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Global Impact of African Influence in Our Favorite Cuisines

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How does Africa and the African diaspora influence how and what you eat? 

A large number of foods around the world are a product of Africa and the African Diaspora—the nearly 170 million people of African descent that live all over the world. The impact of Africa and the African diaspora can be found in the cultural traditions around the globe, including what we eat. Africa and the African diaspora are at the root of some of the most popular foods and dishes in the Americas, such as jambalaya, watermelon, yams, black eyed peas, coffee, gumbo, okra, and rice.

Africa is a diverse continent in landscape, people, food and flavors. The African continent is home to hundreds of different ethnic and social groups, but some similarities tie the different cuisines together. Meals tend to include grains, beans, fresh fruit and vegetables. Grain is a staple food in East and West Africa, while many in Central and South Africa eat a variety of different meats as the core of their diet. In East and West Africa, starches like fufu, made from root vegetables, and ugali made from corn meal are common staples. African spices vary by region, but hot peppers and chiles are common. Stews and one pot meals vary by region, but meat and vegetable stews are popular all over the continent.

African cultures have been making their culinary mark on the world through trade and migration, both voluntary and involuntary for centuries. Africans and the African diaspora spurred a culinary revolution that has impacted and continues to impact every aspect of cuisine in the Americas. The legacy of hot peppers, spices, black pepper, palm oil and other forms of seasoning are still present in dishes today. Produce like okra, black-eyed peas, rice, banana, watermelon and yams originated in African countries. 

While some dishes have evolved over time to adapt to their new country and available resources, many of the ingredients, spices, and cooking styles still call back to their African roots. For example, collard greens were adapted from the popular boiled greens dishes in Africa, such as callaloo from West Africa. What began as meat stew in West Africa became seafood or sausage based gumbo in Louisiana. These foods from Africa and the African Diaspora have grown from African roots and become the dishes you know and love today.    

Southern Soul Food

If you’ve ever been to the Southern United States, you have hopefully indulged in soul food. Savory favorites like gumbo, fried chicken, cornbread, macaroni & cheese, candied yams and collard greens are made to fill the belly and comfort the soul. 

Soul food cooking originated in the South where Africans made new recipes to preserve their African traditions with the resources available. These recipes have been passed down through many generations and are rooted in African traditions. The staples of soul food cooking include rice, okra, beans, greens, cornmeal, chicken and pork. There are significant similarities between African dishes and many of the most popular soul food recipes. Jambalaya is similar to jollof rice, a very popular and tasty West African rice dish. Hoppin’ John, made with black eye peas and rice is similar to Ghana’s waakye, and Senegal’s thiebou niebe. Boiled greens are a staple in soul food and it is evident it is rooted in Africa cooking tradition from Ethiopia’s gomen wat and Ghana’s kontomire stew. Okra is used in gumbo, which is derived from ki ngombo,  the Bantu word for okra. Okra is also commonly used in many African stews, soups and rice dishes across the continent. Southern barbeque is world famous and known for its smoky and spicy flavors. From South Africa’s braiis to East Africa’s mushkaki, smoking, salting and grilling meat and gathering as a family to enjoy and celebrate is an African tradition that is a part of the African diaspora’s cooking DNA.  Southern soul food is a part of the American food narrative and continues to be a connection to Africa for the African diaspora that is shared with friends and family with each meal.


Caribbean Food

Caribbean food is known for its distinct flavors, spices and ingredients. Caribbean food is unique by island and influenced by Europe and Asia. The Africa and African diaspora influence is prevalent as African traditions have been passed down to the over 40 million descendants that live in the Caribbean. About 5 million African slaves were taken to the Caribbean. The Africans introduced okra, callaloo, pigeon peas, plantains, fish cakes, ackee, taro, breadfruit, pudding, and mangos to the Caribbean menu. African foods were combined with staple foods found on the islands to develop some of our Caribbean favorites. Most Caribbean locals eat a diet today that includes many of the same ingredients of the original dishes created by their African ancestors, that includes cassava, sweet potato, yams, plantain, bananas and cornmeal.

While native to Africa, callaloo is a popular Caribbean food. Most islands have their own version of callaloo. This delicious and nutritious vegetable is similar in texture and taste to spinach. Its typically steamed or boiled and eaten with soup or chicken. Rice was imported to the Caribbean from Africa and used in popular dishes, such as rice and peas. Rice and peas is similar to waakye, a traditional dish from the Akan tribe in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Curried goat is a popular dish that is similar to many meat stews in Africa. Suya, an African shish kebab of roasted meat that is popular in West and South Africa is similar to many grilled and roasted meat dishes  found throughout the Caribbean. Plantains are loved all over the Caribbean, either fried, as chips or roasted.  Plantains are also popular throughout Africa and some countries, such as Ghana prefer it kelewele (spicy).

Jamaica is known for several dishes that have African roots.  Ackee and saltfish is a very popular dish and ackee is native to West Africa. Jerk chicken and pork are also popular Caribbean dishes that are craved all over the world. Jerk cooking originated in Jamaica, developed by the Maroon slaves by combining African and native cooking traditions and spices. The meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with Jamaican jerk spice, a hot spice mixture that includes all-spice and scotch bonnet peppers. 

Africa and the African diaspora has made a tremendous impact on the flavors, spices and food that we eat every day. As Africa and the African diaspora expand its reach and influence,  the world’s plates will continue to become more colorful, spicy and diverse like an African gumbo or stew.

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