From bold and spicy palm oil to nutty egusi seeds, we are rolling out the red carpet for the most popular ingredients used in making delicious and exciting West African dishes. Get to know the basics of West African diet culture and explore its most popular flavors here!
Unrefined Palm Oil
It is commonly called Red oil because of its rich and unique reddish-orange color. It features in most traditional meals, especially soups and stews, honorable mention—Egusi soup. It is extracted from the fleshy fruits of the oil palm tree, and serves as a cooking base for soups and stews, as well as other dishes, like yam pottage, or the local Ijebu delicacy, Ikorore.
Its delectable and rich flavor gives an aftertaste that lingers long after the table (or floor) is cleared (a moment of silence for all the cute outfits that got ruined because of palm oil stains and those that will be ruined in the future).
There is an air of controversy surrounding the health benefits of palm oil. Many believe that it poses a health risk. And yes, I’ll pay to see someone try to convince my mom and aunts to quit palm oil, it should be fun.
All hail the King! Your royal Highness, Plantain! (because the cost of plantain in the market these days is something else). Plantain is a starchy fruit that originated from Southeast Asia and can be eaten both ripe (yellow and black in color), and unripe (green).
Plantain can be cooked in different ways: steamed, boiled, baked, grilled (Nigerian Boli) and fried (Ivorian Claclo). Plantain flour is used to substitute the regular wheat flour and also to make fufu (mash) which can be eaten with a variety of local soups and stews. Not only is plantain a rich source of carbs, vitamins and minerals, it’s also a source of happiness for a lot of people, especially myself (Togolese Ahayoe). I’ll eat plantain all day, every day. Nothing can start a fight faster than when someone tries to get between me and my plantain.
Yam is a root vegetable that is regarded as the ‘King of Crops’. Yam is treated like the wizened old man in every village gathering—respected and admired. It’s traditional for some societies to hold a New Yam Festival to celebrate the harvest season and life in general.
Yam also features at several special occasions (Ghanian Oto). West African Yams are especially toxic (the slime causes the skin to itch) therefore they must be properly cooked before being consumed. The yam tuber is usually dark brown in color on the outside and white on the inside, but sometimes it could also be yellow or red on the inside. It can be boiled, fried, mashed, roasted or grilled. It can also be used as a base for soups. It is perfect for porridge (Nigerian Asaro), as well as mashed (pounded yam).
Yam with fried egg is a favorite of mine and you can spice things up by adding veggies, meat or fish.
Crayfish is used as seasoning in a wide range of dishes; soups, stews, jollof rice (Ghanian Jollof), porridge, beans, pasta, etc (if you put crayfish in pancakes, you’re a cultist).
Crayfish is a great source of protein and vitamins. It is healthy when taken in the right proportions (Cameroonian Ndole). When I think of crayfish, I recall moments of bending over a mortar and pounding away in the kitchen with my mother, as she prepared our meals.
Dried crayfish (also grounded crayfish) has a brownish-gold color with a coarse texture and the distinct umami flavor (which is akin to monosodium glutamate) that takes your dishes to another level.
I like crayfish in Jollof spaghetti because it gives it that seafood spunk, and I like to be generous with pepper, ginger and garlic. If you serve it with boiled eggs, fried plantain and a glass of fruit juice, I’ll definitely move in with you.
There are different varieties of pepper produced in West Africa and they all have varying degrees of heat and flavor. Pepper also comes in different colors moving from green to orange, then yellow or red when mature. Pepper can be cooked fresh, whole, sliced, diced or blended.
It can also be dried and ground into powder; added to a wide variety of food as your spirit leads you. Add pepper to your sauce, stew (Gambian Peanut Stew: Damoda), soup (Burkinabe Peanut Butter Soup), broth, beans , egg dishes, and many more. Mix different peppers with other dried herbs (garlic, ginger, and turmeric) and ingredients to make spices to add to your meal.
Yoruba people are popular for their preference for spicy meals. Fried pepper stew (Obe Ata Din Din) is made with a combination of different varieties of pepper; bell pepper (tatashe) and scotch bonnets are the most commonly used, and are usually blended with other ingredients like tomatoes, ginger and garlic.
Onions (Red or White)
Onion is a vegetable that is popular with West African meals. It’s the first thing that goes into the pot in most dishes after you’ve heated up your cooking oil. Onion should be part of your diet because it’s rich in antioxidants, helps with blood sugar levels and it’s loaded with nutrients.
If you cook often, you must have cried your eyes out when chopping onions, and some of the online hacks don’t work as they claim, but that shouldn’t stop you from cooking with onions.
Onions can be sweet or sour, crisp or soft, eaten raw or cooked, and tangy or savory. The freshness of an onion determines the intensity of its smell and flavor. I like having lots of onions in my meals and don’t mind seeing them as well. Onion adds the oomph to jollof rice, beans, porridge, sauces, stews, some soups (Malian Tiguadege Na) and many other dishes (Senegales Poulet au yassa).
BBC Good Food – Top 5 Health Benefits of Onion
Healthline – Palm Oil: Does It Have Health Benefit?
Healthline – Plantains: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits
SBS – Key Ingredients: African
Wikipedia: New Yam Festival of the Igbo
Wikipedia: West Africa