The origin and evolution of west African cuisines

Versie Dortch

As the attractiveness of African dishes rises close to the environment, most of the discussion has centered on their appearance, spiciness, and recipes, extra intensely on ownership and appropriation, but hardly on how they came about.

African dishes have gone worldwide to start with by using the transatlantic slave trade and most just lately by migration, social media, and viral video clips. The most effective-recognised case in point is the Jollof wars.

The food items we all love right now are the solution of improvements and foods processing know-how that emerged around hundreds of years. Each individual meal is a reflection of the record, society, beliefs, and the purely natural environment of their modern society of origin.


In the Sahel-Sudan (south of the Sahara), pearl millet—which originates from an space that includes Mali and Mauritania—and guinea corn (sorghum) are the common staple elements for food stuff, beverages (kunu), and beer (burukutu and pito). This beer custom has nevertheless been wiped out in components in which the population adopted Islam that forbids the use of alcoholic beverages.

In Guinea (coastal and rain forest region in the south), Guinea yams—which originate from the place among Ghana and Nigeria—African rice, and Guinea corn were the staple resources of carbs till the Portuguese afterwards introduced cassava.

The cultivation of yam is ordinarily and predominantly in the jap place of the region stretching from Côte d’Ivoire to Nigeria—with Nigeria presently accounting for about 54% of global manufacturing. African rice is predominantly cultivated in the western element of the area along the Inner Niger Delta (wherever its origin is in Mali) and the coastal zone spanning from Mauritania to Liberia. With the introduction of tomatoes to Senegal as early as the 1820s—the 1st report of tomatoes in Africa—jollof rice made between the Wolof persons of Senegambia.

Palm oil

In contrast to the Sahel-Sudan region, palm oil is typically a main component of the cuisines in the Guinea especially in the Niger delta, also recognised as the Oil rivers, which accounted for much more than 50 percent of the whole amount of palm oil exported from Africa each year in the 1800s. The plant is the supply of “edible worms” and alcoholic drinks—palm wine and its distilled derivatives these as ogogoro or Akpeteshie. The edible worm is the larva of the pink palm weevil and it’s commonly eaten with ekpukpu (kpokpo garri).

The palm oil custom in Nigeria’s Niger delta delicacies is obvious in the outdated classic palm fruit dishes these kinds of as owo and banga soups and banga rice. Palm oil was included to meals for its meant medicinal powers. It’s added to garri (a granular flour) and usi (a starch dough) through processing from cassava and when cooking pink kidney beans to avert meals poisoning. Cassava and red kidney beans obviously consist of harmful substances.

Cassava, the most significant food stuff crop in sub-Saharan Africa, was launched to the Niger delta from Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500s but was not crucial in west Africa right up until the next half of the 1800s—when lots of previously enslaved Africans returned to west Africa from Brazil (pdf).

The dictionary of the language of the Edo people of the hinterland of the Niger delta in Nigeria which was published in 1937 by Hans Melzian, a Dutch professor of African Phonetics and Linguistics with the assistance of a number of Edo informants, demonstrates that the societies in the Niger delta very first consumed igari (cassava) as ebobozi (chipped cassava boiled and soaked for two to three days) and eferhinyea—a dish comparable to garri and Brazilian farinha introduced by the Portuguese. Garri and fufu (a dough) are now the most fashionable and well-known cassava foods solutions.


Salt also formed west African cuisines, a region typically weak in sea or rock salts until finally the colonial period of time. The hinterland societies depended on vegetable salt, which is commonly potassium-based carbonates.

“For all the in-land negroes are obliged to fetch their salt from the shore from whence it is simpler to infer that it ought to price tag them pretty expensive: wherefore the meaner sorts are obliged to make use of a selected saltish herb instead of salt, which their purses will not get to,” described William Bosman, a Dutch merchant, in the course of his stay in the Gold Coast in the late 1600s.

Among the Edo men and women, the salt acknowledged as odo was extracted from the mangrove tree, Odo n’owse (Rhizophora racemosa), by cooking the wooden and leaving the water to evaporate on the hearth. When additional to palm fruit juice or oil, odo, as well as kanwa (rock salt) coagulate it to make a thick sauce or soup these types of as owo.

The vegetable salt called pot-ash or salt-ash was designed in the Sahel-Sudan by burning the stalks or straws of millet and palms in a pot to ashes. The region also had entry to rock salt from the Sahara Desert, acquired from dried-up lake beds or shallow mines. Not like sea salt, which is challenging to retail store and transportation because it absorbs humidity and loses its features in a limited time, rock salts are stable slabs that have been traded greatly.

Spices, sauces, and soup

A trademark of a west African dish, especially in the Guinea, is its hot spiciness. The location is residence to a number of unrelated hot spices, usually referred to as Guinea pepper. They were being a major export to Europe in the precolonial period of time. These spices, these as the melegueta or alligator pepper uziza, Benin pepper or Ashanti pepper and Senegal pepper, are the main of west African pepper soup.

Bosman’s account showed that the type produced with intestines has a lengthy background and was eaten in the course of a religious ceremony in historic Gold Coast: “The guts they slice into small parts, and squeezing out the excrement with their fingers, they boil it jointly with the lungs, liver, and heart, with a little salt and malaget, or Guinea pepper, without having warning it from the blood.”

The west African swallow-soup dishes possibly formulated in the Guinea from generations of taking in rice, sorghum, yam, and cassava made into dough with salted and peppered palm oil or palm-fruit juice which could be referred to as the initial generation of soups. The conventional preparing of owo with a local vegetable salt and its use as the only sauce for 1 of the earliest indigenous cassava products and solutions, especially abacha (a sun-dried ebobozi), suggests it to be the very first era soup.

Bosman wrote about the dish of the people today on the Gold Coastline in the 1600s: “Their widespread food is a pot total of millet [sorghum] boiled to the consistency of bread [dough], or as an alternative that of yams and potatoes around which they pour a minor palm oil, with a few boiled herbs, to which they insert a stinking [smoked] fish.”

The tradition of including leaves to palm oil which is the foundation of “vegetable soup,” perhaps arose from the notion of integrating medicinal herbs in dishes, obvious in the medicinal Edo omoebe (leaf soup), also recognised as black soup. This was followed by the 3rd-technology soups designed with palm oil and seeds these as ikpogi or egusi (melon), oyele or ogbono (African mango) and ikporu (cotton).

As African foods will become worldwide it is crucial that the abundant historical past and the tales powering African dishes be shared with the environment as nicely.

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