In Hottest Africa: Part 1, North and West

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by Dave DeWitt

Recipes: Harissa Sauce; Nigerian Coconut Curry Soup; Tajine of Chicken with Lemons and Olives; Pepper-Peanut Kabobs

The cooking of the African continent reflects the influences of its explorers, its conquerors, and its traders. Such is the history of chiles in Africa, which were unknown before 1500 but conquered a continent in less than half a century. The Africans embraced the imported Capsicums with a fervor unmatched except, perhaps, by the people of India and Mexico. As African food expert Laurens van der Post observed, “The person who has once acquired a taste in the tropics for African chiles becomes an addict.”

There are dozens, if not hundreds of names for the pungent pods of Africa. The Portugeuse there call the chile pimento, the English refer to it as chilli, the Arabic words for it are shatta and felfel, and the French word for chile is piment. The Swahili words for chile are pili-pili, piri-piri, and peri-peri, which are regional variations referring to both chiles and dishes made with particularly pungent pods. Tribal names vary greatly: chile is mano in Liberia, barkono in northern Nigeria, ata in southern Nigeria, sakaipilo in Madagascar, pujei in Sierra Leone, foronto in Senegal, and the ominous fatalii in Central African Republic.

Spice-Laden North Africa

Since the Arabic countries north of the Sahara are linked culturally, economically, and gastronomically more closely with the Mediterranean region than with the rest of Africa, there is little doubt that chiles first appeared in North Africa. In the first place, the Strait of Gibraltar separates the Iberian Peninsula and north Africa by only a few miles, so it is a logical assumption that chiles would filter southward from Cadiz to Tangier by at least the early 1500s. In the second place, the Turks completed their conquest of North Africa in 1556, and since they had already introduced chiles into Hungary, it makes sense that they also carried them to Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya.

The first chiles to appear in North Africa were probably small, extremely hot annuums closely related to cayennes, which were and still are used mostly in the dried red pod form or are ground into powders. By examining the chile recipes that exist today, we can taste dishes that are centuries older because the cuisines of North Africa have hardly changed at all. Morocco and Tunisia are the largest producers of chiles in North Africa, followed by Sudan, which sells its chiles to Egypt.

Load of Chiles Arrives at the Market, Nabeul, Tunisia


A complex and powerful spice compound is the chile-based harissa, of Tunisian origin but found all over North Africa. Harissa is a paste featuring red chiles for heat and color and curry spices such as cinnamon, coriander, and cumin for flavor. It is used in the kitchen and at the table to fire up soups, stews, and less spicy curries. Harissa Sauce is a classic North African condiment, which combines cayenne or other dried red chiles with cumin, cinnamon, coriander, and carraway. It is extremely hot and is used as a condiment, a marinade, a basting sauce, and as a salad dressing. Harissa is often served on the side as a dipping sauce for grilled meats such as kebabs and is also served with couscous.

The most famous North African chile dishes, served from Morocco to Egypt, are called tajines, and they are named after the earthenware tajine pot in which they are cooked. Just about any meat–chicken, pigeons, mutton, beef, goat, and even camel–can made into a tajine with the exception of pork. The meat is usually cubed, and, according to Harva Hatchen: “The cooking liquid is the secret of a tajine’s tastiness. This is usually a combination of water and butter or oil (characteristically, olive oil) and seasonings to suit what’s being cooked.” The long cooking time allows the ingredients to become very tender, and the cooking liquid to reduce to a thick, savory sauce.

In Morocco, couscous is king, a “national dish.” As kings are likely to do, it has invaded the rest of North Africa also. In most servings, it not only has its own chiles, but is “married” to Harissa Sauce; that is, they are inseparable. The name of the dish is onomatopoeic, meaning that it emulates the sound the steam makes as the grains of semolina cook.

Another Moroccan specialty is Lamb and Cayenne Kefta, which combines those two ingredients with a bewildering array of spices such as mint, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom. nutmeg, and cumin. North African stews–and the earthenware pots they are cooked in–are called tajines.
We do not usually think of salads as being spicy, but they are in Tunisia. Salata Mechouia is an unusual salad utilizing small green chiles, bells, tomatoes, and garlic, which are grilled and then crushed together.

African Bird Peppers

Although chiles probably appeared first in North Africa, they did not spread into the rest of Africa from that region but rather were brought by Portuguese explorers and traders. Even before Columbus, Portuguese exploration of Africa had proceeded down the west coast of the continent between 1460 and 1488. When Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean, and landed in India in 1498, he established the trade route for spices and other goods that the Portuguese controlled for over a century.

African Grey Parrot with Chiles, by Cyd Riley


By 1482, the Portuguese had settled the western “Gold Coast” of Africa, and by 1505 they had colonized Mozambique on the east coast. By 1510 they had seized Goa in India and had established a colony there. During this time, it is suspected chile peppers were introduced by way of trade routes between Lisbon and the New World. By 1508, Portuguese colonization of the Pernambuco region of Brazil meant that both the annuum and chinense chiles prevalent there were made available for importation into Africa. The introduction of sugar cane into Brazil in the 1530s and the need for cheap labor was a cause of the trade in slaves, and an active passage of trade goods between Brazil and Africa sprang up.

The most likely scenario for the introduction and spread of chile peppers into Africa south of the Sahara is as follows. Varieties of Capsicum annuum and chinese were introduced into all West and East African Portuguese ports during the 40 years between 1493 and 1533, with the introduction into West Africa logically preceding that of East Africa. The chiles were first grown in small garden plots in coastal towns by the Portuguese settlers and later by the Africans. Although it is has been suggested that chiles were spread throughout Africa by Europeans during their search for new slaves, the simplest answer is the best.

The Portuguese may have been responsible for the introduction of chiles into Africa, but spreading them was for the birds. History–and evolution–repeated themselves. Precisely in the same manner that prehistoric chiles spread north from South to Central America, chiles conquered Africa.

African birds fell in love with chile peppers. Attracted to the brightly-colored pods, many species of African birds raided the small garden plots and then flew further inland, spreading the seeds and returning the chiles to the wild. Chiles thus became what botanists call a subspontaneous crop–newly established outside of their usual habitat, and only involuntarily spread by man.

From West Africa, birds moved the peppers steadily east, and at some time chiles either reached the coast of East Africa or met the advance of bird-spread chiles from Mozambique and Mombasa. They also spread chiles south to the Cape of Good Hope. We must remember that these chiles were being spread by birds centuries before the interior of Africa was explored by Europeans. So when the early explorers encountered chiles, it was only natural for them to consider the pods to be native to Africa.

In much of Africa today, chiles are tolerated weeds. Birds deposit the seeds in peanut or cotton fields, and the plants that sprout are cultivated by the farmers, only in the sense that they do not chop them down. The chiles become associated with the cotton or peanut crops and thrive from the maintenance of those fields. The chile plants are perennial and ripen year-round in the tropical regions. They are expensive to hand-pick, yet have become an important wild-harvested crop in some regions. In some countries, as we shall see, chiles are an important cultivated commercial crop.

West Africa: Magic and Medicine

The German explorer G. Schweinfurth reported that the natives of West Africa concocted a magic potion from wild chiles which ensured eternal youth! Other explorers observed that chiles were used to spice up dried locusts, which were considered a tasty snack in some parts of Africa. In 1871, when the American Henry Stanley finally found the “lost” David Livingstone, he discovered that the Scottish explorer had lived on meat and gravy seasoned with wild chiles. Livingstone also told him that the native women would sometimes bathe in water to which chile powder had been added in order to increase their attractiveness.

Pierre de Schlippe, a Senior Research officer at the Yambio Experimental Station in the Congo, reported in 1956 that chiles had become the most important cash crop after cotton in the Zande district with, as he put it, “very little encouragement and no supervision whatsoever.” When he asked a Zande tribesman whether he preferred chiles to cotton as a cash crop, the farmer replied, “Do the birds sow my cotton?” De Schlippe noted in his book on the Zande system of agriculture that the tribesman was suggesting that one should never do for oneself what others will do. “It is safe to assume that chiles as a cash crop had no influence on agricultural practice whatever,” wrote De Schlippe.

During the early days of chile production in Nigeria, chiles were grown in patches near houses and as field crops under the shade of locust bean trees. They were planted in late May, and the chiles were ripe and ready for picking by November. One source reported that soon after Nigerian farmers began planting chiles, they were getting a four to eight thousand pound yield per acre and, as early as 1938, were exporting 100 tons a year.

Today, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are major producers of many varieties, including the moderately pungent funtua chile. In Nigeria, approximately 150,000 acres are under cultivation of chiles of all varieties, making it the largest producer of chiles in Africa, accounting for about fifty percent of all production. Most of the chile is consumed domestically, although some is exported to the United Kingdom.

As might be expected, the food of Nigeria is distinguished by an extra infusion of hot chiles. As Ellen Wilson, author of A West African Cookbook, has observed: “Learning to eat West African food means learning to enjoy [chile] pepper.” She added: “West African dishes can be searing or simply warm, but it is noticeable that the [chile] pepper never conceals the other ingredients; in fact, it seems to enhance them.”

Curry Ingredients in a West African Market


Curries are particularly popular in Nigeria, and one of their distinguishing characteristics is that they are served with an inordinate number of accompaniments. In addition to the usual chutneys and raisins and shredded coconuts, the Nigerians offer as many as twenty-five condiments, including chopped dates, diced cucumber, diced citrus fruits, ground dried shrimp, diced mangoes and papayas, peanuts, grapes, fried onions, chopped fresh red chiles, and bananas.

“Nigerians and old African hands,” noted Harva Hatchen, “spoon out a portion of everything so their plates become a mound of curry and rice completely hidden by a patchwork of color and tastes.”

Approximately ninety-one percent of the agricultural households in Liberia grow hot peppers, as most of the main dishes of the country contain them. Fresh peppers are marketed, but the pods are also ground into powders and made into hot pepper sauce. Most of the varieties grown are local cultivars, but the jalapeno and yatasufusa, a Japanese variety, are also grown. There is no export of chiles from Liberia as the entire crop is consumed locally.

In addition to their heavy application in foods, chiles have medicinal uses in West Africa. Fresh green and red pods are eaten whole as a cold remedy, undoubtedly to clear out the sinus caviites. In 1956, L. Stevenel, a French Army officer, noted an interesting medicinal usage of chiles in Africa. Writing in The Bulletin of the Society of Exotic Pathology, Stevenel attributed the absence of varicose veins and hemorrhoids in the natives to the constant use of red chile in their diets. “Native workers on the railroad always carry a supply with them and consider them as a panacea necessary for good health,” he wrote. Stevenel claimed that he had cured his own hemorrhoid problem and that of his fellow officers by adding red chile pulp to their food. The cure worked quickly–in a matter of days–but only with red chiles; green chiles were ineffective. Althout Stevenel did not state why red chiles worked and green did not, we suspect the reason could be connectect with the high concentration of vitamin A in red chiles.

Harissa Sauce

This sauce is thought to be of Tunisian origin, but is found throughout all of North Africa. It is used to flavor couscous and grilled dishes such as brochettes, and also as a relish with salads. The sauce reflects the region’s love of spicy combinations all with a definite cumin taste. Cover this sauce with a thin film of olive oil and it will keep up to a couple of months in the refrigerator.

10 dried whole red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 Tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground caraway

Cover the chiles with hot water and let them sit for 15 minutes until they soften.
Place the chiles and remaining ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth using the chile water to thin it. The sauce should have the consistency of a thick paste.

Yield: 1 and 1/2 cups
Heat Scale: Hot


Nigerian Coconut Curry Soup

Although coconuts do not play much of a role in South African curries, they do in curry dishes from other parts of the continent. This curried coconut soup can be turned into a meal by the addition of cooked chicken or pumpkin.

1 quart coconut milk (not sweetened coconut cream)
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Yogurt, toasted coconut, and chopped cilantro for garnish

Combine the coconut milk, curry powder, cayenne, and chicken stock in a pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Mix the cornstarch with a little water to form a paste and slowly stir the paste into the soup until it thickens. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat, top with a dollop of yogurt, and sprinkle with the coconut and cilantro.

Yield: 4 to 6
Heat Scale: Medium


Tajine of Chicken with Lemons and Olives

This dish is probably Morocco’s most ubiquitous. However, no matter how often you eat it, you never tire of it, as all chefs put a personal stamp on their individual creations.

1 3-pound chicken fryer, cut in serving pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground New Mexican red chile
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tomato, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
2 lemons, quartered
1 14-ounce jar green olives (not stuffed), drained

In a large skillet, quickly brown the chicken in the oil. Add the ginger, chile, turmeric, cumin, parsley, onion, tomato, garlic, lemon juice and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the chicken is tender, about 1 1/2 hours, turning the chicken frequently.
Remove the chicken from the sauce and keep it warm. When ready to serve, return the chicken to the pan, add the lemon quarters and the olives and simmer for 10 minutes.
Serve on a plate or in a traditionally-made tajine with flat pita-type bread.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Pepper-Peanut Kabobs

The combination of two ingredients native to tropical America, peppers and peanuts, occurs again in these kabobs. In Nigeria, where they are served hot off the grill, they are very hot. These hot kabobs are eaten as a snack or appetizer. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

1-1/2 pounds beef, cut in 1-1/2 inch to 2 inch cubes
12 ounces beer
2/3 cup crushed dried red chile, seeds included
1-1/2 cups crushed peanuts Marinate the beef in the beer for 3 to 4 hours.

Roll the beef cubes in a mixture of the peanuts and chile until they are completely covered. Put the cubes on skewers and grill over charcoal until done.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Hot

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