East vs West: exploring the dishes and flavours of East Africa

West African food has long been mooted as a key industry trend of the future, but what about the cuisine of countries from the eastern part of the continent?

17 March 2020
africangrainsindianmeatmiddle eastern
image credit: Glen Pearson/ Getty Images

West African food has been highlighted as an emerging trend for a few years now. Back in 2017, Food Spark wrote one of its first articles on the cuisine when it covered the opening of Ikoyi – a central London restaurant which focuses on the flavours of sub-Saharan West Africa. Ikoyi now also has a Michelin star to its name.

This opening was later followed by reports from two major supermarkets – one from Waitrose and one from Whole Foods - which both selected the region as one of their top 10 trends to look out for in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

However, while countries such as Nigeria and Mali have slowly obtained mainstream recognition in the food world, cuisine from the other side of the African continent hasn’t gained anywhere near the same traction. This is also demonstrated by the relative scarcity of East African restaurants in the UK’s capital city which has for so long welcomed restaurants serving authentic food from across the globe.

Yet there are now whispers that dishes from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania, for example, could soon be on the ascendency too, with East Africa recently being highlighted at the HRC event in London as one of the main cuisines to watch out for in the next few years. “The bits of East African cuisine that we have seen are a few and far between but they have always been positive,” Sparkie claims.

Dish with a difference

For a continent spanning 11.7 million square miles, there are unsurprisingly many differences between West and East African cuisine. Notably, while the West - despite its own culinary differences between nations - is more often lumped into a single category, East Africa is usually broken down by individual countries. And these are now arguably ripe for further culinary exploration and modernisation.

Much of the reasoning behind this stems from the colonisation of the continent by European powers in 19th and 20th centuries. And those countries which were colonised for a particularly long period of time (such as Kenya and Tanzania) often demonstrate the biggest impact on their food through the varying cooking techniques, flavours and ingredients on display.

“For instance, frying fish is much more a British custom than an Italian practice,” says Davide Ghetaceu, owner of East African street food trader Tibs Canteen.

“In Eritrea, the Italians were in the country for over 50 years, which has led to some form of cultural adoption,” he adds. “As a result, Eritreans use much more tomato in their dishes compared to their neighbours in Ethiopia because of the Italian influence.”

Sparkie claims he is also seeing Eritrean cuisine being tied in with Italian food more and more. “I remember discussing how it could be popularised through the tie-in with Italian cuisine, which I think is a nice way to go about it really,” he says. “With Africa being highly colonised, there will be aspects of each individual countries cuisine that is similar to things we are familiar with.”

On the menu

Despite the disparate nature of East African cuisine, most countries (particularly in the Horn of Africa) do often share some similarities which further distinguish the food from that of nations on the other side of the continent next to the North and South Atlantic Ocean. Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example, also share a lot of cultural similarity because they used to be a single nation until 1992 when a referendum split the country.

In short, West African food tends to feature an abundance of rice and fish, as well as incorporating more sweet and sour spices. In comparison, East African dishes often include more grains, slow-cooked stews and curries, taking inspiration not only from former colonial powers but also from the spices of the Middle East and India to the north east.

Ugali east africa
image credit: Jacek_Sopotnicki/ Getty Images

So, what’s on the menu? In Tanzania, the country is more influenced by the flavours of India due to the migration of Indians to the country since the 19th century. This means curry dishes are extremely prevalent, while ugali (a dough made from maize, cassava, sorghum or mille) is often referred to as being the country's national dish. Ugali is also a staple dish in neighbouring Kenya.

To the north, one of the most popular items found in dishes from Ethiopia and Eritrea is inerja. The fermented flatbread is usually made of teff flour (a grain found at high altitudes in Ethiopia and parts of North Africa) and used as the case of a dish or as a sort of cutlery to scoop up stews. These are often flavoured by berbere – a spice mix consisting chilli, ginger, fenugreek and peppercorns, plus lesser-known spices and local herbs.

And according to Ghetaceu, it’s these latter dishes which have the biggest chance of success in the UK. “Ethiopian make small wraps with their hands and eat them in this way,” he says. “We tend to sell our dishes in a street fusion style with a small piece of injera bread at the bottom, adding some brown rice and a selection of stews.

“With the right combination of spice and dishes Ethiopian food demand can certainly grow in the near future,” Ghetaceu concludes.

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