Sugar, spice and everything nice — journey through African cuisine at an Africa Day celebration

Sugar, spice and everything nice — journey through African cuisine at an Africa Day celebration

From jollof rice to stewed meat, the event in Islamabad was a delight for my tastebuds.
21 Jun, 2024

The Sheesh Mahal Hall at Serena Hotel in Islamabad resonated with the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz from his poem Africa Come Back, first recited in the Montgomery Prison in 1955, as heads of missions of the African Group assembled to celebrate the diverse culture of Africa in a belated celebration of Africa Day.

African unity was on full display as stalls from nations across the continent were extravagantly decorated, offering traditional food and exhibiting their cultural offerings. Many African diplomats were seen dressed in their traditional clothes, showcasing the multicolour designs of African haute couture.

My first stop was at the Egyptian stall where Ambassador Dr Ihab Abdelhamid’s personal chef was present to welcome guests and walk them down the Egyptian gastronomical lane. The dish on display was koshary, which seemed to be a cauldron full of chickpeas and fried onions.

A delicious aroma wafted in the air as the chef scooped out the dish to fix me a plate, and a cluster of seemingly random components constituted the first bite. This comforting bowl was delicious — spiced lentils, garlic rice combined with chickpeas and pasta, all smothered in a tomato sauce spiked with vinegar and topped with savoury, crispy thin fried onion rings. At the chef’s insistence, I tried taamia, which was an Egyptian version of the falafel.

“It’s an all-time favourite street food in Egypt. In most parts of the Middle East, falafel is made with ground chickpeas but we make it with dried fava beans,” he explained.

I couldn’t walk away from the Egyptian stall without a dessert so I tried lokma, a gulab-jaman lookalike made up of sweet deep-fried light golden balls made of flour. The dessert was fluffy with an airy texture and a slightly crusty exterior.

It was time to travel to the east of Africa to Ethiopia, where two Ethiopian ladies dressed in traditional white embroidered clothes were serving food. Trusting the server’s recommendation, I tried injera, a traditional spongy bread with doro wat, a must-have spicy Ethiopian chicken stew. Although Pakistani palettes are quite accustomed to high levels of spices, this dish was in a different league of spicy. Ayeb, a fresh homemade Ethiopian cheese, and chechebsa, another type of bread with honey, were suggested as an antidote and my tastebuds sighed with relief.

Moving to the west of Africa, Nigerians were serving their famous jollof rice, pappar meat and moi moi. The spiced multi-coloured rice may be from the same lineage as Pakistani biryani or Italian risotto.

“We cook it in thick gravy of tomato to make a stew with onions, curry powder and local spices. However, what makes the dish filled with flavours are the wild herbs such as dried thyme and bay leaves,” explained the Nigerian diplomat who was also serving as the chef at the stall. My tastebuds were not ready for what was to come — the dish was quite appetising and was complemented especially well by the pappar meat.

The event was not over yet — as poet Robert Frost wrote, there were “miles to go before I sleep”. I headed towards South Africa’s stall, where two gentlemen served me ujeqe, a traditional South African steamed bread eaten with chicken curry. The process of making ujeqe bread, I discovered, was way more cumbersome and tedious than a Pakistani chappati, however, when it came to taste, the only difference was that it was slightly sweeter.

With little space left in my stomach, I opted for a few bites of chakalaka salad, which can be served cold as an appetiser or hot with bread. This warm version was a combination of beans, spices and vegetables and tasted tangy, as the vinegar was a little overpowering.

It would be a sin to be on an African food pilgrimage and not pay respects at the Moroccan food stall. The beef tajine with dried fruits, chicken tajine with lemon and olives, and couscous accompanied with Moroccan tea and sweets simply couldn’t be ignored.

“To me, the beef tajine can be best described as a labour of love since it takes hours of slow cooking whereas the chicken tajine is simpler as it can be cooked on the stovetop or even roasted in a baking pan in the oven,” commented a Moroccan guest. The chicken tajine was moist, succulent and melted in the mouth easily. On the other hand, the beef tajine with chuck roast cut, garbanzo beans and several dried fruits left a rather sweet taste on the palette.

The star performers at the Zimbabwean, Sudanese and Kenyan stalls were the beef stews, which had different names across the countries. The ingredients were more or less the same but what made the taste unique were the local herbs and seasonings.

The scrumptious offerings at the Africa Day event proved that African cuisine should not only be celebrated but experienced by everyone at least once.


Taj Ahmad - USA Jun 21, 2024 06:39pm
“Happy Africa Day” with delicious African foods.
M. Emad Jun 21, 2024 08:59pm
African cuisine looks very similar to Pakistani cuisine.
zuha Jun 21, 2024 09:34pm
This article is very informative. It made me feel as if i was trying all those dishes with its detailed descriptions and eloquent writing . Absolutely loved it !!!
Rameen Murad Jun 21, 2024 09:46pm
great article! but where can i eat such delicious food in islamabad?
Khazima Jun 21, 2024 10:03pm
Awesome details of different kind of African foods.
Naeem Jun 22, 2024 08:17am
Wow all those dishes seem so delicious! Especially, Ethiopian dishes are spectacular.
Naeem Jun 22, 2024 08:18am
Just mouthwatering and nutritious, especially compared to the unhealthy, oily, greasy Pakistani food.
Alizye Jun 22, 2024 03:02pm
Brilliant!! The Moroccan sweets and Taamia look especially mouthwatering for someone like me who’s fond of sweets as well as a huge fan of Falafel. Love how the culture is celebrated so authentically by its own people, can’t wait to give these dishes a try. A really very informative article, kudos to the author!
Mubashra Jun 22, 2024 03:05pm
Felt like i attended this African festival alongside you! Hope you write about more exotic cuisines so we all can enjoy it together through ur words.
Sajid Dadabhoy Jun 22, 2024 07:50pm
"Variety is the spice of life" - Here's to the cornucopia of human cuisine, "African", being no exception!
Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Jun 24, 2024 03:00pm
Looks delicious.