We continue our highlight of some popular ingredients used in West African food. Knowing your ingredients makes cooking more than just a process, but a rich experience of culture and history.
Photo by Keesha’s Kitchen: Jollof Rice
Rice is an ingredient that goes well with different soups, broths, stews, and vegetables. Although rice does not have its origins in Africa, it is arguably one of the most popular foods on this side of the globe. Whether white or brown, long or short, foreign or local, rice makes a perfect addition to both vegan and non-vegan meals. Its great health benefits can be used for several recipes.
The Idan of all West African food is Jollof Rice. This is undisputed, but there are those on the other side of the fence who feel Jollof rice is overrated. The fact remains that you’re sure to find different styles of Jollof Rice almost everywhere in West Africa.
Photo by Tom Adabi: Rice and Stew
Rice and Stew is an all-time favorite for me depending on the kind of ingredients used to prepare the stew, such as the type of oil, seasoning, protein—beef, chicken, or seafood. Other popular dishes made with rice include Coconut Rice, Fried rice, and Palm oil rice (sometimes, referred to as concoction rice, or native jollof).
In Nigeria, you will find rice paired with traditional soups like Efo Riro, Egusi, and Banga. While in Ghana, there is Waakye, a local rice dish that is made with beans, plantains and spices. Thieboudienne is the Senegalese Jollof Rice dish that is made with fish and vegetables like carrots, eggplant, and cabbage. Spoilt for choice? Why not have a go at each one and choose your favorite.
Photo by Victoria Bowers: Okra
Lady’s fingers or Okra is a green vegetable that is used as a side dish or as a thickener for soups and stews. When Okra is blended or chopped, then cooked, the edible seeds inside the pod release a mucilaginous (sticky, slimy) liquid that serves as a thickener. Okra is originally from Africa and you’ll find it in a variety of Creole, Caribbean, and Cajun recipes like Gumbo.
As a kid, I liked okra, but I was almost scarred for life by my mother’s one-time unusual preparation of okra. She mashed uncooked okra to accompany boiled yam and palm oil, without seasoning, except for salt and pepper. While I found the meal traumatic to eat, my dad tried to pass it off as a traditional delicacy. For most of my life, my dealings with Okra Soup, have been straightforward. It is prepared with a healthy amount of meat, fish, spices, and vegetables.
Okra has a barely there flavor, and thus needs the support of other ingredients to escape being bland.
Millet is a cereal grain found in West African cuisine in different forms. This small, round, gluten-free grain is widely grown and consumed in the region due to its nutritional value, adaptability to harsh growing conditions, and versatility in various recipes.
Fonio is from the millet family and is originally from Africa. It is well known for its nutritious value as a good source of carbohydrates, protein and fiber. Other cereal grains include wheat and sorghum. Wheat is used in the production of pasta and flour, while Sorghum can becused to make beer.
Cereal grains are a good base for many meals, just like rice, and can be served with a variety of stews and soups. Some undergo the fermentation process to make a local custard-like dish commonly called pap or ogi. Fritters, flatbread, couscous, Tuwo—a common meal in Northern Nigeria—are more examples of dishes made from cereal grains
In most West-African households, all brands of bouillon cubes are called Maggi (a dominant bouillon cube brand). Maggi cubes are made of dehydrated stock seasonings (chicken, beef, prawn, crayfish, and more), and other flavor-enhancing ingredients. They are known for their intense umami flavor, which makes any dish appealing to the palate.
Originally, Maggi cubes were developed in Switzerland in the late 19th century by Julius Maggi, as a convenient way to add flavor to cooked food. Although there are health concerns about the monosodium glutamate aka MSG content in Maggi cubes, most West Africans will call attention to the fact that they have been using it to prepare local dishes for a long time and therefore know better.
Healthier alternatives include homemade stock cubes, herbs, and spices.
Common spices used in West African cuisine include nutmeg, curry powder, thyme, bay leaves, Cameroon pepper (black pepper), garlic, and ginger. I am a big fan of using what I like to call the Holy Trinity—ginger, garlic, and onion. They perform wonders when it comes to enhancing the flavor of dishes. Although not all of them have their origins in Africa, you can find them in the spices’ corner of most kitchens.
Photo by Shantanu Pal: Spices
The most popular local West African spice is fermented locust beans. In Nigeria, it is known as Iru, Dawadawa or Ogiri, depending on the part of the country. In Ghana, it is called Dawadada or Nkitinkiti in the Akan language.
In Mali, Sumbara or Doungourou, in the Bambara language. In Burkina Faso, Néré or Sougrou in the local languages. Fermented locust beans have a very strong aroma and distinct flavor. It is used particularly in soups, stews, and sauces.
West African food holds a special place in my heart, though I am yet to explore the gastronomy of other regions, I look forward to doing so in the near future.