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The origin and evolution of west African cuisines

As the attractiveness of African dishes rises all around the world, most of the discussion has focused on their physical appearance, spiciness, and recipes, a lot more intensely on ownership and appropriation, but hardly on how they arrived about.

African dishes have long gone world wide to start with by using the transatlantic slave trade and most recently as a result of migration, social media, and viral movies. The finest-recognized case in point is the Jollof wars.

The foods we all enjoy these days are the item of innovations and foodstuff processing know-how that emerged about generations. Every food is a reflection of the historical past, society, beliefs, and the purely natural ecosystem of their society of origin.


In the Sahel-Sudan (south of the Sahara), pearl millet—which originates from an location that contains Mali and Mauritania—and guinea corn (sorghum) are the common staple elements for food, beverages (kunu), and beer (burukutu and pito). This beer tradition has nonetheless been wiped out in parts where by the populace adopted Islam that forbids the usage of liquor.

In Guinea (coastal and rain forest location in the south), Guinea yams—which originate from the area among Ghana and Nigeria—African rice, and Guinea corn had been the staple resources of carbs until eventually the Portuguese later introduced cassava.

The cultivation of yam is ordinarily and predominantly in the jap spot of the region stretching from Côte d’Ivoire to Nigeria—with Nigeria presently accounting for about 54% of global generation. African rice is predominantly cultivated in the western aspect of the location together the Interior Niger Delta (where by 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 initially report of tomatoes in Africa—jollof rice developed among the the Wolof people today of Senegambia.

Palm oil

In distinction to the Sahel-Sudan area, palm oil is historically a main component of the cuisines in the Guinea in particular in the Niger delta, also known as the Oil rivers, which accounted for much more than fifty percent of the whole amount of palm oil exported from Africa on a yearly basis in the 1800s. The plant is the supply of “edible worms” and alcoholic drinks—palm wine and its distilled derivatives this sort of as ogogoro or Akpeteshie. The edible worm is the larva of the pink palm weevil and it’s normally eaten with ekpukpu (kpokpo garri).

The palm oil tradition in Nigeria’s Niger delta delicacies is obvious in the previous conventional palm fruit dishes these types of as owo and banga soups and banga rice. Palm oil was included to food stuff for its meant medicinal powers. It is extra to garri (a granular flour) and usi (a starch dough) in the course of processing from cassava and when cooking pink kidney beans to avert foodstuff poisoning. Cassava and crimson kidney beans by natural means consist of harmful substances.

Cassava, the most vital foodstuff crop in sub-Saharan Africa, was launched to the Niger delta from Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500s but was not essential in west Africa until the 2nd fifty percent of the 1800s—when a lot of previously enslaved Africans returned to west Africa from Brazil (pdf).

The dictionary of the language of the Edo men and women of the hinterland of the Niger delta in Nigeria which was composed in 1937 by Hans Melzian, a Dutch professor of African Phonetics and Linguistics with the aid of numerous Edo informants, displays that the societies in the Niger delta first consumed igari (cassava) as ebobozi (chipped cassava boiled and soaked for two to a few days) and eferhinyea—a dish equivalent to garri and Brazilian farinha introduced by the Portuguese. Garri and fufu (a dough) are now the most present day and well-known cassava meals merchandise.


Salt also shaped west African cuisines, a area historically lousy in sea or rock salts right up until the colonial interval. 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 less complicated to infer that it ought to cost them very pricey: wherefore the meaner sorts are obliged to make use of a sure saltish herb alternatively of salt, which their purses will not achieve,” explained William Bosman, a Dutch service provider, throughout his stay in the Gold Coastline in the late 1600s.

Among the the Edo persons, the salt regarded as odo was extracted from the mangrove tree, Odo n’owse (Rhizophora racemosa), by cooking the wooden and leaving the drinking water to evaporate on the fire. When additional to palm fruit juice or oil, odo, as effectively as kanwa (rock salt) coagulate it to generate a thick sauce or soup this sort of as owo.

The vegetable salt known as pot-ash or salt-ash was created in the Sahel-Sudan by burning the stalks or straws of millet and palms in a pot to ashes. The area also experienced accessibility to rock salt from the Sahara Desert, acquired from dried-up lake beds or shallow mines. Contrary to sea salt, which is difficult to shop and transportation simply because it absorbs dampness and loses its characteristics in a limited time, rock salts are secure slabs that were traded extensively.

Spices, sauces, and soup

A trademark of a west African dish, primarily in the Guinea, is its incredibly hot spiciness. The area is dwelling to several unrelated hot spices, typically referred to as Guinea pepper. They had been a big export to Europe in the precolonial period of time. These spices, this kind of 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 confirmed that the variety produced with intestines has a long historical past and was eaten through a religious ceremony in ancient Gold Coastline: “The guts they reduce into compact pieces, and squeezing out the excrement with their fingers, they boil it alongside one another with the lungs, liver, and coronary heart, with a small salt and malaget, or Guinea pepper, with out warning it from the blood.”

The west African swallow-soup dishes perhaps developed in the Guinea from centuries of feeding on rice, sorghum, yam, and cassava designed into dough with salted and peppered palm oil or palm-fruit juice which may well be referred to as the 1st technology of soups. The regular planning of owo with a local vegetable salt and its use as the only sauce for one particular of the earliest indigenous cassava products, specifically abacha (a sun-dried ebobozi), suggests it to be the 1st technology soup.

Bosman wrote about the dish of the people today on the Gold Coast in the 1600s: “Their common meals is a pot total of millet [sorghum] boiled to the regularity of bread [dough], or alternatively that of yams and potatoes around which they pour a very little palm oil, with a couple of boiled herbs, to which they include a stinking [smoked] fish.”

The custom of introducing leaves to palm oil which is the basis of “vegetable soup,” quite possibly arose from the plan of integrating medicinal herbs in dishes, apparent in the medicinal Edo omoebe (leaf soup), also recognised as black soup. This was adopted by the 3rd-era soups designed with palm oil and seeds these as ikpogi or egusi (melon), oyele or ogbono (African mango) and ikporu (cotton).

As African meals turns into worldwide it is important that the prosperous background and the stories guiding African dishes be shared with the world as effectively.