Cassava pounded into a doughy cake. Crisp-fried plantains. Spongy flatbreads coated in autumn-hued stews. Crescent-shaped pies with flaky pastries and meaty fillings. Mounds of spicy rice and the richest chicken curry you’ll ever eat. That’s what’s for lunch at Africultures, an annual festival that showcases the diversity of Africa through food, fashion and art. It’s also the only place in Sydney where you can sample traditional cuisine from 16 African countries in the one place.

The festival takes over Lidcombe’s Wyatt Park on Saturday March 9. Here’s what we reckon you should order.

West Africa and Sierra Leone
Look at a map of west Africa – the strip from Senegal to Nigeria. There are 11 countries sandwiched in there, including Sierra Leone, and they share a lot of culture and food.

West African people eat with their hands, even despite the abundance of stews, which are generally thick and rich, but not in a spiced Indian way – more from the meats and oils used (palm is most common). You need rice or fufu (a cassava-based pudding with the texture of partially cooked dough) to help scoop up with stew with your hands, which is hard to grasp otherwise. Almost every dish relies on a trio of vegetables (tomato, onion and capsicum) as a base, and chillies are added to just about everything.

Nathaniel Ola-Roberts is one of two Africultures chefs representing the cuisine of Sierra Leone and west Africa. He’ll be bringing the fufu and dolling it up alongside bitter-leaf stew (not as hectic as it sounds; Sierra Leoneans have it weaker than their neighbours). If that’s not your thing, try the dried fish with black beans or a variety of fried goods, such as plantains with gravy, sweet potato chips or banana fritters.

“My grandmother, who brought me up, was a great cook. She used to cook at weddings and other big cooking ceremonies. As a young boy growing up, she took me along and I helped her. It was a blessing.”

Where to try it outside of Africultures
When he’s not at festivals, Ola-Roberts caters weddings and birthdays for the west African community. His friend Joseph Koroma runs a Sierra Leonean restaurant in Guildford, El Shaddai African Cuisine.

Ethiopia
This is probably the most unique cuisine in Africa. That’s mostly thanks to injera, a giant, gluten-free, sourdough pancake that looks like a crumpet that’s been steamrolled flat. The sourness and bubbly surface are the result of the two-to-three day fermentation of the teff dough. Injera is simultaneously Ethiopia’s staple dish and its crockery and cutlery too: stews, fried meats, lentils and raw beef are piled onto a huge piece of injera, and you use other bits of pancake to scoop it up. It is literally the base of every meal.

One of the most famous Ethiopian dishes is doro wot, an impressively rich and onion-y gravy with eggs and chicken on the bone. “It really takes time, there's a lot of special things you have to do [to make it]. If you're good you will count 12 chicken bones, one whole chicken. You have to have those 12 bones,” says Yodit Desta, one of two Ethiopian chefs at the festival.

She’ll be making doro wot as well as mix of vegan items – shiro wot (a lentil stew, like Ethiopian dhal), gomen (collard greens that are boiled, dried, then tossed with spices), and a bean mash rather like ful. Unlike a lot of African countries, Ethiopia has strong vegan food traditions because of the Orthodox church’s emphasis on vegan fasting in the days leading up to Christmas.

When we ask Desta if she’s going to have injera she says: “Yes, yes, without injera no one is eating.”

Where to try it outside of Africultures
As well as running the odd stall, Desta has a catering company called Love & Peace. There are also two popular Ethiopian restaurants in Blacktown.

Nigeria
The one dish every Nigerian craves is jollof rice. It changes radically from chef to chef, but the basics are pureed capsicum and onion cooked with the house’s spice of choice, which is then added to parboiled rice. The hearty, reddish, semi-dry pile (texturally it falls somewhere between fatty fried rice and risotto) is usually bolstered by a protein and either plantains, steamed greens or bean pudding.

Nigeria isn’t the only country to embrace the dish, and it’s not the only west African country to claim theirs is the best. The debate is fierce and eternal, except for a short reprieve (known as #Jollofgate) when Ghanaians and Nigerians united over their mutual outrage at Jamie Oliver’s parsley and whole tomato rendition of the dish.

Ade Adeniyi, one of the Nigerian chefs at Africultures, learned to make jollof from his mum as a kid. “I grew up surrounded by women. I had four sisters growing up and aunties were always in and out of the house,” he explains. “My mum always encouraged me to hang around the kitchen.”

This is his third year at the festival, working under the banner of his pop-up Nigerian kitchen Little Lagos. Last year his jollof got a great rap, as did his goat stew. He'll also be bringing his Nigerian-style meat pies (like empanadas, but buttery and moist), bean fritters and maybe a surprise or two. We’re hoping for his dad’s recipe for plantain pudding (like a tamale, but spiced with dried crayfish).

Where to try it outside of Africultures
Little Lagos has a pop-up at Earl’s Juke Joint every Sunday.

Zimbabwe
Almost every Zimbabwean lunch has two things: meat (beef, springbok, kudu, goat, crocodile, warthog, you name it) and something made with maize. That’s usually sadza (a corn-based porridge, sometimes with the texture of uncooked dough), bota (a thinner, polenta-like porridge thickened with butter or peanut butter – peanut butter is added to many things) or samp (coarsely ground corn kernels). The single Zimbabwean representative at Africultures is Gracious Ncube. “I consider myself a proud Ndebele woman and although I left Africa when I was 10, Africa never left me,” she says.

This is Ncube’s first festival. She’s been to many events like this in the past, but found the only African reps were from the east and west of the continent. “For the past 10 years it seemed eastern and west African foods were all people knew about from Africa,” she explains.

Her relatively new stall, Udiwo, is half deli and half restaurant. The restaurant will be serving up barbeque meat platters, spiced wings and boerewors sausages (an Afrikaans-style sausage with spiced lean meat; Ncube uses lamb) on rolls. The deli sells Zimbabwean supermarket snacks: thick popcorn, samp and some South African soft drinks.

Where to try it outside of Africultures
Ncube runs Udiwo as an occasional market stall, as well as an import business for South African products.

Senegal
As with the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean stalls, expect curry-like stews, cassava and a lot of rice.

Chebu jën (or thieboudienne) is the Senegalese equivalent of jollof rice. The distinguishing feature is the addition of fish, usually one that’s been coated in lemon, garlic, onion and a mottled bunch of herbs. “Jollof rice is a bit different in every country but the best one comes from Senegal,” says Bineta Diagna, the only Senegalese chef at Africultures.

Diagna and her husband have been making Senegalese food in Sydney for more than 20 years. Chebu jën is her speciality but she’s unsure whether she’ll make it on the day. “It’s very difficult to do it with fresh fish in a festival,” she says.

Yassa and mafé will be the mains of the day. The former is a Senegalese speciality (it’s now spread across west Africa) where chicken is marinated for 12 hours and then simmered or baked with onion, mustard, garlic and lemon juice until it’s viscous and punchy like a curry. Mafé is the Senegalese equivalent of satay – a gooey, curry-spiced stew made with peanut butter and meat.

Where to try it outside of Africultures
Diagna and her husband run Lat-Dior in Enmore.

Africultures Festival is on Saturday March 9 from 11am to 6pm at Wyatt Park, 49 Church Street, Lidcombe. Entry is by gold coin donation.

africultures.com.au