The cuisine of East Africa varies from area to area. In the inland savannah, the traditional cuisine of cattle-keeping peoples is distinctive in that meat products are generally absent.
Cattle, sheep and goats were regarded as a form of currency and a store of wealth, and are not generally consumed as food. In some areas, traditional peoples consume the milk and blood of cattle, but rarely the meat. Elsewhere, others are farmers who grow a variety of grains and vegetables. Maize (corn) is the basis of ugali, the East African version of West Africa’s fufu. Ugali is a starch dish eaten with meats or stews. In Uganda, steamed, green bananas called matoke provide the starch filler of many meals.
Around 1000 years ago, the Arabs settled in the coastal areas of East Africa, and Arabic influences are especially reflected in the Swahili cuisine of the coast – steamed cooked rice with spices in Persian style, use of saffron, cloves, cinnamon and several other spices, and pomegranate juice.
Several centuries later, the British and the Indians came, and both brought with them their foods, like Indian spiced vegetable curries, lentil soups, chapattis and a variety of pickles. Just before the British and the Indians, the Portuguese had introduced techniques of roasting and marinating, as also use of spices turning the bland diet into aromatic stewed dishes. Portuguese also brought from their Asian colonies fruits like the orange, lemon and lime. From their colonies in the New World, Portuguese also brought exotic items like chillies, peppers, maize, tomatoes, pineapple, bananas, and the domestic pig – now, all these are common elements of East African foods.
The main traditional dishes in Eritrean cuisine are tsebhis (stews) served with injera (flatbread made from teff, wheat, or sorghum), and hilbet (paste made from legumes, mainly lentil, faba beans (broad beans)). Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine (especially in the northern half) are very similar, given the shared history of the two countries.
Eritrean food habits vary regionally. In the highlands, injera is the staple diet and is eaten daily among the Tigrinya. Injera is made out of a variation and/or blend of: teff, wheat, barley, sorghum and corn and resembles a spongy, slightly sour pancake. When eating, diners generally share food from a large tray placed in the centre of a low dining table. Numerous injera are layered on this tray and topped with various spicy stews. Diners then break into the section of injera in front of them, tearing off pieces and dipping them into the stews.
In the lowlands, the main dish is akelet, a porridge-like dish made from wheat flour dough. A ladle is used to scoop out the top, which is filled with berbere and butter sauce and surrounded by milk or yoghurt. A small piece of dough is broken and then used to scoop up the sauce.
The best known Ethiopian cuisine consists of various vegetable or meat side dishes and entrées, usually a wat, or thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread made of teff flour. One does not eat with utensils, but instead uses injera to scoop up the entrées and side dishes.
Tihlo prepared from roasted barley flour is very popular in Amhara, Agame, and Awlaelo (Tigrai). Traditional Ethiopian cuisine employs no pork or shellfish of any kind, as they are forbidden in the Islamic, Jewish, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faiths. It is also very common to eat from the same dish in the centre of the table with a group of people.
Somalian cuisine varies from region to region and consists of an exotic mixture of diverse culinary influences. It is the product of Somalia’s rich tradition of trade and commerce. Despite the variety, there remains one thing that unites the various regional cuisines: all food is served halal. There are therefore no pork dishes, alcohol is not served, nothing that died on its own is eaten, and no blood is incorporated. Qaddo or lunch is often elaborate.
Varieties of bariis (rice), the most popular probably being basmati, usually serve as the main dish. Spices like cumin,cardamom,cloves,cinnamon and sage are used to aromatise these different rice dishes. Somalis serve dinner as late as 9 pm. During Ramadan, dinner is often served after Tarawih prayers – sometimes as late as 11 pm.
Xalwo or halva is a popular confection served during special occasions such as Eid celebrations or wedding receptions. It is made from sugar, cornflour, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder, and ghee. Peanuts are also sometimes added to enhance texture and flavour. After meals, homes are traditionally perfumed using frankincense (lubaan) or incense (cuunsi), which is prepared inside an incense burner referred to as a dabqaad.
East African Cuisines by Country
East Africa is the eastern region of the African continent, variably defined by geography or geopolitics. In the UN scheme of geographic regions, 19 territories constitute Eastern Africa: This is a vast region with many diverse cuisines.
- Burundian cuisine – Burundi has a territory full of mountains, savannas and agricultural fields, with forests in the surrounding of rivers and waters. Agriculture is spread on 80% of the country’s surface and it especially includes coffee, tea, corn, beans and manioc.
- Kenyan Cuisine – There is no singular dish that represents all of Kenya. Different communities have their own native foods. Staples are maize and other cereals depending on the region including millet and sorghum eaten with various meats and vegetables. The foods that are universally eaten in Kenya are ugali, sukuma wiki, and nyama choma. Sukuma wiki, a Swahili phrase which literally means “to push the week,” is a simple dish made with greens similar to kale or collards that can also be made with cassava leaves, sweet potato leaves, or pumpkin leaves. Its Swahili name comes from the fact that it is typically eaten to “get through the week” or “stretch the week.” Nyama choma is grilled meat – usually goat or sheep. It is grilled over an open fire. It is usually eaten with ugali and kachumbari.
- Maasai cuisine –
- Rwandan Cuisine – Is based on local staple foods produced by the traditional subsistence-level agriculture and has historically varied between the country’s different ethnic groups.
- South Sudanese Cuisine – Is based on grains (maize, sorghum). It uses yams, potatoes, vegetables, legumes (beans, lentil, peanuts), meat (goat, mutton, chicken and fish near the rivers and lakes), okra and fruit as well. Meat is boiled, grilled or dried.
- Tanzanian Cuisine – Is both unique and widely varied. Along the coastal regions (Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Bagamoyo, Zanzibar, and Pemba), spicy foods are common, and there is also much use of coconut milk. Regions in Tanzania’s mainland also have their own unique foods. Some typical mainland Tanzanian foods include rice (wali), ugali (maize porridge), chapati (a kind of bread), nyama choma (grilled meat), mshikaki (marinated beef), fish, pilau, biryani, and ndizi-nyama (plantains with meat). Commonly used vegetables include bamia (okra), mchicha (a kind of spinach), njegere (green peas), maharage (beans), and kisamvu (cassava leaves).
- Zanzibari Cuisine – Reflects several heterogeneous influences, as a consequence of the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of Zanzibar’s and Swahili heritage. It is a mixture of various culinary traditions, including Bantu, Arab, Portuguese, Indian, British and even Chinese cuisine.
- Ugandan Cuisine – Consists of traditional and modern cooking styles, practices, foods and dishes in Uganda, with English, Arab, and Asian (especially Indian) influences.