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How west African cuisines originated and developed over centuries

As the popularity of African dishes rises around the world, most of the conversation has focused on their appearance, spiciness, and recipes, more intensely on ownership and appropriation, but barely on how they came about.

African dishes have gone global first via the transatlantic slave trade and most recently through migration, social media, and viral videos. The best-known example is the Jollof wars.

The foods we all enjoy today are the product of innovations and food processing technology that emerged over centuries. Each meal is a reflection of the history, culture, beliefs, and the natural environment of their society of origin.

Starch

In the Sahel-Sudan (south of the Sahara), pearl millet—which originates from an area that includes Mali and Mauritania—and guinea corn (sorghum) are the traditional staple ingredients for food, drinks (kunu), and beer (burukutu and pito). This beer tradition has however been wiped out in parts where the population adopted Islam that forbids the consumption of alcohol.

In Guinea (coastal and rain forest region in the south), Guinea yams—which originate from the area between Ghana and Nigeria—African rice, and Guinea corn were the staple sources of carbohydrates until the Portuguese later introduced cassava.

The cultivation of yam is traditionally and predominantly in the eastern area of the region stretching from Côte d’Ivoire to Nigeria—with Nigeria presently accounting for about 54% of global production. African rice is predominantly cultivated in the western part of the region along the Inner Niger Delta (where 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 first record of tomatoes in Africa—jollof rice developed among the Wolof people of Senegambia.

Palm oil

In contrast to the Sahel-Sudan region, palm oil is traditionally a core component of the cuisines in the Guinea especially in the Niger delta, also known as the Oil rivers, which accounted for more than half of the total quantity of palm oil exported from Africa annually in the 1800s. The plant is the source of “edible worms” and alcoholic drinks—palm wine and its distilled derivatives such as ogogoro or Akpeteshie. The edible worm is the larva of the red palm weevil and it’s usually eaten with ekpukpu (kpokpo garri).

The palm oil tradition in Nigeria’s Niger delta cuisine is evident in the old traditional palm fruit dishes such as owo and banga soups and banga rice. Palm oil was added to food for its supposed medicinal powers. It’s added to garri (a granular flour) and usi (a starch dough) during processing from cassava and when cooking red kidney beans to prevent food poisoning. Cassava and red kidney beans naturally contain toxic substances.

Cassava, the most important food crop in sub-Saharan Africa, was introduced to the Niger delta from Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500s but was not important in west Africa until the second half of the 1800s—when many formerly 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 written in 1937 by Hans Melzian, a Dutch professor of African Phonetics and Linguistics with the help of several Edo informants, shows that the societies in the Niger delta first consumed igari (cassava) as ebobozi (chipped cassava boiled and soaked for two to three days) and eferhinyea—a dish similar to garri and Brazilian farinha introduced by the Portuguese. Garri and fufu (a dough) are now the most modern and popular cassava food products.

Salt

Salt also shaped west African cuisines, a region traditionally poor in sea or rock salts until the colonial period. The hinterland societies depended on vegetable salt, which is generally potassium-based carbonates.

“For all the in-land negroes are obliged to fetch their salt from the shore; from whence it is easier to infer that it must cost them very dear: wherefore the meaner sorts are obliged to make use of a certain saltish herb instead of salt, which their purses will not reach,” described William Bosman, a Dutch merchant, during his stay in the Gold Coast in the late 1600s.

Among the Edo people, the salt known as odo was extracted from the mangrove tree, Odo n’owse (Rhizophora racemosa), by cooking the wood and leaving the water to evaporate on the fire. When added to palm fruit juice or oil, odo, as well as kanwa (rock salt) coagulate it to produce a thick sauce or soup such as owo.

The vegetable salt called pot-ash or salt-ash was made in the Sahel-Sudan by burning the stalks or straws of millet and palms in a pot to ashes. The region also had access to rock salt from the Sahara Desert, acquired from dried-up lake beds or shallow mines. Unlike sea salt, which is difficult to store and transport because it absorbs moisture and loses its qualities in a short time, rock salts are stable slabs that were traded widely.

Spices, sauces, and soup

A trademark of a west African dish, especially in the Guinea, is its hot spiciness. The region is home to several unrelated hot spices, traditionally referred to as Guinea pepper. They were a major export to Europe in the precolonial period. These spices, such as the melegueta or alligator pepper; uziza, Benin pepper or Ashanti pepper; and Senegal pepper, are the core of west African pepper soup.

Bosman’s account showed that the type made with intestines has a long history and was eaten during a religious ceremony in ancient Gold Coast: “The guts they cut into small pieces, and squeezing out the excrement with their fingers, they boil it together with the lungs, liver, and heart, with a little salt and malaget, or Guinea pepper, without warning it from the blood.”

The west African swallow-soup dishes possibly developed in the Guinea from centuries of eating rice, sorghum, yam, and cassava made into dough with salted and peppered palm oil or palm-fruit juice which may be referred to as the first generation of soups. The traditional preparation of owo with a local vegetable salt and its use as the only sauce for one of the earliest indigenous cassava products, particularly abacha (a sun-dried ebobozi), suggests it to be the first generation soup.

Bosman wrote about the dish of the people on the Gold Coast in the 1600s: “Their common food is a pot full of millet [sorghum] boiled to the consistency of bread [dough], or instead that of yams and potatoes; over which they pour a little palm oil, with a few boiled herbs, to which they add a stinking [smoked] fish.”

The tradition of adding leaves to palm oil which is the basis of “vegetable soup,” possibly arose from the idea of integrating medicinal herbs in dishes, evident in the medicinal Edo omoebe (leaf soup), also known as black soup. This was followed by the third-generation soups made with palm oil and seeds such as ikpogi or egusi (melon), oyele or ogbono (African mango) and ikporu (cotton).

As African food becomes global it is vital that the rich history and the stories behind African dishes be shared with the world as well.