We West-Africans identify a lot with food, wherever we go we take our food along. After all, when you are somewhere very far away from home, food is the one thing that can comfort your loneliness and homesickness. In this post, I list a few items that are part and parcel of every West-African pantry. You will not miss these items when you visit a Nigerian or a Senegalese friend. Here are some ingredients that we can surely not do without.
We West-Africans use palm oil in our cuisine. It is the staple oil, we love using what we call “red palm oil”, and we just love the flavor it imparts to our food.
Egusi is a melon seed that has been dried and ground into a powdery form. When cooked, it turns into a delicious, thick paste. Egusi soup is one of the most popular dishes in West Africa. In fact, you will find a different version of this dish in every region and tribe in West-Africa. This recipe is most popular among the Ibos of Nigeria. So this is an essential staple ingredient in a West-African pantry.
Crayfish, also referred to as crawfish, or sometimes as freshwater lobsters are crustaceans that resemble tiny lobsters. Crayfish is a protein-rich ingredient that is used mainly in powdered/ground form. It is an ingredient in practically every West-African soups such as Egusi soup, Okra soup, and even in dishes such as Akara and Spinach Stew.
Yams are similar to sweet potatoes but larger in size and different in taste. They are cooked in different ways and are often served with many Nigerian soups. Pounded Yams are a favourite West-African recipe, and thus you will find yams or even yam flour in a West-African pantry.
Nigerians eat rice every day, as rice is a staple of the Nigerian diet.You may think, wow, Nigerians eat rice every day? We Nigerians are amazed that the Dutch eat bread twice a day. When you look at things from a new perspective, it’s clear that our differences often highlight our similarities. We cannot live without our Jollof rice or fried rice or even coconut rice, so you see our recipes are rice-based and they are a staple in the country. We use the long-grain rice to cook these dishes, more like basmati rice. When I first moved to the Netherlands, I was unable to find my favourite long-grain rice—but my Nigerian sisters who were living in the Netherlands knew how to help a sister out. They introduced me to a brand called President Rice—which happens to be parboiled basmati. After cooking with it for a while, I found that I preferred it; on a later trip to Nigeria, I realized that the long-grain rice seemed too fat, and I didn’t like it anymore.
Yes, you may be surprised to see this is also on the list of the staples in a West-African pantry. We use these stock cubes or bouillon cubes in our soups, even in coconut rice preparation when we boil the rice, primarily to impart a lovely flavour. We also use it in the preparation of bean pottage and Akara. You will find all the recipes for these amazing dishes in my recently released cookbook.
Ah, tomato paste – just how essential tomatoes are to Italians, tomato paste is a part of the staples in the West-African kitchen. We make a paste with something other than tomatoes to make a delectable tomato paste. To know how to make this paste, you must read my cookbook! This tomato paste forms the base of our delicious Jollof rice recipe!
Garri is made from peeled, washed, and grated cassava. You can use it to make small lumps of the dough and eat it with any soup of your choice. We also mix it with milk or water with sugar and drink it like a health drink. You can eat it just like that as well; we love our garri in any form!
Dry chilli pepper
Chilli peppers are an integral part of our cuisine. We prefer to use the dried chilli peppers though. They go into pretty much every dish – soups, rice, stews. We like our food to be spicy, so they are part of almost all recipes we make. So a big stock of these dried chilli peppers is what we keep. We usually grind these peppers into a powder or a paste.
Oh, we love our plantains as well. West-Africa is a large producer of plantains in this part of the world. Plantains are different from bananas. We make so many dishes with our plantains. Some of these include Dodo (fried plantains), sometimes we just roast the plantains and eat them. We also use the flour made out of plantains to make Fufu. So you see they are a very versatile item and hence a very important part of the West-African pantry.
Cocoyam is yet another starchy vegetable and a favourite in our cuisine. It is also referred to as Taro. We make fufu out of it or sometimes a porridge. Its leaves are also edible, so we indulge in that as well. Some people make a stew out of the cocoyam leaves as well. They are perfect for health and yet another staple in the West-African pantry.
When locust beans are fermented and processed we get Iru. Iru is the Yoruba version of Dawa Dawa. Iru is used when we make Egusi soup or Okra soup. We also use it in the Igbo dish – Ugba which is prominent in their weddings. So, we use Iru on special occasions, and most likely we have stock of Iru in our pantry!
This ingredient is also referred to as sumbala. A fermented mould made from locust beans, néré seeds, or other kinds of seeds. My mother-in-law uses the Yoruba version, which is known as iru, for everything—even when frying eggs. Talk about the smell! Due to its fermented nature, you can imagine the odour, but it’s healthy and delicious.
So here is my list of 10 items or ingredients that you can get to see in a West-African pantry. What are the items that you have in your pantry? Tell me about it in the comments. You can find my recipes here.