Food and Drink

From the fish stew of Tunisia to the dried caterpillars of the Congo, African foods and eating customs vary according to the resources available. Religion and local custom have also played a role in determining diet.

In many areas, traders and colonists from other continents introduced new foods and new ways of producing food.

Throughout Africa the way people live influences what they eat. The diets of a nomadic herder, a farmer, and a city dweller are likely to be different. Much of Africa's large agricultural population still grows, prepares, and consumes food in traditional ways. However, eating habits are changing as more people live in cities and imported and preserved foods become more widely available.


Most African diets are based on cereal grains or tubers. Because rainfall determines where these staple crops can be grown, climate affects what foods the people of a region eat. Grain is more common in drier regions, while tubers are the staples in humid and forested areas. Fruits and vegetables and some meat and dairy products add variety and supplement the nutritional value of grains and tubers.


The main element of most meals in sub-Saharan Africa is a starchy porridge made from tubers or cereal grains. This dish is accompanied by a soup or stew of cooked vegetables. If the household can afford meat or fish, the stew may contain pieces of these protein sources as well. Soups or stews tend to be cooked for a long time until they resemble thick sauces. They are often served over the starchy main dish.

Grains include millet, sorghum, and wheat. In ETHIOPIA a staple pancake-like bread called enjera is made from a grain called teff. Maize, or corn, is now cultivated in most parts of Africa. It was brought to the continent from the Americas in the 1500s, as were tomatoes, chili peppers, and cassava. A root that can be pounded into an edible paste or flour after it has been boiled, cassava has spread widely through Africa and is becoming an important staple in the diet. Plantains, which are similar to bananas, can also be processed into flour, although they are often eaten boiled or fried. People in North Africa and in the SAHEL eat couscous, a grain that is steamed until its texture resembles that of wellcooked rice.

Bread is a staple food of North Africa. Most loaves produced in the region are flat breads (such as pita), containing little or none of the leavening agent that makes bread rise. A flat bread called aysh, made with wheat bran, is found throughout EGYPT. In neighboring SUDAN, the staple food is kisra, a bread made from fermented millet or sorghum flour. Wheat bread is popular in LIBYA, along with bazin, a dough made from wheat flour and olive oil.

Vegetables and Fruits

Vegetables eaten in sub-Saharan Africa include okra, peppers, pumpkins, beans, eggplant, and edible leaves, such as those of the yam and cassava plants. Crushed peanuts may form the basis for a soup. The main cooking fats are peanut oil, palm oil from pressed palm nuts, sesame oil, and a butter made from shea nuts (the seeds of the shea tree). Salt and red pepper are used widely as seasonings.

North Africa shares many features of its diet with southern Europe and the Middle East, including olives and olive oil and fruits such as lemons and oranges. Dates and figs, which grow well in desert conditions, are central to the Libyan diet. Vegetables found in North African dishes include eggplant, onions, celery, spinach, sweet peppers, and zucchini. In Sudan, farmers grow pumpkins and melons. Legumes, a key source of protein when eaten with bread or rice, are a staple food throughout North Africa. Egyptians often eat ful mudammis, a paste of mashed fava beans that can serve as the basis for breakfast, lunch, or a snack. Kashary, a casserole of rice, lentils, and macaroni, is another typical dish.

Meat and Dairy Products

Many African farmers keep a few small animals, such as fowl or goats. Cattle cannot survive in rainforest areas because of disease carried by the tsetse fly, but milk and dairy products are part of the diet of cattle-herding peoples in other regions. In many societies, people do not routinely kill domestic animals other than fowl just for cooking. Instead, the animals are offered as sacrifices to gods or ancestors, and their meat is eaten as part of a ritual. Some areas still have large game such as antelope, which people hunt for food. Smaller animals such as monkeys, rodents, lizards, and snails are also food items. People who live near the ocean or along inland waterways eat various types of fish.

Lamb is popular in North Africa, although many people eat meat only for special meals. Dishes of the region include tajines, lamb, beef, or vegetable stews cooked in clay pots; fish stews in Tunisia; and pigeon pie in MOROCCO. North Africans make dairy products, including yogurt, from camel, sheep, goat, and sometimes cow milk. In the MAGHREB, herders occasionally eat camel meat. They also prepare gruel, or thin porridge, by mixing grain with butter or sour milk.

Food Preparation

In African households women play the key role in preparing and serving food. They tend gardens or gather vegetables, grasses, and fruits; they pound grain, tubers, and nuts into usable form; and they fetch water and firewood for cooking. Hunting is generally the responsibility of men, although both men and women may engage in fishing. In some cultures people of both genders own and tend flocks of domestic fowls. Young boys may be given responsibility for raising their own poultry.

Porridge, eaten throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is usually prepared by adding the pounded grain or tuber to boiling water and stirring frequently until it thickens. Other techniques used in African cooking include steaming in leaves, frying in oil, toasting or grilling over a fire, roasting, and baking in hot coals.

Africans use a variety of techniques to preserve food for future use. Farmers often keep crops such as cassava in the ground until needed to prevent spoilage. Fish is usually salted for long-term storage or transport, and meat is dried. People also dry some vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes and mango slices.


Africans prepare and consume a variety of beverages ranging from tea and fruit juices to beer and wine. Although Islam forbids its followers to drink alcohol, some largely Muslim nations produce beer and wine for use by the non-Muslim minority or for export.


Sub-Saharan Africa has an ancient tradition of making beer from fermented sorghum, millet, or corn. Brewing was usually a female activity because women were responsible for planting, weeding, and harvesting the grain crops. Although large-scale commercial breweries exist in many African countries, family brewing continues. Certain social interactions traditionally involve drinking and sharing beer. When neighbors lend a hand in harvesting someone's crops, they usually receive beer for their efforts.

In the forest zones the typical alcoholic beverage is palm wine, made from the fermented sap of certain kinds of palm trees. Unlike beer-making, tapping palm trees for sap and making the wine are male activities. Ethiopians make an alcoholic beverage from fermented honey and water. Africa's traditional alcoholic beverages were perishable and had to be consumed soon after being made. This fact shaped the development of African drinking customs. While many Europeans drank small amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, Africans tended to drink larger quantities from time to time. When a household invited neighbors and friends to share a newly made beer or wine, the guests would be expected to stay until everything was consumed.

European traders introduced distilled liquors such as rum, gin, brandy, and whiskey to Africa. Some cultures began using imported liquor in their rituals and at social events. Beginning in the mid-1800s, however, anti-alcohol movements led colonial governments to enact strict regulations on the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. The popularity of bottled beer has increased since the 1960s. Today, breweries are among the most profitable industries in Africa, and liquor taxes form an important part of some national incomes.

Nonalcoholic Beverages

In countries with a large Muslim population, tea (often flavored with sprigs of mint) is a staple beverage. In the Maghreb, people drink sweetened mint tea from small cups throughout the day. Coffee, water, and soft drinks are also popular. Beverages made from apricot and orange juice are served in North Africa, while South Africans enjoy mango and pineapple drinks. In SENEGAL people prepare buttermilk and a drink made from the fruit of the tamarind tree.


In all societies food is both a source of nutrition and a part of the culture. The customs that groups of people have for preparing and consuming food form an essential part of their shared tradition.

Social Behavior

Throughout Africa, learning the rules of eating and sharing food within the household is an important experience for young children. In strict Muslim families, and in many non-Muslim agricultural societies, it is customary for men and women to eat separately.

Sometimes there are three eating groups: one consisting of men and older boys; one of women and very young children; and a third of older children, supervised by an older sister. A group that eats together may share a large bowl of food, each person taking his or her food with the right hand. Men may get the choicest foods, such as a good piece of meat or fish. In some societies where polygamy exists, a man's wives take turns cooking meals for the entire household. Among other groups, each wife cooks separately for her own children and sends cooked food to the husband.

Food Taboos

Africans may avoid eating particular foods for a variety of reasons. Some groups consider certain foods taboo, or off-limits. This taboo may apply in special circumstances or on all occasions. For example, Muslims do not consume pork or alcohol. Nomadic livestock herders avoid fish out of scorn for the way of life in fishing communities. In some cultures women avoid vegetables when pregnant out of fear that the vegetables could harm unborn children. History sometimes plays a role in food taboos. A royal family in GHANA has refused to eat red pigeon, believing that a pigeon once helped an ancestor win a battle.

The Hunger Season

In some parts of Africa, such as northern Ghana, the hunger season—a period of food shortage—is a feature of agricultural life. It comes at the beginning of the rainy season, when supplies from the last harvest are getting low and the new harvest is not yet ready.

Households have long-established methods of coping with the hunger season. They may reduce the number of meals eaten in a day, serve smaller portions, or thin the food with water. When the food shortage lasts longer than usual, people turn to “hunger foods,” things generally eaten only as snacks or supplements, including peanuts, seed pods, mice, and wild fruits. At such times, normal customs of hospitality such as offering food and drink to guests are suspended. In desperate circumstances, families may resort to eating the seeds that were set aside for the next season's planting.


Africa has always been part of an international food exchange. Since ancient times salt mined in North Africa has been carried across the Sahara to be traded for gold. In some places the salt was worth its weight in gold. Caffeine-containing kola nuts from the forests of West Africa have long been traded throughout the Islamic world, where they are considered a socially acceptable stimulant. Although much of Africa's food is still produced and consumed at the local level of communities and households, imported and industrially produced foods are playing a growing role, especially in the cities.

Supplies, Distribution, and Marketing

Several systems of food distribution exist in Africa. Much of the urban food supply comes from networks of small farmers who sell their food to traders or purchasing agents. The agents sell the food in the large, colorful urban marketplaces. In towns and small cities, farmers from the surrounding region sell their crops directly in the marketplace. In rural areas most landowners produce some of their own staples, and people periodically set up roadside stands or small markets to sell food items.

Women play a large role in food processing and marketing, sometimes acquiring economic and political power through these activities. In western Africa, the term mama benz refers to a Mercedes-Benz automobile owned by a wealthy female trader. Food transport and long-distance trade, however, are often dominated by men.

Recent government policies have tended to favor large-scale agriculture over small farms, mainly because large landowners or agricultural industries have political connections. Large-scale farming is not always profitable, especially in places where the climate is unpredictable. Economic demand, however, has encouraged a trend toward replacing food crops for local use with cash crops—such as cotton, coffee, or cocoa—that are produced for export. The cultivation of export crops has forced many African countries that were once self-sufficient to import staple foods.

Changing Food Habits

Population growth has had two main effects on Africa's food habits. First, there are more mouths to be fed. Some countries have shifted from native crops such as millet and yams to cassava and maize, which produce more food per acre but are less nutritious. The result is that more people can be fed, but their diet is lower in quality. Supplies of ingredients such as meat and fish have also diminished.

The second effect of population growth is the growing demand for wood, which is the main fuel for cooking in most households. As the supply of wood declines, women must spend more time collecting wood—and perhaps change their methods of food preparation. In MALAWI, for example, people economizing on fuel have replaced legumes with vegetables. The vegetables require less cooking time but provide less protein.

Other changes in food habits are the result of urban growth. New food patterns often develop in cities. One trend is an increased demand for imported food such as canned meat and fish, powdered milk and milk products, and bottled beer and soft drinks. Another is greater individual freedom for food choices, including food consumed outside the household. One response to this new pattern is the development of street food—foods and beverages served ready to eat by vendors in streets and public places. Poor urban households may find it less expensive to purchase street food than to cook at home.

City dwellers generally enjoy a more varied diet than people who live in the country. They have access to an assortment of fruits and vegetables and more meat, and they are also exposed to foods from other cultures. But although new food habits and new kinds of food are constantly being incorporated into urban culture, the typical diet of city people remains basically the same as that of country folk. (See also Agriculture; Animals, Domestic; Fishing; Hunger and FamineHunting and Gathering.)