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Sugar around the world: the African continent
Africa is a stunningly diverse continent, rich in food resources. Each country’s local cuisine has absorbed flavours and ingredients from waves of immigrants and colonisers into its traditional fayre. Sugar’s arrival sparked the creation of many much-loved snacks and dishes, from the tip of Cape Horn to the Red Sea. Here is just a small selection of sugar in African cuisines – we can already see a part 2 blog in the future.
When the Arab peoples invaded Persia in 642 AD, they found sugar cane being grown and learnt how sugar was made. As their expansion continued, they established sugar production in other lands that they conquered, including North Africa and Spain.
The Arab invasion of North Africa meant that today’s Arab nations got sugar before other African countries, according to Habeeb, Muna and Leila Salloum, authors of Sweet delights – the story of traditional Arab sweets. As a result, the national cuisines of countries like Egypt, Morocco and Sudan feature a cornucopia of sugary sweet treats that the rest of the world has grown to love.
Ful Sudani are traditional cookies originating from Sudan. These macaroon-like biscuits are usually made with a combination of egg whites, salt, sugar, vanilla, and peanuts. The peanuts are roasted, their skin is removed, and they’re ground until grainy. Vanilla is mixed with the peanuts, egg whites, sugar, and salt. For Ful Sudani, cooks use a light sugar like light cane muscovado, to keep the focus on the peanuts. Some use confectioner’s sugar, also known as icing sugar. Darker, more robust sugars like dark cane muscovado can distract from subtler flavours, and the peanuts are the star of this snack.
Spoonfuls of the batter are placed on a baking sheet, and the cookies are baked until slightly puffy and lightly coloured (not browned). Sudanese people often eat them alongside cinnamon tea, which is usually drunk super-sweet, courtesy of a heavy dose of soft light brown sugar or light cane muscovado sugar.
Akwadu is a recipe popular in many West African countries. It is made by slicing bananas and drizzling them with orange juice, lemon juice, coconut and demerara sugar before baking.
Akwadu is a common breakfast in Equatorial Guinea, where the cuisine is rooted in the ingredients and cooking methods of native tribes, including the Annobonese, the Bubi, the Fang, and the Kombe. Equatorial Guinean food is also heavily Spanish, as Spain colonised the country until 1968. Even today, most restaurants in Equatorial Guinea serve Spanish dishes. African nations like Nigeria and Cameroon, and Islamic countries like Morocco have also lent their ingredients and flavours to the country’s cuisine. Demerara sugar has large sugar crystals that give it a crunchy texture, making it perfect to give a crackly, sweet topping to Akwadu. Its rich yet mellow butterscotch aroma compliments the delicate, floral taste of tropical bananas and coconut.
Shoko is a traditional West African beef stew that is traditionally prepared with amaranth leaves (alefu) and tomatoes, although spinach can be substituted for alefu. Although shoko is not a traditional Ghanaian name and more a Yoruba (a Nigerian language) word, this stew is believed to be Ghanaian in most West African countries.
The many spices and the dark cane muscovado sugar bring a subtle and delicious flavour to the beef. This dish is generally very spicy when it is prepared in Africa, but various versions have been exported all over the world, and outside of Ghana the spice levels tend to fall. The amaranth leaves also bring a very slight bitterness that goes well with the sweetness of the sauce, brought by the sugar.
It might seem strange to add sugar to a meat dish, but the sugar sprinkled over the beef in shoko before it hits the pan gives it an incredible colour and texture. The sugar caramelises in the high heat, easily creating a brown crust that you would have to wait much longer for without it.
If you’ve ever strolled around the medinas of Marrakech or Casablanca, you probably saw a plethora of little stalls selling a greenish liquid. Street vendors make this sweet, syrupy drink – called ‘qasab sukkar’ in Moroccan Arabic – by mixing the juice from peeled sugarcane with lime or other citrus juices.
First, the canes are cut by large machines and delivered speedily to factories and vendors, as the plant quickly becomes susceptible to dangerous bacteria or fungi. However, if prepared properly, the juice holds many health benefits.
Because it’s not processed, sugarcane juice retains all its vitamins and minerals. Qasab sukkar is a good source of phenols (chemical compounds found in certain foods that protect the body’s tissues against oxidative stress) and electrolytes, which help hydrate the body and restore energy reserves in the muscles after a workout.
All over the African continent – and all over the world – sugar has worked its way into national cuisines in diverse and imaginative ways. Few other foodstuffs have such a broad appeal, because sweetness is the taste that tells us that what we’re eating has valuable energy. Without it, our ancestors would not have wanted to try new foods.
Sugar is a truly universal ingredient.