The Western world’s perspective on what qualifies as nutritious cuisine frequently overlooks the influence of culinary traditions from the African diaspora. It often showcases healthy as bland unseasoned foods while depicting African cuisine as unhealthy, claiming that they’re laden with carbohydrates and prepared with an excessive amount of oil resulting in high hypertension rates within Black communities.
This could not be further from the truth. Africa is the second-largest continent on Earth with 52 countries and over 3,000 different ethnic groups, each with their own culinary traditions. As the cradle of civilization, Africa is home to more native grains than any other continent. These nutrient-dense, sustainable, and flavorful foods have been the cornerstone of indigenous diets for centuries.
Here’s a rundown on a few of our favorite ancient African grains.
Barley is one of the oldest known grains. Egyptian mummies were buried with necklaces of barley due to its popularity and significance. Today, barley is most commonly used in soups as a pilaf and as flour in bread. It’s also a great substitute for rice in stews and curries. Barley’s rich and mildly sweet ﬂavor pair well with root vegetables and warm spices.
Teff is an ancient cereal grain indigenous to Ethiopia and Eritrea. It has been the region’s staple for thousands of years — especially in Western Ethiopia where it accounts for two-thirds of consumed dietary protein. This ancient grain is most commonly ground into flour used to make injera, a traditional fermented flatbread that is the main character in Ethiopian + Eritrean cuisine. The spongy bread functions as a vessel for food and edible cutlery to enjoy meals.
Sorghum is the fifth most commonly grown grain crop in the world after wheat, rice, corn, and barley. Originally domesticated in Africa, it adapted to the continent’s climates. It is drought resistant and matures quickly — enabling several harvests per year. It is commonly pounded into flour and used to make leavened bread, dumplings, and swallows.
Fonio, also known as acha, is a gluten-free type of millet that has been grown and harvested in Africa for thousands of years. Each seed is about the size of a grain of sand. Fonio’s tiny size initially made it challenging to harvest until mechanization processes were introduced in the early 21st century.
In regions aggravated by climate change with nutrient-deficient soils and drought conditions, fonio flourishes and helps preserve biodiversity, offering hope in the face of the changing climate. Fonio has been referred to as a climate-crisis-ready crop due to its resilience in harsh climates.
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