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What to Eat as a Vegan in the Congo (Brazzaville)
What is the food in Congo Brazzaville like?
The cuisine of the Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo Brazzaville) is similar to the cuisine of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (also known as Congo Kinshasa).
This is not too surprising, considering that the countries are neighbors, separated only by the Congo River. In fact, Brazzaville and Kinshasa are the two closest capitals in the world, unless you count Rome and the Vatican.
For a thorough description of vegan food in the DRC, check out this guest post written by Kinshasa native Moise Ngwesi.
This article, however, will focus on Congolese food in the Republic of the Congo and is based on my experience in Brazzaville in February 2020. Many of these same Congolese foods are probably also available across the river in Kinshasa.
Is Congolese Food Vegan-Friendly?
The Congo is well off the beaten track when it comes to not only vegan foodie travel but even travel in general.
The concepts of vegetarianism and veganism are not widely understood in the Congo, and there are no exclusively vegan or vegetarian restaurants in Brazzaville. Although Pointe-Noire, the second-largest city in the country, does have a Loving Hut branch!
Local Congolese restaurants usually include a chicken, fish or some other animal in all their main dishes, so as a vegan traveler you may be limited to the side dishes in these establishments. In my experience, this goes for the small, informal places known as nganda restaurants as well as fancier Congolese restaurants like Les Rapides.
And while that might not sound exciting, some of these side dishes are truly scrumptious! In the next section, I’ll introduce some popular Congolese foods that are incidentally vegan. While most of these are viewed as snacks or accompaniments rather than main dishes, you can easily combine them to make a full meal.
Popular Congolese Dishes
Cassava and Other Starches
The single most important staple food in the Congo is cassava. It’s not actually native to Africa but was introduced by the Portuguese in the 17th century, who brought it from Brazil to Africa to feed the slaves they captured there.
Several common foodstuffs are prepared from cassava, the most common of which is chikwange, or bâtons de manioc in French. It’s sometimes described in English as a “cassava cake”, but it’s definitely not a dessert, so if you’re expecting it to taste sweet you’ll be disappointed.
In fact, chikwange doesn’t have much of a taste at all. But then again, you could say the same thing about plain rice or plain pasta. It’s meant to be eaten in combination with other, more flavorful foods.
In markets, you’ll see chikwange wrapped in leaves. When it’s served in a restaurant, though, it’s usually unwrapped by that point. This is the most common accompaniment and often comes free of charge with any main dish on the menu.
Another way to eat cassava is by mixing it with water and pounding it in a large mortar and pestle to create a kind of paste. In the Congo, this paste is known as “fufu”, although it goes by many other names in different parts of Africa.
Cassava is not the only starchy vegetable used to make fufu; it can also be made from corn, plantains, or other tubers like igname (“yam” in English) or macabo (“cocoyam” in English).
Bananas and Plantains
Banana trees give fruit all year round, making them another reliable staple food in the Congo. They end up in both sweet and savory concoctions, depending on the type of banana used.
While the smaller ones are quite sweet, the larger ones with green-tinted peels are much starchier. These are sometimes known as “cooking bananas” in English or “bananes plantaines” in French.
When fried, however, they become caramelized and still taste quite sweet. Another, somewhat healthier way of cooking them is by steaming them. You’ll see both fried (bananes frites) and steamed (bananes à la vapeur) listed as side dishes on restaurant menus.
And for a snack, you’ll often see them sliced, fried and sold on the street as banana chips. Choose which size container you want the vendor to fill up with banana chips, and he or she will pour that amount into a newspaper cone for you to take away.
Leafy Green Vegetables
Dark, leafy green vegetables are eaten at seemingly every meal in the Congo. In fact, if you see a “vegetable” section on a restaurant menu, it’s likely to consist of nothing but leafy green vegetables.
These are surprisingly tasty, as they’re often cooked with peanut butter or locally produced palm oil. But be careful, as they may also be cooked with fish or meat, or at least with fish or meat broth.
Unfortunately, this seems to be especially common when cooking saka-saka, the most popular vegetable dish in the Congo.
Saka-saka is made from the leaves of the cassava plant, much like matapa in Mozambique.
I was told by a Brazzaville local that in Kinshasa it's more common to find pure veggie versions of saka-saka, but in Brazzaville it usually contains fish. One of the plates of saka-saka I ate definitely was made with seafood broth, as I found part of a crustacean shell in it.
As a vegan or vegetarian, all you can do is ask the restaurant staff to confirm the ingredients and hope for the best. Mistakes like this do sometimes happen when traveling as a vegan, and it’s best not to let yourself get too hung up on it.
This is my absolute favorite of the leafy greens in the Congo, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it. It’s made from the leaves of the roselle plant, which is a species of hibiscus.
The leaves are such a dark color that the dish hardly looks green at all. More like a dark brown. Which is perhaps not too appetizing to look at, but it tastes delicious!
Unlike some other leafy greens, oseille is not bitter at all. I could happily live on a diet of oseille and fried plantains, and I ordered this combination more than once when eating out in Brazzaville.
Other greens that you’ll find on the menu at local Congolese restaurants include follong and ndolè. Follong is a little bitter for my taste, and I probably wouldn’t order it again.
Keep in mind that all of these green vegetable dishes are usually served as an accompaniment to meat-based dishes, so make it clear when ordering that you do not want any meat or fish.
Peanuts are everywhere in the Congo. They’re commonly eaten as a snack, and they can also be made into a sauce that’s eaten with a variety of dishes.
If you’re drinking at a local bar or restaurant, peanut sellers may come to your table and offer their wares. Peanuts do pair well with a cold Savanna cider, but be aware that the ones still in the shell taste different than what you’re probably used to.
When you crack them open, the skin on the outside of each peanut is whitish in color, and they have a softish, almost juicy texture. I’m not sure why this is, but I’m guessing they’re just not roasted for very long.
If you buy them shelled, though, they will be fully roasted, and they will feel and taste how you would expect them to.
I’d never tasted or even heard of safou before visiting the Congo, so biting into one of these was quite a revelation. I actually mistook them for small purple potatoes, but upon the first bite it became obvious that this was something totally different.
Safou have a creamy texture on the inside, a little bit like an avocado. The color of their flesh is even an avocado-like green, but the taste is quite different. It’s citrusy and a bit tart. In the middle there’s a large pit, which you should not eat.
Keep in mind that you have to boil safou before eating them, as they are not edible when raw. But you may see cooked ones sold on sticks as a street food snack for about 50 francs each.
This is a popular dish to take along on picnics and other outings, as it’s wrapped in banana leaves or other wild leaves, making it easy to carry. In fact, the name “maboké” actually means “package” in Lingala.
I don’t speak Lingala, but from what I understand, the singular form of the word is “liboké” and the plural is “maboké”. The ingredients are cooked inside the leaves over an open flame, which burns the leaves and gives the food a slightly smoky flavor.
Later, when it’s ready to eat, the leaves transform from the pot in which to cook the food to the plate on which to eat it. Pretty much anything can be cooked in this way, and apparently veggie versions of maboké do exist. These are called “maboké ya ndounda”, but sadly I never came across one. If you find it, please let me know in the comments below!
You’ll see women selling these leaf-wrapped packages all around the port and at roadside stalls. You could even say that maboké is the national dish of the Congo.
Although some people say that award should go to moambé, a sauce made from palm nuts that’s usually eaten with some kind of meat. In any case, maboké is certainly an emblematic part of Congolese cuisine.
This is another street food snack and is great for when you’re craving something sweet. You may know beignets as a special type of pastry sold in cafés in New Orleans, but beignet is just the French word for doughnut. So we’re basically talking about fried dough.
In the Congo, beignets come in the shape of small, round balls, so really they are more like doughnut holes than doughnuts. You may also see them called “mikate” here, while in other African countries they go by many different names, such as ligemat, bofloto and puff-puff.
Sometimes eggs or butter are added to the dough, so check to be sure, but the basic recipe just calls for flour, yeast, sugar and salt. After frying, the balls are then rolled in sugar. A yummy variation is beignets à la banane, in which mashed bananas are mixed into the dough.
They are best when served piping hot! Look for them at Marché Poto Poto.
Popular Drinks in the Congo
Juices are quite popular in the Congo, including some that you’ve probably never tried before. Ever tasted baobab juice?
Here, it’s known as jus de bouye. The consistency is quite thick and creamy, so it feels more like drinking a smoothie than a juice. You can find it sold by small local shops and street-side vendors.
Another favorite of mine is bissap, which is made from a type of hibiscus flower called roselle. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same plant that’s used to make my favorite leafy green vegetable dish, oseille!
Oseille is made from the leaves of the plant, while bissap is made from the flowers. In the same way that both the roots and the leaves of the cassava plant are used to make two different dishes (chikwange and saka-saka) that are both staples in Congolese cuisine.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Congolese seem to refer to all soft drinks in general as juice. So, in the juice section of restaurant menus you might find Coke, Sprite and Fanta in addition to actual juice.
Conversely, not everything in the “beer” section of the menu is actually beer. Savanna is usually listed here, even though it’s actually a cider. Ngok, Primus and Mutzig are popular brands of beer in the Congo.
Want to know about vegan food in other parts of Africa? See these articles:
- 6 Ways to Find Vegan Food in Africa
- Vegan in Moroccan Dishes You Will Love
- Going on a Small Group Safari in Namibia as a Vegan
- The Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Malawi
- You Won't Believe How Many Dishes in Mozambique are Vegan
- Cruising the Okavango Delta as a Vegan -- with a Vegan Guide!
- What to Eat as a Vegan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Traditional Basotho Food in Lesotho
- A Vegan's Guide to Eating Out in Casablanca
- The Small but Growing Vegan Movement in Rwanda
Where to Eat in Brazzaville
This popular restaurant has a prime location, sitting on the banks of the Congo river in downtown Brazzaville. The views of Kinshasa on the opposite bank are unparalleled.
For this reason, it’s also one of the more expensive places in town, so expect to pay about the same for a main dish as you would in a nice restaurant in a Western European country. A vegetarian pizza goes for 9,500 francs, which is about 15 euros.
That being said, the side dishes offer much better value and include several vegan options. Or alternatively you could come here just for one of their refreshing fruity cocktails. Both alcohol and virgin varieties are offered.
This hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a good place to try authentic, home cooked African food, including Congolese as well as Western and Central African dishes from nearby countries.
At first glance, the menu doesn’t seem very vegan-friendly, as even the dishes in the “vegetables” section all come with some type of meat or fish. But it might be worth calling ahead (+242 06 861 3020) or popping in to ask what vegan dishes they can prepare with some advance notice.
The menu includes a separate section with dishes that must be ordered ahead of time. Among these are sautéed white beans (haricots blancs) and mbongo tchobi, a Cameroonian stew renowned for its dark black color.
Both are normally served with fish or meat, but if ordering in advance you could probably ask for it to be left out. If you just show up unannounced, as I did, you could order from among the side dishes or ask for one of the vegetable dishes (follong, ndolè or saka-saka) without meat or fish.
Side dishes include cassava fufu, corn fufu, steamed or fried plantains, and root crops known locally as igname (yam) and macabo (cocoyam). Just be prepared for many of the dishes to be unavailable on any given day.
This is an upmarket restaurant run by a very friendly and helpful chap who speaks excellent English as well as French.
Their signature dish is bun nem, and the vegetarian version of it is served with tofu. Bun nem is a light and refreshing bowl of rice noodles and fresh herbs, topped with spring rolls and grilled tofu.
Unfortunately, the fried spring rolls they normally use contain a small amount of egg, but you can ask for fresh summer rolls instead.
Résidence Hôtelière de Moungali
While I’m not sure it’s worth going out of your way to eat at this hotel restaurant, since I stayed here for eight nights I ended up eating here several times.
Vegan options are pretty much limited to spaghetti with tomato sauce or side dishes. But the side dishes here were some of the most delicious things I ate during my time in the Congo! Fried plantains and oseille is a winning combination.
And if you’re a guest at the hotel, breakfast is normally omelettes, but the staff will prepare a plate of fresh fruit instead on request. Most days this was pineapple and banana, although one day I was served apples and passion fruit.
They’ll even bring it straight to your room if you ask, which is better than waiting in the dining area, as service can be slow.
This is a very large, open-air bar and restaurant with multi-level seating looking out over the rapids where the Djoué flows into the Congo River. It was pretty quiet when I visited mid-week, but I get the feeling that it gets quite busy on the weekends.
There are several promising options for vegans on the menu, and I got excited when I saw brochettes de légumes (vegetable skewers) written on the daily specials board. But in the end, most of the items I had my eye on were unavailable, so I had to settle for saka-saka with rice.
When washed down with a cold Savanna cider, it was not bad at all. In fact, I’m consistently amazed at how delicious leafy green vegetables can be in Africa.
River Appart (L’Hôtel Rose)
This classy hotel and restaurant sits in between Les Rapides and Bantu Beach, with a dining area that overhangs the Djoué River. It’s official name is River Appart, but locals call it L’Hôtel Rose, which means “the pink hotel” in French. A quick look at the color scheme will explain this nickname.
While I didn’t have the chance to eat here myself, I did take a minute to chat with the staff and check out the menu. As usual in Brazzaville, most of the menu items were meat-focused, but the staff made it clear that they were happy to accommodate vegans and vegetarians.
They offered a few suggestions, including a soup, salad and mushroom burger. Nothing that sounded mind blowing, but I would happily give this place a try for the pleasant atmosphere and friendly vibes,
If you want a relaxing, open-air atmosphere like Les Rapides or River Appart but in a more centrally located area, the covered rooftop terrace at Chicha Café is a good option. As the name indicates, you can smoke flavored tobacco from a shisha here (a water pipe, or “chicha” in French).
They also serve some fruity cocktails, and for a little extra they’ll even pour it into a hollowed-out pineapple, with the pineapple slices served on the side.
As for the food, it’s primarily Middle Eastern cuisine, which means plenty of vegan options. In addition to common dishes like falafel, hummus and tabbouleh, there are a few you might be less familiar with.
Batata harra, for example, is a Lebanese fried potato dish with red peppers, coriander, chili, and garlic, while moutabal is an eggplant-based spread similar to baba ghanoush.
This chic Indian restaurant serves mouth-watering food and has lots of marked vegetarian options on the menu. Since dairy is used in a number of them, you’ll need to ask which of these Indian vegetarian dishes can be made vegan. Be sure to tell them you don't want ghee.
On my server’s recommendation, I ordered the veg tawa, which was excellent. Despite traveling all across India and eating in countless Indian restaurants around the world, I’d somehow never heard of this dish before.
Upon later research, I learned that a tawa is a flat, round frying pan used in India in much the same way as a wok is used in Asia. For this dish, a variety of vegetables mixed with ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and spices are cooked in the tawa.
It was honestly one of the most delicious Indian meals I’ve ever had! Neither the naan nor the chapati at Jaipur are vegan, but the tandoori roti is and makes a nice accompaniment to one of their curry dishes.
This place is primarily known in Brazzaville for its cakes and other baked goods. It also serves meals, though, and is a popular nighttime hangout.
For vegan travelers, the Lebanese section of the menu offers the most options. A colleague and I shared three vegan Lebanese dishes (hummus, moutabal and falafel), which cost 4,000 francs each and were reasonably large portions.
Other presumably vegan dishes in this section include tabbouleh, fattoush, fuul, stuffed vine leaves and hummus balila. I’d never heard of the latter, and since we weren’t sure if it contained meat we didn’t order it.
Later, I found out that hummus balila is made with the same ingredients as the usual hummus, plus cumin. The main difference is that it’s served warm and that the chickpeas are lightly mashed rather than blitzed into a purée.
If Lebanese is not your style, other options include penne all'arrabbiata, a vegetarian pizza, a vegetarian burger, and the usual starchy side dishes like plantains, potatoes and fufu.
Take the elevator to the top of this hotel, where you’ll find an amazing three-floor terrace with spectacular views out over the city.
I wasn’t expecting much when I ordered a vegetarian pizza with no cheese here, but I was pleasantly surprised! It came absolutely packed with vegetable toppings and plenty of tomato sauce. Unfortunately, the lighting was so dim that there was no way I could snap a photo.
Other possible vegan options are the homemade veggie spring rolls and veggie samosas. I didn’t ask about these though, so check with your server before ordering.
As is common in Congolese restaurants, the vegetable section of the menu consists exclusively of cooked leafy green vegetables. In this case, it’s saka-saka, oseille and something called légume verte (literally “green vegetable”).
Where to Shop in Brazzaville
This is the mother of all markets in Brazzaville, and the atmosphere here can be a bit intense and chaotic when it’s really crowded. I recommend coming at least once for the experience, but it’s not where I would choose to do my weekly shopping if I lived in Brazzaville.
You can find pretty much anything you want here, including fresh fruit, vegetables, dried beans, etc. But there’s no rhyme or reason to where the stalls are set up, so you’ll have to wander aimlessly until you find what you’re looking for.
Marché Poto Poto
This is a smaller, more manageable version of Marché Total, with a West African twist. The lively neighborhood of Poto Poto is home to many immigrants from Senegal, Mali and other West African countries.
In among the mix of clothing and homegoods stalls you’ll find fresh produce, including avocados at dirt cheap prices. You may also come across some cooked foods sold as snacks, such as banana doughnuts or safou on a stick.
Yes, this French hypermarket chain actually has a branch in downtown Brazzaville. If you’ve been in Africa for a while and are craving some of your favorite snacks from back home, this is the place to come. Just be prepared for prices to be much higher than in Paris, since everything is imported.
Wondering what else there is to do in Brazzaville besides eat? A lot, actually. Check out my top 20 things to do in Brazzaville.