Wolof: Ghariti; French: Karite; Latin: Vitellaria paradoxa
Shea butter comes from the nuts of shea trees, which are native to West Africa. The butter itself is made by women who working together, often in community cooperatives. It it quite a process: first, the shea nut is cracked with a rock. Every bit of the shell has to be separated from the nut, just like before you eat a coconut. Then, it’s crushed to pieces in large African mortars with heavy pestles. Then, women lift the crushed nuts into massive pots over wood fires outside, which they stir and roast like coffee.
Artisanal shea butter often has a campfire, smoky smell to it, like a peaty scotch. This is from the Sahel wood, very flavorful, which stokes the fires. One of the things shea cooperatives can do to help sustain traditional production is to plant botanical trees that they will later use as firewood. Much like mesquite smoking for meat in the United States, you know that shea butter with a smoky scent to is is handmade and 100% natural.
Once the crushed up nuts are well-roasted, the nuts are ground into a paste and emulsifed with water. This is also done by hand. As you can see, making shea is hard work! Cooperatives are smart to bring their households together. There are still a few more steps to this shea-making process.
The idea is to get the shea butter out of the mass of ground shea nut paste, and this again is done by hand. As you can see, shea butter making creates strong women! No need for gyms around here. The paste is kneaded as water is added until there’s enough water and kneading that curds of shea butter float like gnocchi to the top. The curds are skimmed off and kneaded a little more for good measure, to get out the last of the oil. Then, much like making homemade essential oils, the shea gets slow-boiled over a very low flame or fire, to evaporate the last of the water.
At last, we have shea butter. When you buy artisanal shea, you find it pale golden and opaquely white, in plastic pots. This is now what is in the pot. It is then scraped into large plastic buckets that used to hold mayonnaise or tomato paste, and sold by weight in the market.
Many international corporations source shea butter from West Africa. L’Oreal, among others, and of course The Body Shop, Lush and many others use West African shea butter in their products and treatments. Here at African Epicure, we like to enjoy nature’s bounty straight from the source. We prefer buying our shea in the market, from women’s cooperatives of business ladies whose money goes straight back into their families and the community at large.
We recommend you find yourself a good shea supplier and get yourself hooked up!
Shea is available by the kilogram all over West Africa. In its pure form, it can be harder to get in other regions, but it’s worth the look. A lot of shea on the market is currently grown by women’s cooperatives in Burkina Faso. As shea butter continues to grow in popularity as a natural African beauty product, we’re sure that more businesses selling natural shea hair treatments and skin moisturizers will pop up.
In the meantime, we hope you find a good shea butter supplier, as it’s a bit difficult to make your own at home.