I have defined Central Africa as containing the countries of Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. This region is home to some of the poorest and hungriest nations of the world, with the Central African Republic being the hungriest on the globe, so, while their cuisine holds delicious recipes, culture, and value, just the same as the rest of the world, I want to talk a bit about potential solutions to their plight, and in particular about genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) get a bad wrap from a lot of (ill-informed) modern media, but let me reassure you, as a PhD-carrying biologist, they are one of the most powerful tools that could ameliorate world hunger. I have personally modified the genetics of organisms, and of course you could introduce genes that produced substances that were dangerous to humans if you wanted to, or you could introduce genes that made a little more of a substance that the organism already makes, or you could introduce genes that made a substance that the organism doesn’t usually make, but is perfectly safe for humans. The fact that a plant is GMO does not mean anything about its inherent danger to humans or the environment; it just has a new gene/genes added, and genes are in every single thing we eat. For example, you could put a gene from an apple into a tomato to make it sweeter, and you would be eating the same genes as you do when you eat an apple, but just in your tomato instead. Not so scary, right? The safety and environmental impact of GMOs therefore need to be assessed on a case by case basis, and, of course, scientists are very careful about what they are changing the plants to make – and usually they are important substances that could do great good in the world. Golden rice, for instance, is a GMO crop that has been altered to produce extra beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A, and which has been trialled across Asia since the early 2000s. Vitamin A deficiency is a debilitating aspect of malnutrition, and is estimated to lead to over half a million child deaths per year, as well as many more cases of irreversible childhood blindness. A banana carrying extra beta-carotene has been in development for some years now, and it is hoped it can soon be introduced to Africa, where non-GMO bananas are already a staple crop, to combat vitamin A deficiency there. There is also the potential of introducing other substances into GMO bananas, such as medicines and vaccines that could help ease the burden of disease in Africa. It was recently estimated that GMOs could help feed over 800 million malnourished people across the globe; however, public misinformation and negative attitudes are likely delaying the progress of GMOs to aid world famine. So, that’s what I think of when considering food in this part of Africa: long-term strategies for alleviating hunger. Apart from that, Central Africa is a relatively traditional culinary area, with some influences from Portuguese, Spanish and French colonists over the centuries. Plantains, cassava and rice serve as important starchy staples, in addition to native leafy vegetables, peanuts and domesticated and wild meat and fish.
Smoked fish with cachupa and rice
Smoked fish is common in Africa wherever there is fish to be found, as the smoking process needs little special equipment, and smoking is an effective preservative to make the most of bountiful catches, particularly given the short shelf-life of seafood. There are millennia-old Egyptian hieroglyphs describing methods of fish preservation, so it has clearly been an important technique for some time. Indeed, it is estimated that up to 80% of domestic fish caught in Africa today is consumed after being smoked. Smoking delivers a huge variety of compounds to the fish, including phenols and aldehydes that, in addition to imparting flavour, have bactericidal properties that increase the length of time the fish can be kept before being consumed safely. Cachupa is a mixed stew popular in Sāo Tomé and Príncipe, although thought to originate in the Cape Verde islands, often including a variety of beans, corn, and root vegetables such as cassava or sweet potato. If your budget is looking a little stretched at present, you can leave the stew as is, labelling it “cachupa pobre” (poor cachupa), or if you are feeling lavish, you could dress it up into “cachupa rica” by adding meats such as fish or smoked sausage. Altogether this was a healthy and delicious meal and exactly the sort of thing I like to eat when I’m not engaged in a years-long insane cooking challenge!
Ndolé is a dish from Cameroon, made with pureed onions, garlic, ginger and peanuts, combined with leaves of native leafy greens, such as bitterleaves (called ndolé). This base can be flavoured with various combinations of meat, such as dried crayfish, stewing beef and shrimp. Ndolé is thought to arise from an ethnic group called the Duala, who live on the coast of Cameroon around the city of Douala. This port city was much influenced by Portuguese and Dutch traders, who apparently noticed the abundance of shrimp, as the name “Cameroon” is a derivation of the Portuguese for prawn. I didn’t have access to the native ndolé leaves to make my stew, so substituted with spinach instead. This is a shame, because the plant is apparently quite the panacea in Africa, and is said to alleviate maladies associated with malaria, hepatitis, dysentery and intestinal worms. Even chimpanzees have been documented using the medicinal properties of ndolé, where sick chimps with high levels of nematode infections eat the plant at a much higher rate than healthy chimps. Following this observation, a number of chemical compounds in ndolé were identified by scientists that act against such intestinal parasites, and it was confirmed by science to be an effective medicine. I’m sure African grandmothers would all roll their eyes upon hearing that fact, muttering “I could have told them that for free, and spared them the trouble!”.
Kanda ti nyma
The first known recorded meatball recipe was in an ancient Roman cookbook by Apicius called “De re coquinaria”, with the suggested meat being peacock. Certainly, however, meatballs sprang up prior to that, probably in many cultures independently of one another, and this meal is Central Africa’s turn at the concept. A different variation of meatballs (kanda), combine beef with huge amounts of pumpkin seeds, but here I’ve made kanda ti nyma, consisting of beef meatballs cooked in a peanut-based stew. The dish hails from the Central African Republic, which, as I’ve already mentioned, is one of the poorest and hungriest places in the world, as well as one of the lowest ranking in the Human Development Index. Many recipes therefore explicitly mention that this dish would often not be salted at all, given that most families would not usually be able to afford salt, and it can therefore taste a little bland to some palates. I cheated and salted mine as I normally would, and found the combination of meat and peanuts deliciously savoury, especially spooned over fluffy white rice.
Muamba de galinha
Muamba/moamba de galinha (chicken in palm sauce) is Angola’s national dish, and is a stew made with chicken, root vegetables, okra and tomato, flavoured with garlic, onion, chillies and herbs. It is traditionally made with palm oil, although it’s difficult to obtain in an ecologically sustainable manner, and indeed not available where I live at all, so I substituted peanut oil. Archaeologists have identified residues of palm oil inside the pottery residing in ancient Pharaoh tombs, showing that it has been a popular staple on the African continent for some time now. The addition of palm oil certainly seems to impart a special property to muamba de galinha, as it made 10th place in the 2011 CNN list of the world’s most delicious foods. I served the chicken of my stew separately to the soupy vegetables, because I like frying off the chicken at the end to make the skin a little firmer. I thought that the meal was delicious, especially with the addition of my ever-beloved fried plantains, but perhaps not within the top 10 dishes of the world? Possibly the addition of palm oil makes all the difference – I will need to try the real deal one day!