10 foods to try on an African safari
Most people visit eastern and southern Africa to see the incredible wildlife, but this vast region also offers an array of unique culinary experiences. Here, depending on which country you visit, are a few local foods you might want to try.
The main staple throughout eastern and southern Africa, ugali is a stiff white porridge whose regional ubiquity has led to its inclusion on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Also known regionally as posho, mealiepap, and sima, it is made from maize meal, which is boiled in water or milk until stiff, and eaten by hand with simple meat or vegetable stew. The equivalent in Uganda, Rwanda, and parts of western Tanzania is a boiled plantain dish called matoke or batoke.
Where to try ugali: Almost every local restaurant in eastern or southern Africa will serve ugali by default under one or another name. On safari, if you ask the chef at your lodge or camp to prepare it, they’ll almost certainly do so with great enthusiasm.
One of Africa’s best traveled culinary exports, galinha piri-piri consists of a butterfly-cut whole baby chicken smothered with a piquant chili, garlic, and lemon marinade then flame-grilled on hot coals. Practically the national dish of Mozambique, it is equally popular in South Africa and has made itself known worldwide through the popular Nando’s franchise.
Where to try piri-piri chicken: Nando’s does a good job, but nothing beats the tangy like-mama-used-to-make-it piri-piri chicken served at owner-managed Mozambican restaurants such as Cape Town’s Toni’s on Kloof, Johannesburg’s Madeira & Del Sol, or the aptly-named Piri-Piri in the Mozambican capital Maputo.
Melktert and malva pudding
Of Cape Dutch origin, melktert (milk tart) is a cheesecake-like pie with a flaky pastry base and cinnamon-flavored custard-like topping, while malva pudding is a sticky, spongy cake flavored with apricot jam and served hot from the oven.
Where to try melktert and malva pudding: Many game lodges and camps in eastern southern Africa serve malva pudding as a dessert, while melktert is something of a coffee shop and tearoom special, especially in South Africa.
South Africans love to braai. Superficially, this popular outdoor pastime isn’t much different from a barbecue elsewhere in the world, but here it takes on a unique ritual significance, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in Afrikaans-speaking communities. Expect one or all of steak, chicken, lamb chops, or sosaties (kebabs), liberally dosed in spice or marinade, as well as a generous roll of boerewors (‘farmers sausage’) and crusty, buttery garlic bread.
Where to try a braai: If you are self-catering, you can do it yourself of course, but many safari camps and lodges in eastern and southern Africa treat guests to a braai every few nights.
People associate curries with Asia, but several variants are available in Africa. On the coast of East Africa, Swahili-style curry has a distinctive flavor due to the liberal use of coconut milk, while Malay curries in South Africa are sweetened with apricots, raisins, and/or sultanas. The existence of established Indian communities in many African cities has led to a liberal scattering of restaurants serving more familiar Indian curries. A cheap dish unique to the South African port of Durban is bunny chow, which comprises a hollowed-out half-bread loaf filled to the brim with a hot curry.
Where to try African curries: Curry-style dishes are pretty widespread and easy to find in most parts of Africa. Try Cape Town’s Biesmiellah for Malay, Zanzibar’s House of Spices for Swahili, or Durban’s The Curry O’s for bunny chow.
A pun on the phrase ‘rolled eggs’, the rolex is a popular Uganda street food that consists of an omelet wrapped up and rolled inside a roti-like chapati flatbread. In its original form, the Rolex might also incorporate a few simple chopped vegetables, but in recent years it has developed an almost cultlike status in Uganda, and gourmet rolex outlets now offer a range of fillings comparable to those associated with burgers or pizzas.
Where to try a rolex: On practically any street corner in almost any town in Uganda. For the gourmet, treatment try The Rolex Joint in the city of Jinja. And if you’re really serious about your rolexes, make sure you time your visit to coincide with the annual Rolex Festival in Kampala.
Several varieties of deep-fried doughballs are made in Africa. The triangular mandazi is a popular street snack throughout East Africa, and delicious when fresh, but rather cardboard-like when not. A southern African equivalent is the koeksister, a plaited pair of syrup-infused dough strips that are fried until golden-brown on the outside and soft and sticky inside.
Where to try an African donut: The best place to try mandazi is on the street or in a market, where local women deep-fry them freshly in front of your eyes.
Ethiopia boasts the most distinctive cuisine in sub-Saharan Africa. The national staple is injera, a huge sourdough pancake made from a unique fiber-rich grain called tef. Usually eaten by hand, injera might be accompanied by fiery red meat or vegetarian stew called kai wat, a fried meat dish called siga tibs, or (for the truly fearless) a raw minced beef dish known as kitfo. Ethiopian cuisine is particularly attractive to spice fiends, while vegan dishes such as chickpea-based shiro tegamino and lentil-based misr wot cater to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s taboo on the consumption of animal products on so-called fasting days.
Where to try Ethiopian cuisine: Literally anywhere in Ethiopia, but also at Ethiopian-run restaurants such as Arusha’s Spices & Herbs, Zanzibar’s Abyssinian Maritim, Nairobi’s Habesha, Kigali’s Lalibela, and Cape Town’s Addis in Cape.
A Cape Malay dish that’s now popular throughout southern Africa, bobotie is reminiscent of cottage pie, comprising as it does a mincemeat base topped with an eggy sauce that crusts over when baked. As with many Cape Malay dishes, a combination of curry powder and raisins or sultanas creates a flavor both sweet and spicy.
Where to try bobotie: No better place than Biesmiellah, a traditional restaurant set in the Bo-Kaap, the colorful historic home to Cape Town’s Malay community.
Nyama Choma – literally ‘meat grilled’ – is the East African equivalent of a braai, and like its southern counterpart, it’s a social activity as much as a culinary one. All over Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, you’ll find small low-key nyama choma joints where locals chill and chat over a few after-work beers. Other than the beers, they will have a plate of flame-grilled mishkaki (spicy beef kebabs), Kuku (chicken) or samaki (fish – usually whole tilapia) along with sides of chips and a tomato, onion and chili salad called kachumbari.
Where to try nyama choma: Great post- or pre-safari nyama choma joints include Njuguna’s Place (Nairobi), Uzunguni City Park (Arusha), and Kuonana African Restaurant (Moshi)