When I decided to launch a blog series exploring the cuisines of the African Diaspora from A to Z, I started alphabetically with the first nation on the list: Angola. Before I sat down to speak with Angolan Chef Anselmo Silvestre about the country’s cuisine, I decided to learn more about the predominately Roman Catholic, Portuguese-speaking country on the southwestern coast of Africa.
A Brief History of Angola
The nation of 31 million people is comprised of three main ethnic groups, the Ovimbundu, Ambundu and Kongo people, as well as four national languages: Chokwe, Kikongo, Kimbundu, and Umbundu.
After nearly five hundred years of colonial rule and exploitation as a source of slaves for Brazil, the Republic of Angola achieved its independence from Portugal in 1975. Unfortunately, the country swiftly descended into a civil war as two main groups vied for political power: the Marxist MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and the Western-backed UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). When apartheid South Africa moved to overthrow the government established by the MPLA, Fidel Castro dispatched Cuban troops to successfully support Angola against the threat.
Although a United Nations sanctioned presidential election was held in 1992, the UNITA candidate Jonas Savimbi refused to concede to the MPLA and the war waged on. It was not until Savimbi’s death in 2002 that peace came, a respite after hundreds of thousands of Angolans lost their lives to the fighting. Angola emerged as a presidential constitutional republic and is currently led by President João Lourenço.
Due to years of unrest, drought and the exploitation of the country’s oil and diamond resources, many Angolans live in poverty with limited access to food and adequate medical care. A potential opportunity for economic growth is agriculture, as Angola is filled with fertile land that remains uncultivated due to the civil war. Currently, the country largely relies on expensive food imported from South Africa and Portugal to feed its populace.
Some staple crops grown in Angola include cassava, banana, maize (corn), and sweet potato, all of which are heavily featured in the nation’s cuisine. Fish is also quite integral given the coastal locale.
An Angolan Chef Talks Angolan Cuisine
One of the first Angolan chefs I came across was Chef Anselmo Silvestre, and he was more than willing to speak with me about Angolan cuisine. Hailing from Luanda, the nation’s capital, Silvestre is working to bolster the culinary scene in his country.
After training in South Africa and working at one of the best restaurants in the world, Silvestre recently returned to Angola. There, he co-founded Chef’s Table Angola, a platform that serves to spotlight and provide opportunities to local Angolan chefs. He is also busy with catering private events and dinners.
We discussed the initiative, Silvestre’s culinary journey as well as popular Angolan dishes–a few of which I hope to replicate in my own kitchen.
Interview with Angolan Chef Anselmo Silvestre
When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it? Did you go to culinary school or learn the ropes in restaurant kitchens?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be an engineer. But I used to wake up at 7am with my mom and check the pot of stew for her while she went to church. From there, I slowly started going into the kitchen to help her out more at age 7.
At the age of 11, I started watching Food Network and cooking shows. Chopped was my favorite. I was also cooking alone and cooking for friends and family when they came to the house for lunch.
When I moved to Cape Town [South Africa] from Luanda [Angola], it was 2012 and I was 17 or 18 years old. I moved there to pursue engineering, but I discovered that I would have to move to Port Elizabeth [another city in South Africa] to attend engineering school. So I decided to attend a hotel management program at Varsity College [in Cape Town] instead.
I learned about life in the kitchen there. Everything I liked about hotel management related to the hotel kitchen. Once I finished hotel school in 2014, I started taking cooking classes. I fell in love with it.
Wow! It’s amazing how you ultimately ended up back in the kitchen. Why did you decide to pursue cooking professionally as opposed to continuing it as a hobby?
It’s funny, because when I was a teenager it sounded weird to say that I wanted to be a chef. I ultimately told my mom I wanted to be a chef. I felt like something was missing. So I decided to go to culinary school in 2015.
I attended South Africa’s Chef’s Academy. It was based in French cuisine and we learned a little from America, the Mediterranean, Asia. I knew some of the stuff already, but culinary school taught me to work smart. I learned to do things that used to take me five steps in three. There was also learning between cultures, as I had colleagues from places like Zimbabwe and Austria.
After I earned my qualification in culinary arts and pastry in 2015, I was a trainee at the Cape Grace Hotel [a five star hotel on Cape Town’s Waterfront]. I went on to become Senior Chef de Partie at The Village Idiot in 2016 and Restaurant La Colombe from 2017 to 2019.
My most recent position was working as a sous chef at Protégé [a restaurant connected to La Colombe] from October 2019 to November 2020. I moved back to Luanda in November for two reasons. Of course, the pandemic happened. But I also wanted to push myself to see what is next.
Capetown has the best restaurant industry [on the continent] with two World’s Best Restaurants: La Colombe and The Test Kitchen. Luanda is way way behind.
Can you talk about the cuisine and culinary scene in Luanda and Angola more generally?
We had the Portuguese colonize us and then the Brazilians came. Both cultures have shaped Angolan cuisine. The main ingredient [in our cuisine] is cassava, cassava flour. Funje, a starch [reminiscent of fufu] we eat with stew, is made with cassava flour.
Our national dish is Muamba de Galinha [stew]. You start with onion, tomato, oil, and garlic. Then you add your meat, chicken, duck and vegetables. Muamba de Ginguba is another variation of chicken stewed with peanut butter sauce and okra. They are all stewed in a pot on a wood fire or stove. Things are hardly made in the oven.
Other dishes we do are beans with palm oil and mufete. Mufete is grilled fish served with boiled cassava, plantains, and onions.
Those dishes sound delicious! I encountered you due to Chef’s Table Angola, a platform you co-founded to raise the profile of Angolan cuisine and chefs. What inspired you to start this venture?
Chef’s Table started because every time I came to Luanda, I would struggle to find something to eat. All the restaurants would have the same menu: grilled calamari, grilled chicken, and beef with rice and potato.
So instead of going out, I would get friends together. We would cook together to eat something different. Then my friend came to town and we decided to create Chef’s Table. The group consists of myself, Rui Jorge, Ivanira Oliveira, and Anderson Dos Santos.
We do dinners and there is a different menu every time. [All of the members] come from different cuisines and cultures, so that helps. We decided to promote unknown chefs, to have them come cook for other people. We provide chefs for private brunches, dinners and events.
We are bringing something different to the city. There is only one culinary school in Angola, a hotel school where students can choose the culinary program. With the right budget and money, I want to advance the industry here and share what I have learned.
I don’t want to work for one restaurant. I worked for restaurants for three and a half years. I want to be my own boss.
What dish do you like to make at home?
I love alfredo.
What are five ingredients you always like to have on hand in your kitchen?
Fresh coriander, butter, beef or fish, soya [soy] sauce, and cream.
So I know you said before that you are a Chopped fan. What dish are you making if those ingredients are in the mystery box?
Seared beef tartare with soy sauce and fresh coriander salad.
What is your ultimate food destination?
Spain or Thailand. [Because of] the flavor combinations. Spain is fresh, simple, and tasty. Thailand has sweet and spicy combinations [I love].
What is your favorite part about Angolan cuisine?
The good thing about Angolan food is our flavor combinations. Our dishes are accessible and easy to infuse with other flavors and cuisines.
Follow Angolan Chef Anselmo Silvestre @anselmo_silvestre and Chef’s Table Angola @chefstableangola for more updates!