2017 Food Trends: The Flavors of Africa Part 1
By Piet E. Jones
Every year, the prognosticators polish off their crystal balls and try to predict what the next hot trends in dining will be. Getting ahead of the next of the next big thing in dining can be great for keeping the buzz going about your restaurant—fine tuning your dishes to perfection so you’re the one people think of when the trend peaks and every local publication is churning out “best-of” listicles for where to get that dish. Sure, not every trend will work for your restaurant, but look at how ramen, a dish that popped huge a few years ago and is still winding its way towards peak saturation, has shown up on the unlikeliest of menus. The key is identifying the key trends early and finding what techniques and ingredients can complement your dining philosophy and excite your customers.
For 2017, one trend that has been identified by those with their ears to the ground is African cuisine. Which leads many a chef to draw a complete and total blank. First, that’s a bit like saying the trend is European cooking and, while that might be more familiar, is equally broad and undefined. Then there’s the reality that many chefs in America are simply unfamiliar with what might constitute African cooking. A quick look across the vast continent, though, and you’ll find an array of techniques and rich, earthy flavors that can be easily incorporated into your existing menu. It’s just a matter of narrowing your focus and finding the right region or country for your inspiration. Let’s start with Central Africa.
While common across the continent and—thanks to migration—familiar in Europe and the United States, Jollof Rice may be one of the best known African dishes as the ancestor of jambalaya from Louisiana. Onions and bell peppers lightly sautéed in red palm oil until soft, then pureed with crushed tomatoes and perhaps a dash of curry or a finely chopped scotch bonnet peppers tossed in for heat, cooked with stock and long grain rice. When the rice has absorbed all the liquid, you’ll be left with a beautifully red dish that is fragrant and flavorful. Perfect served as a side or as an entrée when cooked alongside full chicken pieces or shredded chicken for meat-eaters or rough-cut root vegetables for vegetarians.
Bouillabaisse is one of those great classic dishes that is both high cuisine and homey all at the same time. It’s also very familiar. Take it to trending by serving an Ila Alasepo Stew. Simmer shrimp, cubes of smoked and fresh fishes and shellfish with a few pureed crawfish to infuse flavor throughout, red palm oil, cayenne and diced pepper. The key to this stew is adding chopped okra and a little baking soda to draw out the vegetable’s inherent sliminess and allow it to thicken the soup naturally, similar to some gumbos.
Many Nigerian dishes, and central African dishes for that matter, utilize red palm oil. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about this ingredient. Some say it is bad for the environment, others disagree. Some say it should only be used in moderation while others call it the next coconut oil. Where I fall: it’s rich and nutty with an amazing color that gives a visual brightness to your food. For quick sautés of fish and chicken or in long braises, it will bring a new element to your cooking.
Have you ever considered chicken in peanut butter? No, probably not. There is, however, a wildly popular dish across the Congo, Chicken Mwamba, that is just that. Mwamba Nusu can actually be served a couple of different routes, as a soup or as an entree. To start, simmer chicken parts slowly in water with bouquet garni, skimming so you can use the leftover water as stock. In another pan, sauté onion, garlic and hot peppers in red palm oil. When soft, add in tomato paste and peanut butter. The chicken can then be added to the sauce, either in whole pieces and coated, allowing to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavors, or shredded and added to the sauce, along with some of the broth, to make a spicy peanut chicken soup.
Serving the Mwamba over plain, white rice is fairly typical, but the dish might be missing something. How about adding some thick sliced plantains fried in red palm oil? Plantains are great with many of the spicier African dishes, adding a little sweetness and cutting the heat.
Cutting the heat is especially important if you are using a condiment for your dishes that is very common across Africa, Pili Pili. This hot sauce, made with African bird chilis (similar to Thai bird chilis), onion, garlic and red palm oil with lemon juice and salt is commonly found on every table to be spooned out onto dishes. If you’re experienced in fermenting, it is also wonderful when properly aged.
Lunch wraps and kale have been all the rage for a number of years. Often they’re kind of awful, too. They don’t have to be. Try Sukuma Wiki—Swahili for “stretching the week,” the term means a way to get one more meal out of your food for the week. The meat can be most anything: shredded chicken, tender braised goat, ground beef. Sauté onion and tomatoes in red palm oil along with spices like cumin, coriander and turmeric. Add a little lemon juice to brighten the flavors, then the protein and, finally, the chopped kale, just long enough to blanch.
Traditionally this would be served with Chapati, a flatbread made with wheat flour along with grated carrot and onion. Tasty, but might not hold up to being the wrap part of the dish. Experiment with it or use a more traditional wrap to hold it all together.
Next up… we move from Central Africa up to Northern Africa, in search of fragrant dishes with a fusion of African and Middle Eastern flavors.