Flavor Principles Out of Africa: It’s the Beans

Fermented Foods, Especially Oilseeds,
as Flavoring in the Cuisines of Africa

Opo Iru ko ba obbe je. (Yoruba proverb): Plenty of Iru [dawadawa] does not spoil the stew.

Africa parkia_biglobosa_stampIn Africa, as in other parts of the world, fermented foods form an important part of the diet. Made from plant and animal materials, these foods are transformed into more intensely flavored products by the presence of bacteria, yeasts, and molds. These modify the original foods (or substrates) physically, nutritionally, and organoleptically.

The ancient process of fermentation can be defined as a situation where beneficial microorganisms produce energy anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen) by the oxidization of carbohydrates and related substrates.

Fermentation, according to Keith H. Steinkraus, results in:

  1. Preservation of substantial amounts of food through lactic acid, alcohol, acetic acid and alkaline fermentations.
  2. Enrichment of the diet through development of a diversity of flavors,
  3. aromas, and textures in food substrates.
  4. Biological enrichment of food substrates with protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins.
  5. Detoxification during food-fermentation processing.
  6. A decrease in cooking times and fuel requirements.[1]

Point 1 concerns us here – the “diversity of flavors” wrought by fermentation.

A whole host of fermented foods exists in Africa. Grain products range from the kenkey of Ghana to the gari of West Africa, as well as ensete and injera in Ethiopia, ting in Botswana, and numerous other similar foods.[2] Dairy products include nunu as prepared in Nigeria, where bacteria, yeasts, and molds come into play: Lactobacilli (L. acidophilus and L. bulgaris), Lactococci spp. (L. cremoni and L. lactis), Streptococcus thermophilus, Leuconostoc spp. and Saccharomyces. Similar to lassi (India) and dahi (Middle East), nunu illustrates how people developed ways to preserve food and boost their nutritional intake.[3]

Among the foods traditionally available to people in Africa are numerous oil seeds, used in a manner similar to the Mesoamerican utilization of ground pumpkin and squash seeds, which add calories as well as protein. In Africa, a number of different oil seeds are also fermented. This treatment produces alkaline fermented food condiments.

Africa Parkia BiglobosaOne of the most commonly used seeds comes from the tree known as the African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa), a plant native to western India. Common names for the tree include stink bean, stinkboon (Dutch), arbre à farine (French), Dawa (German), farroba (Portuguese), and néré (West Africa).[4] Each tree produces approximately 25 to 52 kg. of pods per year, which in turn yields around 6 to 13 kg of fermentable beans.

The fermented product goes by a number of names – soumbara, soumbalanéré, dawadawa / daddawa, iru, ogi, kinda, kpalugu, nététou, and daddowa.[5]

Soumbala is a fermented product from the African locust bean tree. According to FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin 142 (2000), four indigenous species of this perennial tropical tree legume are represented. The seed of the crop is fermented in West Africa to yield a product used both as a food condiment and as a meat substitute in soups. It is referred to as dawadawa or daddawa by the Hausas, iru by the Yorubas of southern Nigeria, kpalugu in Ghana, khinda in Sierra Leone, nététou in the Gambia [and Senegal] and soumbala or soumbara in many francophone West African countries [including Burkina Faso]. A recently published relevant article is entitled ‘Exploiting the potential of indigenous agroforestry trees: Parkia biglobosa and Vitellaria paradoxa in sub-Saharan Africa,’ by Z. Teklehaimanot, in Agroforestry Systems 61: 207-220, May 2004.[6]

Fermentation adds to the protein quality and content of the beans, as well as producing an ingredient added to various dishes, including rice, sauces, and soups. The yield from 100 kg. of dried seed is approximately 70 kg., according to Keith H. Steinkraus.[7] Chemically, fermented locust beans contain a number of components, over 166 according to one study: pyrazines, aldehydes, ketones, esters, alcohols, acids, alkanes, alkenes, amines, pyridines, benzenes, phenols, sulphurs, and furans. One study found over 116 different such components.[8]

Used chiefly as a flavor enhancer, dawadawa also adds thiamine and riboflavin to diets and acts as a protein source, too, with 40 percent of the material being rich in lysine, a boon for diets utilizing large amounts of corn.[9]

Many studies exist on the best way to ferment these seeds and to create some sort of controlled production, since in 1986, over 170,000 tons of dawadawa was produced in West Africa.

Other fermented seeds include melon seeds (ogiri or Citrullus vulgaris); seeds of red sorrel – also called roselle – (Hibiscus sabdariffa); oso, a condiment made from the fermented seeds of another leguminous tree, Cathormion altissimum; ogiri-igbo developed from castor oil seeds; ugba, a product made from the African oil bean seed Pentaclethra machrophylla; ogiri-nwan (fluted pumpkin beans, Telfaria occidentale); and sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum) in Sierra Leone. Three fermented condiments from Benin include afitin, iru and sonru. Even though technically the same idea applies (cotyledons treated in much the same manner), soybean daddawa deteriorates faster under storage conditions than does locust-bean dawadawa.[10]

Africa soumbala 2

Sounbala/Dawadawa/Iru

Production of these fermented products variety from region to region. A home-based recipe from Principles of Cooking in West Africa provides detailed instructions for the making of fermented African oil-bean seeds:

Preparation of Fermented African Oil Bean Seeds

The African oil bean seeds are prepared using the following steps:

  • Boil the seeds of the African oil beans for approximately 90 minutes.
  • Peel the oil bean seeds.
  • Cut the seeds into slivered slices.
  • Mix the slivered slices with potash[11] and salt as needed.
  • Pick approximately 8 oz. [ ½ pound] of the slivered seeds and fold in a plantain leaf cut in approximate size of 5 X 8 ins.
  • Place all folded slivered seeds near a heat source or sun for approximately one week to ferment. The seeds are then ready to be used for flavoring soup.[12]

However, other commentators appear to contradict Essang’s version.

According to Steinkraus, after boiling the seeds for 24 hours, elderly female informants recounted that they remove the seed coats and dehull the beans. Beans are usually placed inside either leaves or cloth coverings. A mucilage forms, and after several periods of production, no inoculum is necessary as the production area walls and equipment are heavily imbued with it. Studies show that optimum fermentation takes either 36 hours at 35 C or 48 hours at 40 C.[13] Different fermentation times result in different products, used for different dishes. The fermented seeds are gathered up and formed into balls the size of golf balls or flattened into small cakes like hockey pucks. Sometimes vendors make a powder from dried dawadawa and sell that as an additive for stews and soups. Modern cooks often use Maggi cubes instead for flavoring. The taste and smell of dawadawa can be quite fierce. The bacteria in question is primarily Bacillus subtilis, as well as other species of Bacillus and Leuconostoc. Ph increases from 7.0 to 8.1 after 36 hours of fermentation, free amino acids increase fivefold, and anti-nutritional factors like oligosaccharides, phytic acid, and oxalate decrease.

So important is dawadawa to West Africans that folktales arose about it, as “The Locust Bean Seller”[14] relates:

There was a time when locust beans were very hard to find. That was unfortunate because they were an important ingredient of people’s soup. So this shortage of locust beans made the locust-bean sellers very rich. They got very rich indeed – richer than almost anybody else – but they were still very stingy.

One day one of these locust-bean sellers went to the river to wash her locust beans to prepare them for market. Despite the fact that she had many servants and slaves, she did not take anyone to the river with her. She decided to go alone, in case her servants and slaves might steal her locust beans.

In the river she washed her locust beans neatly and very carefully, so that not a single bean dropped into the river. But as she lifted her calabash from the ground, one of the beans dropped into the river and got carried away by the water. The stingy locust-bean seller jumped into the river and went after it. She swam downstream with the current, saying “One locust bean, one locust bean, if you go to sea, I’ll follow you there.”

The current of the river took her farther and farther away, into the deep part of the river, until she was seen no more. She went after the one locust bean until she lost her life.

Such is the fate of stingy people.

One example of the type of dishes made with dawadawa is Sunday Stew:[15]

Africa locust bean soupSunday Stew
Serves 4

½ c. peanut or palm oil (or a combination of both)
2 lbs. beef chuck, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 onions, 1 sliced and 1 chopped coarsely
½ t. thyme
½ t. salt
½ t. ground red pepper
3 large tomatoes, chopped coarsely
¼ c. tomato paste
1 t. Maggi Sauce or dawadawa

Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add beef, sliced onion, thyme, salt, and red pepper. Cook until meat is browned, between 10 and 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, purée the coarsely chopped onion and the tomatoes in a blender.

Add the puréed vegetables, tomato paste, and Maggi Sauce/dawadawa to the sauce.

Cook for 45 minutes longer, uncovered, over low heat. Add a few tablespoons of water periodically if necessary to keep sauce from sticking. Serve with rice or fufu.

Another recipe is Smoked Fish with Tomato and Yam:[16]

Photo credit: Louis Kreusel

Photo credit: Louis Kreusel

Smoked Fish with Tomato and Yam
Serves 4

2 onions, 1 thinly chopped, the other coarsely chopped
2 lbs. yam, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
½ t. salt
2 medium tomatoes, chopped coarsely
5 T. tomato paste
½ t. ground red pepper
3 T. red palm oil
2 t. ground crayfish or 2 whole dried shrimps
1 t. Maggi Sauce or dawadawa
¼ lb. dried smoked fish, soaked and drained and flaked

Heat 1 ½ c. water in a heavy pot large enough to hold the yams. Add yams, sliced onion, and salt. Bring to a boil.

Purée the coarsely chopped onion and the tomatoes in a blender. Add to the yam mixture, along with tomato paste, red pepper, palm oil, crayfish/shrimp, and Maggi Sauce/dawadawa.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, over low heat until yam is soft, about 15 minutes.

Remove 2 large spoonfuls of the yam mixture with a slotted spoon, drain off the liquid, mash on a plate or cutting board, and return to the pot.

Stir in smoked fish and simmer 20 more minutes, until sauce is very thick. Serve with rice.


[1] K. H. Steinkraus, ed. Handbook of Indigenous Fermented Foods. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc. 1995, p. 3.

[2] For a partial list in table format of some of the fermented grain products of Africa, see Fran Osseo-Asare, Betumi Blog, September 25, 2007.

[3] J. O. Nebedum and T. Obiakor. “The Effects of Different Preservation Methods on the Quality of Nunu, a Locally Fermented Nigerian Dairy Product.” African Journal of Biotechnology 6 (4): 454-458, 19 February 2007.

[4] J. Seidemann. World Spice Plants: Economic Usage, Botany, Taxonomy. New York: Springer, 2005, p. 273-274.

[5] Larry R. Beuchat. “13 Indigenous Fermented Foods.”

[6] FAO Biotech Forum.

[7] Keith H. Steinkraus (1995), p. 353.

[8] L. I. I. Ouoba et al. “Volatile Compounds of Soumbala, a Fermented African Locust Bean (Parkia Biglobosa).” Journal of Applied Microbiology 99(6): 1413-1421.

[9] Steinkraus (1995), p. 356.

[10] A. L. Koalpo, T. O. S. Popoola, and M. Sanni. “Evaluation of Biochemical Deterioration of Locust Bean Daddawa and Soybean Daddawa-Two Nigerian Condiments.” American Journal of Food Technology 2 (5): 440-445, 2007.

[11] Potash is potassium carbonate made from wood ash by leaching the wood ash and boiling down the residue.

[12] Raymond Essang. Principles of Cooking in West Africa: Learn the African Heritage Foo Foo and Soup Cooking. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2006, p. 7.

[13] Steinkraus (1995), p. 353.

[14] Spears, Richard, ed. “The Locust Bean Seller.” West African Folktales: Collected and Translated by Jack Berry. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991, p. 35.

[15] Elizabeth Jackson. South of the Sahara: Traditional Cooking from the Lands of West Africa. Hollis, New Hampshire: Fantail, 1999, p. 136.

[16] Jackson, p. 150.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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