friend boasts. Amaranth has a protein content of up to 36% and contains high levels of vitamins A and C.
Many people boil it and then chuck out the water, losing all those antioxidants and minerals. I love to slice it finely, fry it with leeks and spinach, and mix it into creamy mashed potatoes.
5. WHITE BABY BRINJALS
I buy them every time I’m lucky enough to come across them. Often these brinjals are scored at the base and thrown into a soup mid-cooking process to soak up the rich flavours. But you can try them in my recipe for smoky brinjal, tomato and lentil traybake. Enjoy!
• Chef and food stylist Khanya Mzongwana is one of the brightest rising stars on the local food scene. Check out her incredible work on her brand, Undignified, here.