Flavor Principles Out of Africa: A Fish Tale

Africa smoked fishUse of Smoked and Dried Fish as a Flavoring in Africa

When looking at the role of fish – smoked, dried, fresh, salted – in the diets of people in Africa, it is only natural to note that people settle most often by water, for the obvious reason that water drives life. Fish provided, and still provide, one of the major sources of animal protein in the diets of many people in Africa, almost 22% according to a report by CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research).[1]

Smoked and dried fish (and other seafood like shellfish) supply flavoring as well as protein, too. It is my belief that eventually smoked, salted pork replaced the smoked, salted fish in the diets of Africans brought as slaves to the southern United States.

There are three places where people find fish in Africa, aside from fish imported from the rest of the world, a topic to which we will briefly return later.

Photo credit: Mark Abell

Photo credit: Mark Abell

In West Africa, the Senegal, Niger, Volta, and Banu rivers render freshwater fish, while in Central Africa, the Congo River takes on that role. And in southern Africa, there are the Orange, Limpopo, and Zambezi Rivers. North Africa lacks major rivers except for the mighty, legendary Nile in the east and its Blue and White tributaries. Lakes also provided, and still provide, fish: Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Chad, and Lake Nyasa. The coastlines of Africa also yield a number of different species of fish that take well to traditional preservation technologies.

Before refrigeration, people naturally either ate everything all at once or sought and then developed technologies to handle the problems of rotting and the ensuing waste of perfectly good food. Another possible benefit of the consumption of fish lies with a possible anti-sickling effect.[2]

Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink

Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink

In the case of fish, smoking and drying, along with salting, tended to be the major methods of preservation throughout most of Africa for centuries, and primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. So entrenched was the desire for fish that it became a medium of commerce and trade. In his book, In Colonial West Africa, Michael Crowder mentions that “The principal items exchanged for gold and slaves were cheap liquor, salt, cloth, dried fish, iron bars, copper, brass, cowrie shells, and guns.”

Smoking (called “hot smoking”) allows various chemical (phenol, aldehydes, and tars) to form on the fish, which prohibits bacterial growth. Drying reduces the moisture content of fish, making hygroscopic bacteria less likely to invade and render the product unfit for consumption.

Africa fish smoking 2The smoking process is relatively simple:  posts are driven into the ground and racks covered with fish laid across the posts, with fires built underneath. Oil drums are also used, much in the same way that smokers developed for the barbecue market in the U.S. For example, in the Masaka District of Uganda, smoking took anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for a fish called Mukene (Rastrineobola argentea or Silver Cyprinid).[3]

Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink

Photo credit: Carsten ten Brink

Drying also occurs on racks in some locales, while in others fish are place directly on the sand or other ground and left to dry in the sun. In the case of the Mukene mentioned above, drying took approximately 5 hours using old mosquito nets suspended in the hot sun.

But what of the products produced by the smoking, drying, salting, and fermentation of fish? And how are they used?

Primarily flavor enhancers, smoked and dried fish generally are used sparingly in cooking, almost in the same manner as Italian cooks use anchovies to add another layer of flavor to certain dishes.

Fassekh, found in Egypt and the Sudan, is small fish fermented with salt. Around the Gulf of Benin, people smoke and dry shrimp.

In Senegal, a whole series of fermented fish products exist. Many dishes make use of dried mollusks called yeet (yet) as well guedge (geej), another fermented fish. Tambajang refers to small fish fermented whole, not peeled or eviscerated, less strong than geej. On the coast tambajang is used as a condiment if geej is not available. In the interior, cooks used tambajang as a principal source of protein in rice or millet dishes.[4]

Sali, made in Saint-Louis, Senegal, is also used as a flavor enhancer. It’s a very salty product made of fish with dense flesh (white carp, grosse dorade also called pagre) and is rarely consumed in Dakar. In rural areas, cooks most commonly add this to rice dishes, such as Sali gaynde. Consumed in Burkina, Togo, Congo, and Gabon, sali is becoming a market item produced in areas where it never used to be.[5]

Africa fish smokingDried stockfish from Scandinavia appears in West African markets, too. Prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian fleet also provided West Africa with fish.

Supplying the surging market demand for fish means that aquaculture might have to be looked at more closely:

Accounting for just 2 percent of the world’s aquaculture today, sub-Saharan Africa has tremendous potential for growth in aquaculture. If it were to dedicate to this purpose just 5 percent of the area that is suitable, the region could produce enough extra fish to meet the needs of its increased population to 2020, at current per-capita consumption rates.[6]

Part of the problem is that even if there is technically enough fish to provide people with it, bacterial and mold contamination, as well as insect infestation (particularly beetles), cause losses sometimes up to 40% of total production at the local, artisanal level. Drying and smoking at the artisanal level are hit-or-miss affairs a lot of the time.

A FAO report enumerates the constraints on trade and states that in the U.K. as much one-fourth of the dried or smoked fish shipped to Britain is turned down by the Port health authorities.[7] Guesstimates (as of 2003) suggest that over 500 tons of smoked fish could be entering the U.K. alone to meet the demand of the African diaspora residing there. A 2009 report by The Icon Group International forecasts probable futures for smoked fish around the world, including many countries in Africa.[8]

Fish is thus taking on an increasingly important part of the human diet in Africa, but it has always been an important component of many traditional dishes. Some of these dishes include Okra Soup, a fairly ubiquitous dish, and Smoked Fish with Vegetables.

Photo credit: Johnida Dockens

Photo credit: Johnida Dockens

Okra Soup
Serves 4

½ lb. beef, goat, or lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ t. ground red pepper
3 medium onions, sliced thinly
2 medium tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 quart water
½ lb. crabmeat
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ lb. smoked shrimp, ground (used a blender or food processor)
½ lb. smoked fish, deboned and skinned
1 lb. fresh young okra, cut into chunks (or 1 1-lb. package frozen okra)
½ c. red palm oil or vegetable oil or a mixture of the two

Put meat, salt, peppers, sliced onions, crushed tomatoes, and ½ c. water in a heavy pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add crab and the remaining water; cook meat until tender, about 1 hour. Add eggplant to soup, along with the shrimp, fish, okra. Season to taste. Pour in oil. Cook soup uncovered for 10 more minutes. When done, let soup sit for a few minutes to thicken slightly. Serve with fufu balls or akple (cassava corndough balls made with fermented cornmeal).

Africa fish with riceSmoked Fish with Vegetables (Guinea-Bissau) (A version of Maafe)
Serves 4

¾ c. palm oil or half palm oil and half vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 Scotch Bonnet pepper or habanero, seeded and deveined, chopped finely
4 fresh medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 lb. smoked white fish, skinned and boned
¼ t. freshly ground black pepper
1 t. salt or to taste
1 lb. fresh spinach, washed, drained, and cut into shreds

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet; add onions and cook until translucent, then add the garlic and hot pepper. Cook for about 30 seconds, then stir in the tomatoes. Cook approximately 5 – 10 minutes. Add about 1 cup of water and the fish, pepper, and salt. Lower heat and simmer about 10 minutes. Stir in the spinach. Cook 5 more minutes. Serve with white rice.

(To be continued …)


[1] CGIAR

[2] R. N. Nwagouikpe and A. A. Uwakwe. “The antisickling effects of dried fish (tilapia) and dried prawn (Astacus red).” Journal of Applied Sciences and Environmental Management 9(3):115-119, 2005.

[3] M. Masette.. “Low-cost processing technologies for Mukene (Rastrineobola argentea).” FAO Fisheries Report. No. 819. 2007. (From abstract)

[4] Fatou Ndoye, Pascale Moity-Maïzi, and Cécile Broutin. De la pirogue au plat: Le poisson fumé sur la Pete Côte sénégalese. CIRAD, 2002, p. 70.

[5] Ibid., p. 70-71.

[6] Ibid.

[7] FAO. A Study of the Trade in Smoke-Dried Fish from West Africa to the United Kingdom. FAO Fisheries Circular, No. 981, Rome, 2003.

[8] The Icon Group International. The 2009 Forecasts of Smoked Fish Export Supplies. September 2008.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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