“Pepper is the staff of life and the man that eats no pepper is weak”– West African expression
West Africa is the westernmost region of Africa and consists of 16 countries. The area historically sat at the intersection of trade routes. While the region’s flavors have been influenced by the colonizing nations and the slave trade, those influences have been minimal when compared to other cuisines due to the area’s strong culture and traditions. As a result, West Africa has an significant culinary influence outside its borders, especially in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South.
The climate is heavily influenced by the dry Sahara desert to the north and east, the humid climate to the south, and Atlantic Ocean to the west. The main “offshore” ingredients adopted into West African cuisine are corn, tomatoes, peanuts, chili peppers, plantains, and cassava. The additional use of red palm oil, fish, and other local ingredients makes West African cuisine unique and flavorful.
Although West Africa has a distinctive, traditional cuisine that varies from region to region, it also has common threads:
- Slow cooked stews and soups are mostly one pot dishes that include protein, vegetables, fat, and carbohydrates.
- The most prevalent cooking oil is palm oil, which imparts a distinctive red color to dishes.
- Many of the countries of West Africa are impoverished, which is reflected in dishes. Most are based on locally grown vegetables, rice, beans, and cassava. Proteins are scarce, other than on the coasts where fresh and dried fish are available.
- The dishes are often red, orange, brown, and yellow in color, which is due to the available ingredients at hand such as tomatoes, peppers, plantains, and peanuts. Don’t let the brown hues fool you, though- these dishes are bright, fresh, and exceptionally flavorful.
MHT’s featured dishes are easy to make and are sure to please a wide array of guests due to their simplicity, but don’t let simple fool you- this cuisine is packed with flavor.
Make the Great Dishes of West Africa at Home
The MHT team has updated and simplified some of the very best traditional recipes from all over West Africa. Now you can cook these amazing dishes in your own kitchen to share with friends and family so they can experience these exciting dishes. Lets get cooking!
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Foods Unique to West Africa
Groundnuts – Originating in Brazil around 3,500 years ago, the groundnut (aka peanut) had moved north to Mexico by the time the Spanish began their exploration on the New World in the late 15th century. The Spaniards returned to Europe with them where the were then introduced to Asia and Africa. The tropical climate of West Africa was ideal for growing them. Their high nutritional value and drought-free growing made them both a cash crop. Their tastiness made them the basis for such world-class dishes like Ghanaian Groundnut Soup and Senegalese Maafe Stew.
Starches – Pounded and boiled root vegetables are the African version of gluten free mashed potatoes. A ball of starch is always found at every meal, both as a staple and as a utensil for scooping up foods. In West Africa starchy vegetables like pounded yams, cassava, corn, and plantain are pounded to make the ever-present Fufu and Banku. Rice is also grown and eaten in large quantities.
Chili Peppers – Since the chili pepper’s introduction to West Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries, spicy ingredients have become an integral component in local West African cuisine. Chili peppers are a foundational ingredient in traditional West African cuisine, along with tomatoes and onions, and the peppers are famous for their use in pepper sauces, which is a condiment that can be added to almost any dish. There are three primary peppers cultivated in the sixteen countries of West Africa, including bonnet chili peppers, habanero peppers, and bird chili peppers, with Bonnet chili peppers the most used and widespread.
Palm Oil – Extracted from the indigenous palm tree that has grown freely in West Africa for thousands of years, palm oil is an essential component of many West African dishes. Palm oil imparts a beautiful red hue to everything it is used in and is even made in to soap. Vegetable and corn oil are used in cooking as well.
Tomatoes – Many dishes are enriched with a base of tomatoes, onions, and chili peppers. The combination of these three “sacred” ingredients sautéed in oil is similar to the “holy trinity” of Creole & Cajun cooking in America, sofrito in Latino cooking, and mirepoix in France.