By Elie Calhoun
We love West African superfoods.
One of the things I remember about growing up in different countries in Africa was each time I would get to a new country, I would explore the food markets.
In Kenya, during our first weekends in Nairobi, my mother found the bus station in our part of the suburbs and took us into town to the local market, a covered concrete box of a building surrounded by high rises, diesel fumes and loud traffic. She held hands with my sister and I as we wound through the crowds. We stayed close but couldn’t help leaning forward now and then to crane a glance through the people circled around piles of red tomatoes, knee-high piles of long thick green leaves, impossible mountains of onions. I was intoxicated and wanted to try everything.
Years later, when we moved to Egypt, I fell in love with the streets of old Cairo by the Al Hussein mosque. As soon as I had squirreled enough allowance, I would spend it extravagantly on jasmine oil and dried hibiscus leaves at brightly-lit shops in the bazaar. Thousand year-old alleyways hid shopkeepers selling Palestinian sage, stewed into tea during the cold months, which I bought by the bushel in large plastic bags.
In Senegal, when we are driving somewhere outside the city, Ousmane, our taxi driver, will stop at roadside stalls that sell kenkiliba. Sold in large clear plastic tied up tightly in a small knot, the leaves are dried brown and evenly portioned, some sticks between them popping out through the bag. Kenkiliba tea, I am told, is excellent for detoxing and cleansing the blood.
Since then, I have found the ground, powdered version for sale at gas stations and supermarkets, already divided neatly into thin tea bags. I prefer my big plastic bag of whole leaves because when I make a pot, I plunge my fist into the leaves and get a whole handful, evoking a moment playing in dried leaves and sunshine out in the garden.
Our own African traditions, passed down through friends, aunties and grandmothers and grandfathers, have given each of us a fingerprint of knowledge about what is good for us that grows where we live. We know, if we try to remember, what to drink when for different ailments. There is pepper soup for hangovers, ginger and lemongrass tea for when you’re coming down with a cold.
What about nutrition, though?
Tradition aside, are any of these plants and foods actually good for us? In recent studies, science has confirmed what our grandmothers and family healers always knew: food is medicine.
Introducing vital, energy-giving foods like these into your everyday diet helps you feel good and improves your health. Natural, local superfoods are far better than those that have traveled for months across the world on gas-guzzling container ships or (gasp!) flown refrigerated from far-off lands. Ignoring the waste of valuable fossil fuels just to make your breakfast, the nutritional content and taste of old foods deteriorates over time. Why not support your local growers and agricultural communities and buy what they’re offering?
Buying and learning to use local superfoods may be outside your comfort zone at first, but with this list of “Top 5 Favorite West African Superfoods,” you’ll be ready to take the plunge and start eating more local. Many new tastes and flavor adventures await you!
(Of course, it goes without saying that this is by no means conclusive and only covers one part of the continent — and even at that, barely. We just wanted to introduce you to the ones we love.)
Here are our “Top 5 Favorite West African Superfoods”:
The ancient baobab trees are Africa’s oldest super foods, providing nourishment and nutrients to humans and many other diverse life forms, from birds to honey bees. Baobab fruit keeps almost indefinitely, because it is very dry, and makes an easy juice to prepare from powder or by soaking the fruit and simply straining out the pulp and seeds. It has a delicious, sherbert taste, almost like freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Powdered baobab leaves, sold in markets around West Africa, can be mixed into smoothies and snack bars and are full of nutrients.
2. Bissap juice (a.k.a. Hibiscus, Sorrel, Karkade, Wonjo)
The dark red juice of the hibiscus flower is stewed in hot or boiling water, at which point it can be drunk as hot hibiscus tea, called karkade in Arabic. It is so dark that it is often mistaken for red wine and makes a strikingly scarlet iced tea. Served hot, it makes a warming, energizing tea, but careful: it stains. When we had our bar in Monrovia, we used bissap syrup to purple any number of cocktails, including ‘The Bruiser.’
3. Ginger juice
Piquant and strong, ginger has been used as a warming digestive and circulatory system tonic for thousands of year. Raw ginger juice is especially effective at invigorating the body and promoting good digestion, and is drunk liberally in Senegal and other Muslim West African countries during public and social occasions, as alcohol is avoided. Ginger is an excellent stomach settler and pleasant mixed into cocktails, where it does a great job hiding the taste of alcohol.
If you’re really not feeling well, make yourself a hot and restorative ginger and lemongrass tea.
Served as a juice and prized for its sweet-and-sour flavor, tamarind fruit is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is also very good a helping balance electrolytes when you’re experiencing dehydration. Perhaps that’s why sweetened tamarind juice is often served to guests who are tired after coming in from the hot sun. Tamarind’s sour taste, once you add a bit of honey, is easily addictive, so watch out! Soon, you’ll be adding it to all kinds of things.
The moringa tree is relatively new to the African forests. Its status as a superfood has been encouraged by Peace Corps and USAID projects throughout West Africa. Moringa leaves, if you can disguise their heavy chlorophyllic taste, are so good for you that a few leaves provide a host of basic micro-nutrients, including calcium.
Moringa leaves are harvested, dried and ground into a very useful green powder that you can put into smoothies, baked goods and all kinds of things. It is very similar to a green algae or spirulina powder, and you can use it exactly the same way.
Now that I’ve named just 5 West African superfoods, I’m sure that reading this you’ve already thought of at least 5 more. You can always email us your own country’s “top 5 healing foods” (email@example.com) and we may publish them up on African Epicure.
We hope you’re inspired to try one or all of these healthy and nutritious foods, if you didn’t know about them before. Go to your local health food store or order them from an independent organic provider on the Internet. Or, head to the market and ask around the dry goods stalls, where people sell herbs, lentils, beans and spices. Keep your eye out for the raw ingredients, as they will almost certainly have different names.
Elie Calhoun is a writer, chef and social entrepreneur. She lives in West Africa.
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