West African cuisine has a diverse range of foods that are split between its countries. In West Africa, many families grow and raise their own food, and within each there is a division of labour. Rice and yams are two of the most widely grown foods in Western Africa. Indigenous foods consist of a number of plant species and animals which are indigenous to Africa, and are important to those whose lifestyle depends on farming and hunting.
The history of West Africa plays a large role in their cuisine and recipes, and they are largely influences by the traditions and local customs. West Africa traded with the Arab world and this introduced cinnamon and rice into their cuisine, ingredients which have become central parts of their culinary traditions. The Europeans and slave ships brought over chilli peppers and tomatoes to the new world which have also been incorporated to be key parts of West African cuisine. The various local cuisines have obvious variations, yet there are commonalities in the ingredients used. Many of the dishes are enriched by tomatoes, onions and chilli peppers, these are considered essential and “sacred” to the cooking technique of the region.
Though there are obvious differences among the local cuisines in West Africa, there are also many commonalities, mainly in the ingredients used. Many dishes are enriched with a base of tomatoes, onions and chilli peppers, considered an essential and even “sacred” cooking technique in the region“. Combining and cooking these three ingredients in oil is analogous to similar techniques such as the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking, sofrito used in the Spanish-speaking world, soffritto in Italy, and the mirepoix of France. The most prevalent cooking oil is palm nut oil, traditionally associated with the coastal regions and contributes a distinctive colour, flavour and texture to food; while shea butter is more commonly used in the Sahel. Called karité in French, which comes from the Arabic word gharti-, it is prized for the rich mouthfeel it imparts.
There are certain ingredients that go with countries. In Ghana, the most used ingredients are hot pepper, ginger, and maize. They use hot pepper because the Ghanaian believe the hot peppers will cool the body and cleanse it from its purity. In Senegal, the main ingredients are gumbo, hot pepper, ginger, tamarind leaves, and baobab fruit, and cooking oil (shea butter). Those are the few that have a slight difference of what they commonly use for their dishes. For an overall view of West Africa, according to Fran Osseo-Asare, the common ingredients for the West African region are the leaves from a baobab tree, cereal grains: sorghum, millet, and fonio, Cola nuts, egusi seeds, guinea fowl, melegueta pepper, oil palm, okra, and rice. Other ingredients used are okra (thickener) basis for soups and stews, black-eyed peas, and sesame according to Harris in High on the Hog.
Spices play a relatively less prominent role in West African cooking compared to say, North African cuisine. Cooks use spices and herbs like ginger, coriander, and thyme sparingly but knowingly. Chilli peppers however are immensely loved in West Africa, both in fresh or dried and powdered form, particularly in the more hot-and-humid lands of the region. Introduced to Africa probably sometime soon after Christopher Columbus sailed to America by European sailors, it is said that the sweating induced by the spicy heat of chilli helps to air-conditions your skin. More than in other regions of Africa, West Africans utilize Scotch bonnet chilli peppers with a liberal hand in many of their sauces and stews. The bite and fire of these extremely hot peppers (Scoville rating 200,000 – 300,000) add a unique flavour as well as heat. The chilli is also supposed to help preserve food, as well as adding flavour to relatively bland tropical staples like root vegetables.
The seeds of Guinea Pepper (Aframomum melegueta; also called grains of paradise or melagueta pepper), a plant indigenous to West Africa, are also widely used. This native spice tastes and looks somewhat like a peppercorn, but has cardamom and coriander seed flavour notes. The grains of paradise was once a prized commodity reaching Europe through North African middlemen, during the Middle Ages.
Sumbala or soumbala is a flavouring used widely across West Africa, used in a manner not unlike a stock (bouillon) cube. It is usually prepared by women over the course of several days, traditionally from néré (Parkia biglobosa) seeds. It can be made from other kinds of seeds, and the use of soybeans for this purpose is increasing due mainly to inadequate supply of néré seeds. The fabrication process involves boiling, cleaning and then packing away to ferment – the fermentation process giving it a pungent smell and at the same time a rich, deep umami or savoury flavour is developed. Salt can be added to the finished product to facilitate storage life. This condiment is traditionally sold in balls or patties that can be kept for several months at a time in the case of the best quality. It is a traditional cooking ingredient used across West Africa, although the less traditional bouillon cube, specifically the Maggi brand rivals it in popularity. African potash (potassium carbonate) is a native salt used for flavouring and to expedite the cooking time for some foods by cooks, it is made from wood-fire ashes in an ancient process that was once used by pioneer settlers in North America.
Vegetables are a part of any West African meal. Some commonly eaten vegetables include black-eyed peas, eggplant, pumpkin and other squashes, okra, as well as a staggering variety of both farmed and foraged green leafy vegetables, little known or used outside of the African continent. Baobob leaf, pumpkin leaves, rosella leaves, sweet potato leaves, and cassava leaves (which contain cyanide in their raw state, and are always blanched with boiling water before use to remove the toxins) are just some of the greens that are commonplace in a West African kitchen. Black-eyed peas form the basis for a popular fried snack, the well-loved akara fritter.
Starchy tubers and root vegetables are used as staple food, to be served with their meat and vegetable dishes, often as a foil to the hotness of the peppers. Cassava, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, plantains, and yams are ubiquitous in the local diet, and they are usually boiled and then pounded with a pestle and mortar into a thick starchy paste called Fufu.
Other starch staples eaten throughout West Africa besides root vegetables and tubers include fonio, rice, millet, sorghum, and maize.
Although West Africans ate far more vegetables and much less meat in the past, today their diet is heavier in meats, salt, and fats. Seafood is especially popular along the coast and many dishes combine both fish and meat. Dried and smoked fish flavour a number of sauces, stews, and other dishes, including condiments, in much the same way that anchovies and bacon flavour food in a number of other cuisines. It is often flaked and fried in oil, and sometimes cooked in sauce made with the base of hot peppers, onions and tomatoes, various spices (such as soumbala) and water to produce an incredible combination of subtle flavours. Chicken is eaten nearly everywhere and chicken eggs are a common food and source of protein. Guinea Fowl eggs also popular. In some inland areas, beef and mutton are preferred, with goat meat being the dominant red meat. Suya, a popular grilled spicy meat kebab flavoured with peanuts and other spices, is sold by street vendors as a tasty snack or evening meal and is typically made with beef or chicken.
Some dishes are a prevalent feature in most West African societies, but bearing different names in different locales.
As mentioned above, Fufu is usually made from cassava, yams, and sometimes combined with cocoyam, plantains, or cornmeal. In Ghana, fufu is mostly made from boiled cassava and unripe plantain beaten together, as well as from cocoyam. Currently, these products have been made into powder/flour and can be mixed with hot water to obtain the final product hence eliminating the arduous task of beating it in a mortar with a pestle until a desired consistency is reached. Fufu can also be made from semolina, rice, or even instant potato flakes. Often, the dish is still made by traditional methods: pounding and beating the base substance in a mortar with a wooden spoon. In contexts where poverty is not an issue, or where modern appliances are readily available, a food processor may also be used.
In Western and Central Africa, the more common method is to serve a mound of fufu along with a soup (o.be.). After washing hands, the diner pinches off a small ball of fufu and makes an indentation with the thumb. This reservoir is then filled with soup, and the ball is eaten. In Ghana and Nigeria, the ball is often not chewed but swallowed whole – in fact, chewing fufu is considered a faux pas. Therefore fufu not only serves as a food but also as a utensil.
A selection of soups that could be served with fufu includes but not limited to: light (tomato) soup, palm nut soup, groundnut soup, and other types of soups with vegetables such as okra, nkontomire (cocoyam leaves). Soups are often made with different kinds of meat and fish, fresh or smoked.
Groundnut Stew (Maafe), (var. Mafé, Maffé, Maffe, sauce d’arachide, tigadèguèna or tigadene), is a peanut-based stew common to much of West Africa, and especially associated with the Wolof people of Senegal and the Gambia, and the Fula peoples in Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. Variants of the Maafe appear in the cuisine of nations throughout West Africa and Central Africa. With the huge expansion of groundnut cultivation during the colonial period, Maafe has become a popular dish across West Africa, and as far east as Cameroon.
Recipes for the stew vary wildly, but groundnut stew at its core is cooked with a sauce based on groundnuts (peanuts), the West African trinity of tomatoes, onion and chillies, and common protein components are mutton, beef or chicken. In the coastal regions of Senegal, maafe is frequently made with fish. Maafe is traditionally served with white rice (in Senegambia),couscous(as West Africa meets the Sahara) or Fufu and sweet potatoes in the more tropical areas.
Jollof rice, also called Benachin, Ceebu Jën or Thieboudienne meaning “rice fish” in the Wolof language, is a popular dish all over West Africa. (A variation, “thiebou yapp,” or “rice meat” is made with beef, mutton or other red meat.) It originated in The Gambia but has since spread to the whole of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Ghana amongst members of the Wolof ethnic group, from whom the word “Jollof” originated from. There are many variations of Jollof Rice. The most common basic ingredients are: rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, and red pepper. Beyond that, nearly any kind of meat, vegetable, or spice can be added.
The dish consists of rice, tomatoes and/or tomato paste, onion, chill pepper, and spices (such as nutmeg, ginger, Guinea pepper or cumin), to which various ingredients can be added such as vegetables, meats and fish.
As for alcoholic drinks,palm wine is a common beverage made from the fermented sap of various types of palm trees and is usually sold in sweet (less-fermented, retaining more of the sap’s sugar) or sour (fermented longer, making it stronger and less sweet) varieties. Beer from millet is also common, and popular.
Dining is communal, and diners would use their fingers to eat. Water has a very strong ritual significance in many West African nations (particularly in dry areas), and water is often the first thing an African host will offer his/her guest.
West African cuisines by country
For more specific styles, refer to the articles on each national or regional cuisines: