Defining African food — hell, defining Africa — is like fencing in the wind. The continent is, of course, humanity’s ancestral home and yet feels today ungainly vast, unknowably enigmatic. Nowhere on Earth seems so rich with mystery and chance discovery, where behind each savannah shrub might lurk a rare white rhino, where each hole dug might yield diamonds or bones, the mother lode or the missing link. Unexpected African encounters (why so often in bars?) are immortalized in song and film. Here’s where headless Roland found his killer, where Stanley found Livingstone, where Bergman finds Bogart, where Marlow finds Kurtz — here in this continent of fates and flukes and fortuitous rewards, we find, naturally, food. Lots of it. Our crate is sadly limited. The couscous just a grain in the Sahara; the spicy garlic sauce a drop in the Nile. But when it comes to Africa’s riches, even just a glimpse is better than being in the dark.
Golden Couscous // Bob’s Red Mill // Milwaukie, OR
A pin-sized pellet with a prodigious past, these tiny specks are the ubiquitous, unifying foundation of North African and Middle Eastern cuisine — not a grain, but tiny rolled pieces of pasta, made from ground, toasted wheat. The good stuff: chewy, nutty durum flour, a hearty strain native to that part of the world — heavy heritage with taste to match. Couscous cooks up fast, in only about five minutes, but goes anywhere, from salads to stews. We like cooking ours with a bit of ghee to heighten its earthy chew, and serving with spicy meatballs.
Harissa // EnTube // Los Angeles, CA
An ancient, North African paste, harissa is like a souk in a spoonful: heaps of sun-dried peppers, mountains of fragrant spice, pulverized into paste. It’s as common as ketchup in Tunisia, but a rare sight here in the land of, well, ketchup (which is actually Chinese — but we’ll get to that another time). Thankfully, there’s EnTube. The eponymous packaging isn’t the only modern touch: EnTube’s special mix adds the Amazonian Acerola berry, a citrusy powerhouse of Vitamin C. Clear out your cupboard — ketchup, mustard, hot sauce — harissa can replace it all. Drizzle on meatballs, or mix right into them: blend with ground lamb, minced onion, breadcrumbs, and egg, ball up, sear quickly, then simmer in tomatoes (and more harissa) for twenty minutes until cooked.
Ghee Butter // 4th & Heart // Los Angeles, CA
Started by a pair of business-savvy LA yogis (are there any other kind in LA?), 4th and Heart brings ancient health wisdom to the modern cupboard. And we do mean cupboard — ghee doesn’t need a fridge. That’s because while your stick of Land-o-Lakes is watered down with thickeners, perishable milk solids, and, well, water, ghee is just plain old butter fat: raw, clean, and vitamin-rich, an undiluted, unprocessed source of good nutrition from grass-fed cows. So flavorful, you can’t believe it is butter. Ghee holds up to high-heat cooking, so use liberally with roasted veggies, like a sweet-tart earthy blend of carrots, lemons, and spices.
Filfil Garlic Sauce // Filfil Foods // Brooklyn, NY
Based on a North-African staple called filfel chuma, what began as a secret family recipe in Filfil Foods founder’s private pantry can now drench your own home cooking in piquant, pungent goodness: a smoky, spicy, and — of course — garlicky blend of paprika, garlic, oils, and spices. If your make-out partner blanches as you ladle it on (and trust us, you’ll be using your largest scooping spoon), you can woo them back with garlic’s heart-healthy bonafides like lowering blood pressure and cholesterol — or just offer a taste.
Rooibos Tea // Teapigs // Brooklyn, NY
We’ve sung the glories of green; we’ve praised the pleasures of pu-erh; but what do you know about rooibos? Naturally caffeine-free with all the nutty, vanilla-and-honey richness of the sweetest full-leaf blacks, often mixed into herbal chais but a rarer sight solo. Stateside, at least — in South Africa, though, where rooibos grows wild in shrubby coastal forests called fynbos, it’s been drunk for centuries, by local tribes and colonizers alike. Sustainably sourced by this Brooklyn duo, rooibos is smooth and satisfying hot, rich and refreshing iced: a perfect start or finish to your African feast.
Biltong // Braaitime // Keansburg, NJ
South Africa’s Dutch settlers sun-dried meat and vinegar to pack on their tramping treks across the blazing plains, and that power-packed protein snack is still a staple there today. Trade a sunny boulder for a family-owned, state-of-the-art drying facility in New Jersey — but keep that time-honored blend of coriander, vinegar, salt, pepper, and all-natural grass-fed beef — and you get this peasant prosciutto, richer and meatier than run-of-the-mill jerky.