Monkey Bread, But It’s Not What You Think: Baobabs – Africa’s Upside-Down “Cream of Tartar” Trees

Baobab Silhouette (Used with permission.)
Baobab Silhouette (Used with permission.)

They carried me to a particular spot where I saw a herd of antelopes; but I laid aside all thoughts of sports, as soon as I I perceived a tree of prodigious thickness, which drew my attention. This was a calabash tree (baobab), which the Jaloffes call quol in their language. There was nothing extraordinary in its height; for it was only about fifty feet; but its trunk was of prodigious thickness. I extended my arms, as wide as possible I could, thirteen times, before I embraced its circumference; and for greater exactness, I measured it round afterwards with a pack thread, and found it to be sixty-five feet: and consequently the diameter was nearly twenty-two. I do not believe that the like was even seen in any other part of the world; and I am persuaded that if our ancient voyagers had been acquainted with this tree, they would have added some surprising circumstances to its description.

~~Michel Adanson, Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (1757)

The legendary missionary/explorer David Livingstone drew the freakish baobab tree as a giant carrot planted upside down. But unlike others of his day, he did not believe the trees could live 5000 years –  more like 1000 – and science has proved him right over the years. Like just about everything else associated with Africa, legends abound in native cultures about the baobab — also called the “monkey bread” or “cream of tartar” — tree and how it came to be.

One version goes thus: at the time of Creation, the baobab complained to the Creator of the Universe that it wanted to be tall like the palm, beautiful with flowers like the flame tree, and on and on. The Creator grew so tired of the whining that the only thing to do was to turn the tree upside down to silence it. Myth has it that the tree never uttered a complaint afterward.

Baobab Seed Pod (Used with permission.)
Baobab Seed Pod (Used with permission.)

Thus the legendary baobab is really the ultimate survivor, living as it does in some of the harshest environments on Earth.

According to another widespread folk belief, people get fat if they drink or eat products made from the baobab. The tree’s waistline measures anywhere from 25 to 30 feet and its height surpasses 40 feet in some cases. And many women believe that the trees act as a fertility agent, sacrificing goats and roosters at the base of certain, sacred trees in hopes of bearing children, healthy or otherwise.

The baobab plays a prominent role in the tale, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), by the explorer and pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which nearly every student of the French language reads at one point or another.

The Planet of Le Petit Prince
The Planet of Le Petit Prince

Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them. A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces … ~~Chapter 5, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Now I am not sure exactly why the Little Prince hated baobabs so much, but it probably had to do with a fear that the roots of the baobab would rip apart the Little Prince’s planet.

In spite of its size and other shortcomings, the majestic baobab provides much that is good for the people of Africa and other tropical areas of the world. People cook with baobab leaves, fruit, seeds, young sheets, and roots. Other parts of the tree yield useful items, like material for rope and medicinal products. And the hard sweet-potato-shaped fruit husks make dandy testicle covers, too.

C. Bertelsen)
Baobab, or Monkey Bread, Seed Pod (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

But like a creature from a horror movie, killing one takes some doing. Ellen Drake says, “Baobab trees are difficult to kill. They are almost impossible to chop down. The wood is so spongy that an axe either bounces off, or gets stuck in the soft water-laden trunk. The tree is too thick to saw through easily. Ring-barking, fatal to most trees, does not usually kill a baobab. … It is resistant to fire.” But elephants can and do destroy the water-logged baobabs.

Ancient Egyptians knew about the baobab and so did al-Barki, who is credited with the first written mention of the baobab in world literature in 1068. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan explorer, wrote about the baobab in 1352 in regard to a weaver who set up his shop in the hollow trunk of a thriving baobab tree. The name “baobab” stems from the Arabic word bu hibab (“the fruit with many seeds”). Azupara described baobabs of “108 hands circumference” in 1477. A little later, Prospero Alpino, a Venetian herbalist wrote in 1592 about the bu hubob fruit he’d seen in Cairo markets. But it fell to Michel Adanson, a Frenchman, to be the first person to describe these behemoths in detail in 1757. Adanson’s work led Carl Linneaus to name the tree after Adanson, Adansonia digitata.

Baobab Flower (Used with permission of Dinesh Valke.)
Baobab Flower (Used with permission of Dinesh Valke.)

The baobab is rich in calcium, and women and children in Senegal eat it for that reason. Hausi and Fulani farming communities concoct a drink from the fruit. Cooks use the leaves, particularly the young ones, like spinach, dried and powdered, in soups or sauces as a thickener, much like okra or file powder in the American South. The Wolofs of Senegal harvest young leaves in February or March and dry them to make a thickening powder for sauces eaten with couscous. The white powder from the seeds can be used as cream of tartar in baking. The acidic pulp acts like rennet and curdles milk. And some groups burn the pulp of the baobab’s fruit to smoke the ubiquitous smoked fish of West Africa, what I call “West African” bacon. Cooks use smoked fish in the same way that Southern cooks in the U.S. use smoked pork to season greens, stews, and sauces.

Baobab Seed Pod Opened (Used with permission.)
Opened Baobab Seed Pod (Used with permission.)

Baobab seeds are hard to get into, but once the covers split off, the seeds substitute for coffee, as well as providing a special oil only used on festive occasions in Senegal.

In other words, the people of traditional Africa see the baobab as a “tree of life.”


Mowana Madila (Botswana)

Cooks ferment and drain milk to make madila (sour milk), which is a favorite addition to porridge. Madila can also be eaten on its own.”

2 ¼ cups baobab fruit pulp (including seeds)

3 cups fresh milk

Sugar or honey (optional)

Soak pulp in milk about 30 minutes. Mash pulp with your fingers to clean the pulp off the seeds. Remove the seeds. This makes a sour milk much like yogurt, with the thickness of heavy cream. Add to porridge or drink on its own. Adding sugar or honey makes the drink a little sweeter.

Mabuyu (Kenya)

1 medium baobab fruit

1/2 cup water

3/4 cup sugar

1 T. red food coloring

1 T. raspberry flavoring or extract

Cayenne pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon)

Pinch of salt

Crack open the pods and remove the pulp. Mash pulp in a bowl to separate the seeds from one another and remove loose powder. Try to remove as much fiber as possible. Set aside.

Boil the water, sugar, red food coloring, and raspberry flavoring until the mixture thickens like a syrup; approximately 15 minutes. Reduce heat and add baobab seeds to the syrup. Stir constantly to keep from scorching. When the seeds become hard, like candy, and the syrup is absorbed, remove from heat and pour into a clean, non-glass dish. Cool until hard. Eat Mabuyu like candy. Watch out for the seeds if your teeth tend to break or crack while biting on hard objects!

Naboulou (Meat & baobab leaves in peanut sauce)

This variation of Mafé is well-known and eaten daily all over West Africa, especially in Senegal, The Gambia, Mali and the Ivory Coast. Meat simmers in a sauce thickened with ground peanuts and leaves, in this case baobab. This stew’s sweet-salty flavor epitomes the taste of West African food.

6-8 servings

2 T. oil

2 ibs. beef chuck roast, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, mashed and minced

1 T. fresh ginger, minced

2-4 T. tomato paste

2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped plum tomatoes

1 –  cups water or beef stock

1 cup natural, unsalted peanut butter

Salt and pepper  to taste

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the meat and sauté until lightly browned on all sides, 5 – 6 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Add the onion to the oil in the pot and sauté until translucent, 3 – 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger; sauté another 1 – 2 minutes. Do not allow the garlic to burn.

Return meat to the pot, stir in the tomato paste, and fry for about 1 minute. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 8-10 minutes to soften the tomatoes.

Add enough water or stock to give the dish to a stew-like consistency. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Stir in the peanut butter, salt and pepper. Simmer for another 40 minutes or until the meat is tender and oil rises to the surface of the dish. Add water as necessary to keep the dish stew-like.

Taste for seasoning and serve with rice or couscous.


Use goat or cut-up chicken instead of beef. Or use chicken pieces.

When you add the water or stock, stir in some vegetables such as cabbage, yams, squash, okra, eggplant, potatoes, peppers or carrots. Make a vegetarian versions with only vegetables.

Kuka Soup (Northern Nigeria)

Serves 4

½ lb. kuka (baobab) leaves

½ lb. dried ground orko(okra)

1 fresh chile pepper

4 fresh tomatoes

1 large onion, peeled, and coarsely chopped

1 lb. dried, smoked, or fresh fish

6 tablespoons palm oil

4 cups stock or water

Salt to taste

Chop the tomatoes, onions, and chiles in a blender or food processor. Cook the blended ingredients in the oil for15 minutes. Add the okro and kuka leaves, stir and cook for 10 minutes. Wash and clean the fish; if using fresh fish, season with salt and pepper. Add to the pot. Pour the stock into a large pot. Cook until fish and other ingredients are done.

Season to taste and serve hot tuwo shinkafa (Hausa meal made from mashed boiled rice and served with soup)

Read More about Baobabs:

A Book of Baobabs, by Ellen Drake

Histoire Naturelle du Sénégal (1757), Michel Adanson

“The medico-social and cultural significance of Adansonia digitata (baobab) in African communites,” African Notes: Bulletin of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan (Vol. 6, no. 1, p. 24-36), by John Owen

The Remarkable Baobab, by Thomas Pakenham

West African Food in the Middle Ages: According to Arabic Sources, by Tadeusz Lewicki, p. 67-68

Possible Source of Baobab Powder: Baobab Fruit Company Senegal (no personal knowledge of this company and therefore no responsibility other than to state that it exists)

“A visitor who indicated intention to visit, does not get to eat a freshly killed chicken.” ~~African proverb

© 2008 C. Bertelsen



Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s