African Cooking Lessons: 10 Things to Keep in Mind

Jacques Barie

Introduction

Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, it’s always fun to try new foods and experience different cultures. But if you’re not careful, your culinary adventures can lead you into some cultural misunderstandings. Here are some tips on what not to do when eating out in Africa:

1. Make sure you have a good supply of bottled water.

  • Make sure you have a good supply of bottled water.

Water is important in any country, but it’s especially important in Africa. Bottled water is safe to drink and very cheap–so much so that you should buy some before you leave home if you can’t find any during your trip (which should be easy). You’ll find bottled water at supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the continent. If there’s no nearby store, ask around for someone who sells bottles on the street; just make sure they’re sealed!

2. Count on the food being spicy.

  • Count on the food being spicy.

Spicy food is an important part of African cooking, and you should expect that it will be served at most meals you eat in Africa. Like many other aspects of African culture, this has its roots in history: Spices were an expensive commodity that only the wealthy could afford to buy or import; by using them lavishly in their meals, these early chefs demonstrated their wealth and status–much like we do today with fancy cars or jewelry!

For modern Africans who don’t have access to expensive imported spices (or just prefer not to spend money on them), there’s another reason why they use so much spice: It helps mask unsavory flavors from meat or vegetables that may not be fresh enough for your liking (and ours). In other words, if something tastes bad but smells good…it probably still tastes bad but now it smells worse than before!

3. Check the menu ahead of time to see if you can get vegetarian or vegan food, or at least something without meat in it.

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to ask the hotel or restaurant ahead of time if they offer vegetarian or vegan options. Many African countries have dishes that are meatless, such as fufu (a starchy dish made from cassava root) and egusi soup (made with vegetables). In some countries like Kenya and Uganda there are even entire restaurants dedicated to serving only vegetarian food!

If you aren’t sure what kind of food you’ll be able to find while traveling through Africa, don’t worry–you’ll likely be able to find something at most places where tourists eat.

4. Don’t expect to find familiar sauces, breakfast foods or desserts.

  • Don’t expect to find familiar sauces, breakfast foods or desserts.
  • The most common sauce you’ll find in African cuisine is peanut butter, which can be used in many dishes. Another way to think about it is as a thickener for soups and stews. You might also spot groundnut oil on your plate as well–it’s similar to olive oil but has a stronger nutty taste.
  • There are many different types of breads that you may encounter at an African restaurant; some examples include fufu (made from cassava), banku (cornmeal) and ugali (a dense porridge made from maize flour). If you’re not sure what type of bread will be served with your meal, ask your server!

5. Be prepared for small servings and lots of oil in your food.

There are two things to be aware of when you’re eating African food. First, the portions are small. Second is that there’s a lot of oil in most dishes.

The reason for this is that cooking with oil was more common in African countries than other places because they didn’t have access to other ingredients like butter or lard. However, if you find yourself at an African restaurant and want something more filling than what’s served on your plate (which will likely only be about half a cup), ask for an additional side dish or two!

6. If you don’t like spicy food, ask for mild versions of traditional dishes — they exist!

  • If you don’t like spicy food, ask for mild versions of traditional dishes — they exist!

If you’re worried about how spicy your meal will be, just ask your host or server if there’s a mild version available. They’ll be happy to accommodate you and even suggest other options that may suit your palate better than the original dish. You can also ask questions about what something is made from or how it’s prepared (for example: “Is there any dairy in this stew?”). And if all else fails, don’t forget that substitutions are always an option!

7. Go ahead and try new things; there’s nothing wrong with asking questions about what something is made from or how it’s prepared before you eat it (or drinking it).

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the food you are served.
  • If you’re not sure what something is made from or how it’s prepared, go ahead and ask! Your host will appreciate your interest in their culture and traditions.

8. When eating with locals and other travelers, remember that sharing is expected, so don’t complain about being served less than everyone else (or not getting served at all!).

  • When eating with locals and other travelers, remember that sharing is expected, so don’t complain about being served less than everyone else (or not getting served at all!).

Being a picky eater can ruin your experience in Africa. Don’t be afraid to try new things! If you are unsure about what something is or how it’s prepared, ask questions before refusing it out of hand. There is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to food–and if someone tells you this isn’t true, then they’re probably not worth eating with anyway!

9. Find out whether your waiter gets tipped before deciding how much to leave for service — especially if service was good or bad!

  • Find out whether your waiter gets tipped before deciding how much to leave for service — especially if service was good or bad!
  • If you’re in an African country with a tipping culture, ask the staff at your hotel what the norm is and what percentage of the bill they expect per person.
  • If there’s no tipping culture, then it’s up to you how much (if anything) you want to leave on top of what they charge for food and drinks.

There are cultural differences when it comes to food

Food is a big part of the culture. In the African culture, food is a way to show hospitality and love. You will often be invited into someone’s home for dinner, or they will invite you over for lunch or breakfast (which are often eaten together).

If you are invited to someone’s home as a guest, it is important that you bring something with you as well. This could be anything from flowers or fruits from your garden if there aren’t any stores nearby; otherwise some baked goods would be appreciated as well!

Conclusion

We hope you have a great time eating in Africa! Remember that there are cultural differences when it comes to food, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and try new things. We also recommend checking out our other blog posts about African cuisine, including recipes for some of our favorite dishes like nyama choma (roasted meat) and sukuma wiki (spinach stew).

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