Flavor Principles Out of Africa: West Africa

Africa women market
Jos, Nigeria (Photo credit: Mike Blyth)

Cooking in Africa follows certain patterns:

  • Universals – Onions, tomatoes, peppers
  • Starches – Cassava, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, cornmeal (mealie meal and samp or dried corn kernels, etc.), bananas, plantains, yams, rice, millet, sorghum, fonio, couscous
  • Thickeners – Okra, melon and squash seeds (egusi), peanuts
  • Vegetables – Pumpkin and other squashes, green leaves, okra, eggplant, black-eyed peas

West Africa is no exception to this culinary pattern.

This part of Africa includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

Africa West mapIn some regards, Americans “know” West African cooking, because in the cooking of the American South, traces of it surface like oil on a sauce. While each country in the region boasts of its own signature dishes, the pattern of cooking – stew with starch – persists.

As Fran Osseo-Asare points out in various locations – Food Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa (Greenwood Press, 2005) and “ ‘We Eat First with Our Eye’: On Ghanaian Cuisine” (Gastronomica, Winter 2002), in Ghana (and elsewhere in West Africa, indeed across much of Africa), the “holy trinity” of tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers, usually Scotch bonnets, predominates. Grouping these ingredients resembles a similar technique – “sofrito” used in the Caribbean, “sofritto” in Italy, and even France with its mire-poix. (Not a new concept, the term “holy trinity” in cuisine also refers to the  onions, green peppers, and celery of  Louisiana’s Cajun cuisine and to the beans, corn, and squashes of Mesoamerican cuisine, though some observers call it the “three sisters” (las tres hermanas) . Thanks to Gary Allen for clarifying this!)

Photo credit: Nicolas Longchamp
Photo credit: Nicolas Longchamp

More than in other regions of Africa, West Africans utilize Scotch bonnet chile peppers with a liberal hand in many of their sauces and stews. The bite and fire of these extremely hot peppers (Scofield units 200,000 – 300,000) add a unique flavor as well as heat.*

Africa fufu

Apart from the ‘holy trinity’ mentioned above, West Africans include a number of starches in their diets, which add flavor as well as a foil to the hotness of the peppers. Grains like millet, sorghum, fonio, corn, and rice (Oryza glaberrima) join with cassava, yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, bananas, and plantains. Okra (gombo), pumpkins, eggplant, and black-eyed peas appear in many sauces and stews; black-eyed peas form the basis for a popular fried snack, the well-loved akara fritter.  Greens such as bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) and cassava or sweet potato leaves add a desired bitter taste much appreciated, while palm oil adds flavor and texture to many dishes.

Another fat source, the shea nut (Butryospermum parkii), imparts the prized mouthfeel of fat. Called karité in French, which comes from the Arabic word ghartī, the shea nut provides a butter often used in cooking. The economic value of shea lies more in its use in cosmetics in Europe and the United States. Other nut-like foods include peanuts and bambara groundnuts. The fruit of the baobab tree is in a class by itself.

Fruits like ripe bananas, pineapples, coconuts, and citrus provide a touch of sweetness. Cooks use spices and herbs like ginger, coriander, and thyme sparingly but knowingly.  Potash (potassium carbonate) is another flavoring used by some cooks, made from wood-fire ashes in an ancient process that was used by settlers in North America, too.

Africa Maggi cubesMaggi cubes season many stews, as do traditional fermented products like dawadawa, made from the fermentation of African locust beans (Parkia biglobosa) or other oily seeds like sesame. Dried or smoked fish or ground shellfish flavor a number of sauces, stews, and other dishes, including condiments, in much the same way that anchovies flavor many Italian dishes like Green Sauce (Salsa Verde), ragùs, or various versions of meatballs.

[*Note: Scotch bonnet and habaneros are not the same thing. It is misleading to think that West Africans as a whole like hotness to the nth degree. For a potluck attended by Ghanaians, I recently cooked a pumpkin stew using a large butternut squash instead of pumpkin. I tossed in two seeded and chopped habanero peppers, not big ones at all, added a tiny pinch of cayenne for good measure, a 1 pound bag of okra, and the holy trinity, plus a few sprigs of fresh thyme and little peanut butter to thicken the lot. One of the accompanying dishes, I was told, would be coconut rice. No problem, I thought; the sweetness from the squash and the coconut rice would cut any excess fire. Well, not exactly as it turned out, but  among the people at the table, I was the only one who ate much of the squash dish. In Burkina Faso, where I’d lived for a period of time, chile hotness pervades the daily food far more than in Ghana.]

© 2009 C. Bertelsen



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