Over the years, foods of Africa have only made rare appearances on local menus and cooking class schedules. So their amazing, exotic flavors may be a completely new experience for you.
From Morocco, tagines feature salty, tart flavors that come from preserved lemons and olives. Ethiopia boasts tangy injera, a crepe-like bread used to scoop up bites of a uniquely spiced stew called doro wat. The taste of cumin flavors many Algerian dishes and can be found in crêpes at a local eatery. And a curry-style dish called kuku paka, or coconut chicken, is a Tanzanian classic.
Ready to go on an African culinary safari in Colorado Springs to awaken your tastebuds? We start with the foods of Morocco, which could include taking the popular “Moroccan Around the Christmas Tree” cooking class at Gather Food Studio.
“If you put my feet to the fire, I’d say Moroccan (cuisine) is my favorite,” said David Cook, who co-owns the studio with Cortney Smith.
But he and Smith teach other cuisines of the continent too, including Ethiopian, West African, Southern African and East African, as well as classes on African curries and flatbreads.
“I just taught a class about the famous Moroccan tagines,” he said. Tagine is the name of both the cooking vessel and the dishes prepared in them. The vessels, he said, were “introduced to North Africa by the Berbers and were essential to arid desert cooking. That’s because they do not require a lot of water for the cooking process, especially for tough cuts of meat. They were packable and portable.”
The vessel’s cone-shaped lid was designed to create a convection vortex that allows water to collect from the simmering food. That liquid, which holds the flavors of the spices, rains back down into the contents of the pan.
The tagine dish is often flavored with preserved lemons, green olives, dried fruits and ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend.
For a taste of Algeria, head to Paris Crepe, 1019 S. Tejon St. There Wahid Hafsaoui, who is from Algeria, offers his flavorful Algerian crêpes. They’re filled with spicy cumin beef, eggs, potato, red onion, olives, cilantro and Jarlsberg cheese, and topped with tangy green chile sauce.
For authentic Ethiopian dishes, Cook says, “go and see our friend Maya at Uchenna on Colorado Avenue.”
Maya Hetman opened Uchenna in 2008, at 2501 W. Colorado Ave., and has endeared all who dine with her and enjoyed her home country’s unique cuisine. She makes everything from scratch, and it’s really nutritious. Hetman’s background is European, where a meal is more social. Plus, you get to eat with your fingers — it’s like being a kid again.
The cuisine is exotic and has a delicious array of uniquely spiced dishes. It’s based largely on spicy vegetables, combined with lentils and with a small amount of meat, usually lamb. The national dish is doro wat, a stew made with large quantities of chopped onions seasoned with berbere, a mixture of powdered chile pepper and other spices, and chicken. It’s served with hard-cooked eggs on top. If you order tibs, you’ll get grilled meat.
Here’s where eating with your fingers comes in. Hetman makes injera using a thin batter of fermented teff flour, so it’s gluten-free. A large silver tray is lined with huge circles of injera, and the colorful entrees are served on top of the crepe, including more rolls of the crepe-like injera. You tear off small pieces of injera and use them as utensils. Other entrees feature beef tenderloin, scallops and shrimp, all fragrantly seasoned with Ethiopian spices.
An Ethiopian meal is an experience, especially with Hetman at the helm. She treats everyone as if you were coming to her home for dinner. Currently Uchenna is open for takeout.
The newest dining experience with African influences is at Ambli Global Cuisine at 5278 N. Nevada Ave., in University Village. You’re likely to be greeted at the hostess stand by Pariza Mehta, an owner of the eatery, who makes a large contribution to the globe-hopping menu. Mehta’s great-great-grandparents moved from India to Tanzania, where her dad ran restaurants.
And that’s where her kuku paka (coconut chicken), a traditional dish of North Africa reminiscent of an Indian curry, came from.
“A few years ago, we took it off the menu at one of the Denver Ambli, and customers had a fit,” said Dillon Means, a sommelier at the eatery. “We put it back on the menu and will never take it off again. It’s one of the most popular dishes we serve.”
The dish’s ochre-colored gravy starts with a base of simmered tomatoes, ginger, chiles, cumin and coriander. Coconut milk adds creaminess that softens and blends the spices so that the marinated grilled chicken swims in the delicious sauce. It’s served with basmati rice and a few blistered shishito peppers showered with sea salt.
It is an amazing dish — like so many of the African foods we discovered on our culinary safari.