West Africa is a geographic region of sub-Saharan Africa that includes 16 countries and almost four hundred million inhabitants. The Atlantic slave trade had tremendous influence on the transfer of ingredients and knowledge between Africa, the Caribbean, and southern United States, and those influences are still visible today. With such a large population one might expect more exposure to the region’s cuisine on the global market, but much of the food staples of this area have flown under the radar of American diners.
Here are some dishes and ingredients to be aware of:
It is impossible to discuss West African cuisine without looking at jollof rice. This rice dish is flavored with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and chili peppers and served all across the region. It can be enhanced with a wide variety of vegetables and often accompanies fish, chicken, beef, or any other protein.
Ancient grains have been exploding on to the market in recent years, and consumers are eager to try the next new grain. Many of these crops are types of grasses that are well suited to grown in the African Sahel and savannah. Sorghum, millet, and fonio are widely consumed in the region and are making their way to American grocery stores. Move over quinoa – there are new gluten-free grains in town.
Spicy Chili Peppers
Suya is a street-food dish composed of meat kebabs that are rubbed with a spice mixture before grilling. Yassa is a dish composed of chicken or fish marinated with a complex spice mixture. Both of these dishes call on the regional staples of onion, garlic, and tomato but they also include spicy chili peppers. Introduced from the New World during the slave trade, spicy chilies permeate the entire cuisine of the region. Scotch bonnet peppers have become popular in the US in recent years because of their notoriously high heat level, but these peppers have been used in West Africa in dishes across the board.
While not native to West Africa, this introduced crop is widely eaten in the region. It is fast-growing, drought-resistant, and offers edible leaves, seeds, and roots making it extremely valuable in a region with persistent poverty and malnutrition. Moringa has emerged as a superfood in the US market, making its way into all kinds of products from breakfast cereal to protein powders.