West African Food: Some Like It Hot


Despite centuries of foreign domination and colonization of regions in Africa, particularly West Africa, the area’s cuisine has largely remained faithful to its origins, with adaptations of using foods introduced from other parts of the world that can benefit the consumer and the meal. This is Africa after all where an abundance of freshly grown foods is provided with a little TLC.

West-African Food Stall in Camden

Provisions From Mother Earth

Although meat has historically not been a mainstay of the West African diet, it is certainly much more prevalent today with chicken, for example, being widely available. However, it is the root and leaf vegetables, as well as fruits that are the backbone of West African meals. To the uninitiated, food from this area will seem to be heavy with starches, but there is good reason for that as these crops are plentiful and inexpensive to grow, as well as being an excellent source for carbohydrates to provide energy for working in a hot climate, and they expand in the stomach to give a feeling of having eaten more.

Oil Is A Compliment

To categorize a country as having specialties is difficult in West Africa as food fare is identified more through regions than by nationalities, although there are some definite commonalities. An example is the widely popular use of palm nut oil as a cooking medium that results in producing an oily dish if used in excess, as is often the case. Palm nut oil is not to be confused with palm kernel oil with the latter being much higher in saturated fats. However, one must understand that it is a form of paying the highest respect in West African culture to be liberal with oil, although this custom has diminished in an effort to appease tastes from elsewhere. As a variant, shea butter is used to a lesser extent that imparts less of an oily characteristic and provides a unique texture to food.

Turn Up The Heat

Fish is more common in coastal regions, although there is nothing extraordinary about that. There is not as varied a selection of spices in West African meals compared to many other global areas, but what is used is copious to enliven bland crops like plantain. As mentioned earlier, other food cultures have made an appearance and it is very common to use hot peppers to make a dish more prolific. A further justification for their use is a widespread belief that sweat induced by chili peppers in this tropical climate actually aids the body to stay cool, with ginger and cayenne likewise ranking in popularity.

Peanuts, and everything based from this legume, is a staple food and its importance is so high that much of the GDP of the smallest African nation, The Gambia, is based on the peanut with this vegetable being used in everything from soup to pastes. There is even a type of peanut doughnut, Klouikloui, which is a favored treat.

Know The Lingo

Like chili pepper, the tomato is another introduction from North America and used in even the simplest dishes, such as a thick stew of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mashed corned beef.  Two perhaps obvious things to remember before diving into West African fare are, as in other places on the globe, these foods echo a culture… when in Rome… Secondly, the nomenclature should be learned to understand gastronomic offerings. As a sampler, these are some common ones:

  • Egusi – a thick paste made from watermelon seeds used to flavor meats.
  • Fufu – a doughy product made from the root crop cassava and widely eaten with soups and stews and serves as an eating utensil by being formed with the thumb into the shape of a spoon.
  • Maafe – a peanut-based stew
  • Jollof rice – consists of rice, tomatoes, chili pepper, vegetables, meat or fish.
  • Alloco – fried plantain often served with chili peppers and onion.
  • Akara – a fritter made from black-eyed peas and stuffed with vegetables, fried shrimp and hot pepper sauce.
  • Puff Puff – closest variation to a Western style doughnut.

Hydration In The Nations

In the drink category, it’s probably wise for travelers to protect their digestive systems in West Africa by avoiding water, unless a reputable company that has an intact seal on the container bottles it. Mango, watermelon or sugar cane juices are good alternatives, and there is an excellent supply of international and African beers. There is a local wine made from the palm, but needs an acquired taste. Coffee is not as plentiful as one might expect as most of it is exported, with tea being a better option.

Featured images:

Travelers sometimes identify a location with the variety of foods in a particular area. However, as Richard Hand discovered on his trip with ContinentTours.com, this can be somewhat of a challenge in West Africa.

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