One of the big secrets to making any cuisine taste authentic is using the right herbs and spices. This is especially true of African cuisines, which are known for their potently flavored stews and sauces. If you have an African store in your area, here are a few key herbs and seasonings to look for. With the addition of these herbs and seasonings, your foods will taste so much more authentically African.
You might be used to thinking of nettles as the nasty plants that sting and poke you, but when harvested and cured properly, they are safe to eat and actually quite delicious. They grow in the highlands of Africa and are ground into a powder, which is used as a seasoning in a lot of starchy dishes made with beans, corn, and the like.
Alnif cumin is a specific type of cumin that comes from Alnif, a village in Morocco. Cumin is an herb that is dried, ground, and used to season meat and vegetable dishes. While practically all cumin has a sort of smoky, spicy flavor, Alnif cumin is particularly well known for its intensity and is, therefore, irreplaceable in African cuisine.
Iru is a fermented bean paste, similar to those seen in many Asian cuisines. It is very potent and tannic, and a little goes a long way. At your local African store, you'll probably see it being sold in jars. One small jar can last you a year or more since each time you use the iru to season a soup or stew, you'll only want to add a little bit. This is the secret ingredient in a lot of traditional African soups, including egusi and ogbono.
With African cuisine featuring so many deep, warm flavors, sometimes you need something on hand to brighten things up. That's where za'atar seasoning comes in. This is actually a blend of spices and herbs, including sumac, marjoram, and coriander. Some versions also contain sesame seeds. Africans use it in cooking, but it can also be sprinkled on top of finished dishes as a sort of garnish or accent.
To cook food authentically, you need to have authentic ingredients, starting with the right herbs and spices. Visit an African store near you and look for these seasonings. You can then get creative about using them in your own kitchen to create delicious eats.