In 2012, a team of archaeologists working in the Northern Cape province of South Africa made a thrilling discovery inside the Wonderwork Cave—one-million-year-old ash. Further study of this ash uncovered leaf and twig fragments, as well as traces of burnt animal bones. It might be hard to believe, but this discovery is considered to be a significant step in understanding human evolution.
Why? Well, scientists believe this is the earliest example of our human ancestors cooking their food. So as far as we know, the first barbeque—and perhaps the first ever cooked meal —was served in Africa.
African cuisine is equal parts diverse and delicious—with emphasis placed on local ingredients and traditional meals passed down through generations. As the second-largest continent on Earth, Africa is home to distinct cultures and cooking styles, many of which you’ll experience as you travel with us.
Whether you branch out on a culinary adventure of your own, or join us on a food and wine focused shore excursion, consider this guide to African cuisine as an appetizer before the main course!
A Continent Full of Surprises
Far too often, African cuisine is overlooked on the world stage, which is why travelers are sometimes surprised by the diversity of cooking styles and preparation techniques found across the continent. Because there is such an emphasis placed on local ingredients, you’ll find interesting variations on dishes at every port you visit. In some cases, the base recipe may stay the same, but the selection of region-specific ingredients always puts a fresh spin on your meal.
Dining in West Africa
West African cuisine benefits equally from Moorish and Mediterranean influence spread across the 16 countries that comprise the region. While dishes vary greatly, many often share the same ingredients, most notably chili peppers. Not only do these add a kick to your meal, they also cause you to sweat, which acts like a built-in air conditioner—cooling your body in the hot weather. This is essential for people who call this part of the world home.
In Morocco, European and Middle Eastern influence is reflected in the colorful culinary creations you’ll find when you visit. One thing you’ll notice immediately is that Moroccans rarely use cutlery when dining. Instead, locals favor using khübz bread to scoop their food, as well as sop up the juices and sauces accompanying a meal. When eating your food, make sure to use your right hand, and use your left hand to pass dishes around.
Lunch is the most important meal of the day in Morocco, and a favorite midday dish among locals is couscous. No, this is not the same as the couscous you’ve seen in the grocery store at home. Moroccans love to steam this hand-rolled pasta with flavorful broths and serve it with hearty vegetables and spiced meats. Our favorite couscous dish is served at La Sqala in Casablanca, where you can enjoy a meal alongside a view from impressive floor-to-ceiling windows. Be sure to order a pot of mint tea to go with your meal and get the authentic lunch experience.
When you travel with us to Morocco, you can savor a taste of local life, literally! Join us on our Moroccan Cooking Class excursion for a hands-on lesson that will take you from the stalls of the bustling El Had Souk to a kitchen where you’ll learn the secret to cooking authentic Moroccan cuisine. Or, travel to a local farm to learn more about agricultural life in Morocco before settling down for a special farm-to-table breakfast.
Further down the coast, you’ll find yourself in The Gambia. This is the smallest country in Africa, but it boasts some big flavors. One of the most popular dishes in The Gambia is Benachin—a hodgepodge of seasoned meats and vegetables in a tomato-based sauce cooked in a single pot with white rice or couscous. Preparing this meal in one pot is essential. In fact, Benachin translates to “one pot.”
While visiting, also try Domoda—The Gambia’s national dish and a popular meal amongst locals. A peanut-based stew, Domoda consists of hearty vegetables and meats served in a flavorful sauce. Typically, Domoda is served on a bed of rice, and makes for a very filling meal at any time of day.
The Gambia is also well known for a tasty beverage called baobab juice. Made from the fruit of baobab trees, this juice is equally good and good for you. A single serving is loaded vitamins and calcium, making it a great non-alcoholic alternative when you’re out exploring The Gambia.
For an authentic taste of the flavors of the Gambia, make your way to Albert Market—a bustling hub near the water—where locals sell fruits, vegetables, drinks, and full meals. While you’re enjoying a taste of Gambia, be sure to peruse the rest of the stalls here for a perfect keepsake from your adventure.
The Ivory Coast
Open air markets dominate the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, and your nose will undoubtedly be busy taking in the smells of Ivorian cuisine when you visit. As you walk the streets of Abidjan, you must try Garba. Known as one of the region’s signature meals, Garba is fried red tuna served on a bed of attiéké (ground cassava), well-seasoned and mixed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Whether morning, noon, or evening, Garba is a popular local snack, and a quick way to refuel.
Throughout the Ivory Coast, you’ll find people love slow-simmered stews—especially Kedjenou. This stew typically consists of chicken and vegetables prepared in a sealed pot and cooked over coals. Of course, there are variations to the recipe—some prefer a tomato sauce base, while others prefer fish instead of chicken. One thing you’ll find consistently, however, is that it is spicy—making it the perfect dish for those who love a little heat with their meal.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, we recommend seeking out an especially popular local snack—grilled giant land snails. If you’re expecting escargot, think again. These sizable snails can reach up to eight inches in length and are usually served in a flavorful sauce. Once you get beyond their shocking size, you’re in for a treat, and may find yourself ordering a second helping! But be sure to save room for a dessert such as Alloco (fried bananas).
Abidjan is known for its open-air restaurants known as maquis. Unique to the region, a maquis serves charcoal cooked chicken and beef, as well as fish, soups, and the aforementioned giant snails. These restaurants are discreet, often without any frontage or signage, though you’ll find many to choose from along Mille Maquis in the Marcory district.
Ghanaian food is wholesome and flavorful, highlighted by soups and sauces typically served with a starchy side—most popularly, fufu. This mix of cassava and green plantain is cooked and kneaded together, resulting in a soft substance that feels similar to souther style dumplings. When you travel to Ghana, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try fufu. Since it’s not enough to be a full meal, it’s a popular side served with main courses—from groundnut stew and chicken yassa to rice water porridge and jollof rice. Remember, locals love to eat fufu with their hands, tearing off a small piece and dipping it in sauce, so put that fork and knife down!
When dining in Ghana, you’re certain to come across shito. Ghana’s favorite condiment, shito combines ground red chili, ginger, garlic, shrimp, and herring using traditional methods—resulting in an umami taste that will certainly command your attention. After you grow accustomed to the flavor, you’ll want it on everything, which is perfect, since it’s as common as ketchup and Sriracha in Ghana.
A voyage to Ghana with us takes you to the beautiful coastal city of Takoradi, where foodies will have the chance to navigate Market Circle. This seemingly endless open-air market can feel more like a maze as thousands of people wander its laneways shopping for fruits, vegetables, dried goods, spices, and livestock. The market offers the best opportunity to sample Ghana’s street food scene and is not to be missed.
Feeling hungry? We don’t blame you! Whet your appetite for West African cuisine by learning more about our upcoming cruises to the region.
Dining in South Africa
Much like the country, South African cuisine is diverse. Over the years, indigenous staples have meshed with European, Malaysian, and Indian influences. South African cooking is more about the ingredients (fresh, locally sourced) than a specific cooking style—resulting in creative, flavorful dishes that tantalize the taste buds and delight travelers from around the world. In fact, at the 2019 World Restaurant Awards, South Africa’s Wolfgat restaurant took top honors as Restaurant of the Year. This tiny seaside restaurant, located about 90 minutes north of Cape Town in the village of Paternoster, has made quite a name for itself in the three years since it opened.
One of the things that makes Wolfgat so unique is its seven-course tasting menu, which is mostly comprised of the ingredients foraged daily along the shores by Head chef Kobus van der Merwe. Delicious, fresh seafood and ingredients mixed with serene waterfront views make a meal at Wolfgat a special experience, one that’s worth the journey north.
Of course, South Africa is home to restaurants across the country that are certain to have you salivating. A few of our favorites include:
- The Pot Luck Club: High atop the Old Biscuit Mill, the Pot Luck Club has earned its reputation as a Cape Town hotspot. Come for the grapefruit martinis served in stylish antique glasses and the beef tataki, stay for the brilliant views of the city, the harbor, and the mountains (just turn your head to take it all in).
- Chefs Warehouse & Canteen: This tapas-style restaurant is known for flavorful feasts and generous portions served in a laid-back atmosphere with communal wooden tables. The menu is set daily and consists of eight dishes meant for sharing between two people. There’s a notable Asian street food influence to the dishes here, but you can also expect traces of Indian and Middle Eastern flavors, as well as techniques owner Liam Tomlin has picked up over his years as a globe-trotting chef. Don’t try to make reservations here, just show up early and enjoy.
- Kindred Kitchen: Setting up shop in the heart of Richmond Hill—Port Elizabeth’s unofficial foodie mecca—Kindred Kitchen is a vegan-friendly restaurant that has quickly grown to make a name for itself. Serving creative meals that pop with color and flavor in equal parts, Kindred Kitchen is perfect for a quick bite or a filling evening meal. And be sure to try their immune boosting golden mylk, it’s as delicious as it is healthy!
- Sea Spirit Fish Market: Fancy fish and chips in an authentic atmosphere? Look no further than the Sea Spirit Fish Market. Serving fresh fish supplied from local fishing boats in a converted boat shed, this is about as authentic as seafood gets. Take a seat by the water and relax as a fish fresh from the sea is cleaned, fried, and served with a hearty helping of fries for you to enjoy. How will you know this place is the real deal? You’ll probably see a few local fishermen stopping in for lunch while you’re there!
- Cargo Hold: Sure, you may have gone swimming with sharks, but have you ever dined with them? You can at Cargo Hold in Durban. Here, you’ll be seated in the stern of a phantom ship with up-close-and-personal views of the uShaka Marine World shark tank. In fact, you’ll be so close to the sharks, they may get jealous of your seared Norwegian salmon and parmesan-crusted pork loin. Reservations are strongly recommended at Cargo Hold, especially if you want the best seats in the house.
South African Wine & Beer
We can’t talk about South African food without mentioning South African wine and beer. For many, a good drink can make or break a meal, or have the power to make an evening on the town truly memorable.
For nearly 400 years, South Africans have been growing grapes and producing distinct wines that walk the line between Old World and New. In the Western Cape especially, wines are well regarded for their bright, fresh flavors and high alcohol content.
Of course, the best way to choose the wine that’s right for you is by sampling a few of the local favorites. Take a tour of Paarl and Franschhoek Valley in the Cape Winelands and explore the wine cellar at Haute Cabriere, or embark on a wine-tasting journey through Stellenbosch that will delight sommeliers and casual sippers alike.
When it comes to South African beer, Europe has certainly played a role in influencing taste, but they didn’t introduce the drink to the region. In fact, the Xhosas were brewing a beverage known as Umqombothi long before Europeans arrived on South African shores.
South African beer enthusiasts will tell you the region’s biggest export is Castle Lager, which was initially produced for miners and prospectors at the dawn of the 20th century. However, if you’re looking for an authentically modern taste of local flavor, we recommend:
- Bridge Street Brewery: The craft-beer capital of Port Elizabeth, Bridge Street Brewery is known for producing stouts, bitters, lagers, and ciders that are all natural, unfiltered, and unpasteurized. Our personal favorite? The Black Dragon, a double chocolate stout that is sure to give you a rush. When you travel with us, you’ll learn more about Bridge Street’s history—and take a tour of the brewery—on our Bridge Street Brewery Tour And Tasting shore excursion.
- Ballito Brewing Company: Something of a trend-setter in the South African beer community, the Ballito Brewing Company handcrafts eight different styles of craft beer, as well as eight different flavors of gin and tonic. We’re partial to the Bohemian Pilsner, but sample them for yourself when you join us for a beer tasting tour and lunch.
If you’re salivating at the idea of sampling more South African food and drink, browse our upcoming voyages to the region today.
Hungry For More?
When you visit Africa, you may find yourself dining at the best restaurant in the world, or an open-air maquis in Abidjan. Either way, be sure to pack your appetite and sense of adventure as you explore the enticing cuisine of the continent.
While you’re here, take the time to learn more about the flavors and spices that make African food so distinct, walk the markets where vendors sell fresh produce for the evening meal, and be sure to check out a few off-the-beaten-path establishments. After all, your new favorite dish is just a bite away.