Food Production 
Staples as Ingredients for Cooking 

List of Food Staples 
Bananas, green
Cassava (Manioc/Tapioca)
Green Banana
Sweet Potatoes

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 Cassava many uses, mostly underutilised 

In Internet
S.A. Agricultural Research Council 
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Fyhri (1998), The Gambia: The complexity of modernising the agricultural Sector in Africa, thesis in geography, University of Oslo.

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African Food Staples

Most Africans won't need an introduction to our food staples, although it might not be known to everybody that, for example the cassava is nourishing 500 million people on a worldwide basis and has its origin in the Brazilian Amazon. For guests from temperate climates, Eurasia and North America, however, tropical food stables are a new world indeed. Therefore this introduction.
  Below an alphabetic list of the 31 most common food staples in Africa, vegetables, herbs and spices. Under each product/staple, you will find information concerning origin and use. Some historical information is also added under most of them.

Yams, plantains, green bananas and cassava are the essential staples in Africa. These vegetables are grown and used all over the continent, either on their own or combined with others. Meat, on the other hand, is often used merely as one of a number of flavorings, rather than as a main ingredient in cooking. Vegetables, beans and lentils are definitely the most popular food staples throughout the continent, although animal products are used whenever available.

Food Production
Most food staples are produced on small scale, in a household based subsistence economy in Africa. The typical household grows its main staples, such as millet, sorghum and groundnuts in savannah areas, with more emphasis on rice were there is sufficient water available. One or more cash crops, in this example groundnut, are mostly produced for sale, while other crops are mostly for local consumption. Additionally, many households have small gardens with horticulture around their compounds, that is when water and means of fencing are available.

Horticulture may include vegetables such as plantains and onion and a variety of herbs and spices. These are consumed locally and sold on local markets.

Other major food stables, such as wheat and rice, are also imported on a wide scale from Asia, Europe and North America, especially in countries where the climate does not admit wide scale cultivation of such basic food staples.

Staples as Ingredients in Cooking
Historically, the African taste and use of ingredients has changed a great deal. Before intercontinental trade started at a wide scale, the most important vegetable food staples were rice, sorghum, millet, barley and lentils. In the eastern part of the continent (especially in Kenya) Arabs did start the cosmopolitan trend in local cuisine, sailing in their dried fruits, rice, spices and expanding the diets of the coastal cal gardeners. They also brought oranges, lemons and limes from China and India, as well as domestic pigs. The British were the next to influence eating and drinking habits, importing new breeds of sheep, goats and cattle, together with strawberries and asparagus. They also planted high-quality coffee.

In general European explorers and traders introduced several important food staples to the continent, after their first journeys to America and Asia. Important staples, which had been cultivated by the Indian cultures of the Americas, found their way to the "old continents". Beans, cassava, groundnuts, maize, tomatoes and sweet potatoes thus were introduced to Africa as a direct cause of the European exploring of the American continent. Asian seasonings like pepper, cinnamon, clove, curry and nutmeg were introduced as well.

Today the principal food crops in the western part of the continent are cereals; millet, sorghum, rice and maize. Root crops such as manioc, cocoyams, sweet potato and yams are also important locally. Perennial cash crops include both groundnuts and soybeans.

List of Food Staples

Wild banana has its origin in the tropical parts of Asia. The fruit originally is hard and full of seeds, but when cultivated and domesticated it has become sweet and seedless. The Arabs began to grow the plant in parts of northern Africa, and the banana thus spread to the Iberian Peninsula. The Portuguese also "discovered" the banana growing in Africa. Bananas are commonly eaten without further preparation and are mostly served at the end of a meal. Grown big scale on plantations or small scale in compound gardens.

These are unripe bananas. They are sometimes used as a green vegetable, mostly boiled, with or without their skin.

The barley plant is believed to have its origin in the highlands of East Africa. Nowadays it is an important food staple to people in Ethiopia. It is mostly used as an ingredient in different types of bread. Throughout Europe and the US barley is mostly made into malt, an important ingredient in beer and whiskey. Even the ancient Babylonians brewed beer from this plant. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The bean plants have their origin in Central and South America and were commonly used by the Aztecs. Many variations stem from this ancestral plant: Limas, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, green beans, kidney beans and black-eyed peas, to mention the most common.
In Africa black-eyed beans (which are indigenous to the continent, where they are a staple food), mung beans and red kidney beans are most commonly used. Beans are used in several types of dishes, for instance soups, stews, rice dishes, salads and as snacks. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The cassava is an important source of dietary carbohydrates in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world, with its roots providing food for over 500 million people.
Copyright: CGIAR.  It comes with hard and starchy white flesh. This vegetable is the basis in the making of cassava flour. The cassava contains a strong poison, cyanide, which needs to be eliminated during the preparation of the flour. This is done by cooking or fermenting the vegetable. Drying and grounding comes next. The cassava flour or gari is now ready for storage or use.
   The cassava or manioc plant has its origin in South America. Amazonian Indians used cassava instead of or in addition to rice/potato/maize. Portuguese explorers introduced cassava to Africa through their trade with the African coasts and nearby islands. Africans then further diffused cassava, and it is now found in almost all parts of tropical Africa. Africans adopted it for several reasons: The cassava plant is possible to cultivate in shifting systems and it gives flexible harvest. Furthermore it is resistant to locust attacks and drought. Today Nigeria and Congo-Kinshasa are great producers of cassava, next to Brazil. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens and consumed locally but also on a bigger scale in some countries.
   See also background article: Cassava many uses, mostly underutilised 

Cinnamon is a spice, which originally came from the Moluccas (Indonesia) and was brought to Africa by European traders. This seasoning is one of the ingredients in the commonly used five-spice powder. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The clove plant has its origin in Indonesia (the Molucca Islands). The Portuguese carried it to the East African islands. Today clove is produced on a great scale both in Madagascar and Tanzania. Clove is a common spice in African cookery, and is also one of the ingredients in five-spice powder. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The coconut is truly a tropical fruit, spread on its own to tropic coastal zones all over the world. The flesh and milk from the coconut is widely used in Africa. Creamed coconut is used grated onto casseroles or used to make coconut milk by dissolving it in boiling water. Coconut is used in relishes, frying dishes, sauces, desserts - you name it. Coconut milk is also widely used in all kinds of warm meals. Fresh coconut is sometimes peeled into slivers and used as topping on desserts. Sometimes grown on plantations, but mostly harvested directly from wild trees.

The coriander plant is native in the Orient. In Africa fresh coriander is used to garnish both hot and cold dishes. Coriander adds an intense pungent flavor to stews and soups. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Cumin is a seasoning, which was first cultivated in ancient Egypt. It was originally used in the cuisines of northern part of the continent but was later introduced to Central Africa. Cumin is commonly used as basis in sauces to accompany chicken and other meat dishes. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

During the construction of the railway to Uganda, the British imported thousands of Indians, and with these immigrants came the curries, chapattis and chutneys. Curry is a spice (a mix of several herbs) commonly used in vegetable dishes, as well as in meat and fish dishes.

The eggplant originally came from India and was further spread to the Mediterranean and Africa. Greeks and Egyptians feature the eggplant as a daily fare. African eggplants are usually of the smaller and bitterer kind. They are usually yellow, and most commonly referred to as garden eggs. Eggplant is used widely in West Africa. It is chopped, cooked and mixed into a variety of vegetable dishes, meat-/fish-dishes and sauces. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

This is most truly an Asian plant, but also the ancient Egyptians used it widely. Today it is present in cookery all over the continent, as well as in the rest of the world. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

This seasoning has its origin in Asia, probably India. The Romans imported it via Egypt. Because of its root form, ginger was more easily shipped than most seasonings, and it was thus widely spread at an early stage of history. Ginger was a favorite spice amongst the ancient Romans. Today it is a common used seasoning in African cookery. Non-alcoholic beer is also made of ginger in the western part of the continent, as well as in the rest of the world. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

These are valuable cash crops for small-scale farmers in the semi-arid tropics. The main use of groundnut is as a source of edible oil, but the high oil and protein contents also make it an important food crop. Groundnuts are mostly cooked and pureed into a thick, rich sauce and spooned over plantains, rice, different kinds of animal staples, etc. Originally, groundnuts came from southern Bolivia and northern Argentina, where the local Indian peoples cultivated them. Then the groundnut was "discovered" by Spanish explorers and spread throughout the world, including Africa. Today most of the groundnut production takes place in the Sub-Saharan part of the continent, being a favorable source of nutrition and cash earnings in semi-arid zones.

Lentils are one of the world's oldest cultivated foods and they are known to been cultivated in Egypt 5000 years ago, and were probably introduced by the Egyptians to both the Greek and the Roman cultures. The plant is believed to have had its origin in northeastern Iraq. Today, lentils are used all over the African continent, as in the rest of the world. They are most commonly soaked overnight, boiled and mashed together with other vegetables to be used as accompaniment to a meat or fish dish. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.


Millet harvest in The Gambia

Millet is an ancient grain that originates in Asia or Africa. More specifically, millet is believed to have originated in the mountains of East Africa and has further been domesticated by Ethiopians. The grain is rather resistant to drought and it is a useful crop in any soil, even ones with little nutrition. This makes millet an important food staple all over the continent, especially in the semi-arid areas. Mostly grown as a major staple on community or private fields and consumed locally.

Nutmeg is a seasoning plant, which originated in the Moluccas. European traders brought it to Africa. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Okra is a vegetable that is extremely popular in African cookery. It is often added into soups and needs no special preparations besides washing, topping, tailing and cutting up. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Different species of wild onions exist worldwide. Onions were already used by the Sumerians (modern Iraq) and the ancient Egyptians. Today, they are an important flavor ingredient on most African tables, as well as in the rest of the world. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Parsley is an herb, which probably is indigenous to the Mediterranean. It is said to have been brought to North America by the ancient Vikings (medieval Scandinavians). Throughout Africa chopped fresh parsley is often sprinkled on top of all kinds of dishes. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

This famous spice has its origins in India. In fact, it was because of pepper Columbus made his trip to America. European traders in general found their way all over the world in search of "the five noble spices" - pepper, ginger, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
Green pepper is an unripe pepper fruit; white pepper is the fully ripened fruit. Unripe peppercorns, dried and ground, give black pepper.
Chilies or hot peppers are now grown in West Africa and are commonly used as seasoning both in fish and meat dishes, as well as in soups and stews. Chilies come in red, yellow or brown.
Szechwan pepper is one of the ingredients in the already mentioned five-spice powder.
Pepper is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The plantain is a member of the banana family. These fruits can either be green, yellow or almost black, according to their ripeness. When plantains are green and unripe, they have a chalky texture and flavor resembling a potato. Plantains should not be eaten raw, but once cooked, boiled, fried, baked or roasted, they have a wonderful flavor. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The domestication of rice ranks is one of the most important developments in early history, because this grain has fed more people over a longer period of time than has any other crop. The rice plant has been diffused and carried all over the world. Originally, rice was grown by direct seeding and without standing water, under conditions only slightly different from those to which wild rice was subject. In some parts of Africa, rice is still grown under these conditions. However, presently, rice is mainly grown in swampy lowlands under standing water. Incorporation of wild rices into an agricultural system has taken place in Africa. Originally wild rice plants were found in most parts of the tropics/sub-tropics (indigenous). By the river Niger it was further grown and developed into more commonly known rice sorts. Rice also gradually spread from areas of the Mediterranean to a few locations in North Africa. 
Rice is mainly grown as a major staple, were water access allows it, on community or private fields, but also big scale in irrigated landscapes (often government, community or private owned plantations). Much of the rice consumed in Africa, however, is imported or donated from Asia.

Sorghum in Internet

The National Grain Sorghum Producers.  This is a US Interest Organisation with an informative website, containing sorghum news, research, link page, etc. It also has a Spanish entry.

The Sorghum Resource Page is a US resource page with eleven links about sorghum.

Sorghum is a native wild plant of Africa. Today it is the leading cereal grain on the continent, and Nigeria is one of the worldwide leading producers of grain sorghum, alongside with the US. The plant is rather drought resistant and is therefore an extremely important commodity that provides necessary food and feed for millions of people living in semi-arid environments worldwide. Sorghum is often ground into flour to make pancakes or mush. Sorghum is mainly grown as one of the major crops (often besides millet) on community or private fields and mostly consumed locally. 

Spinach is a leaf-vegetable native in Iran. In Africa the spinach is often chopped fresh and added into different kind of soups, sauces and hot dishes. The spinach demands cooking. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The sweet potatoes have their origin in tropical America and are now grown everywhere in the tropics. European traders brought the plant to Africa.
Sweet potatoes can be boiled, roasted, fried, creamed or baked in their skins. They are easily combined with both sweet and savoury dishes. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The tamarind plant originated in Tropical Africa and India. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

The growing of the wheat plants originated in the earliest Middle Eastern agricultural societies. It was spread to Egypt where it is widely grown today. Wheat is most commonly baked into bread. Wheat is the most important grain of the northern hemisphere, but also used in Africa. Though mostly imported, it is also grown on a wide scale in South Africa and the Maghreb countries in large private or community fields.

The yam is a vegetable that should not be confused with the sweet potato. Yams comes with a white flesh and texture, similar to a turnip. The flesh can be eaten boiled, roasted, baked, mashed or made into chips. Yams is native to tropical regions throughout the world. It is cultivated for its edible tubes, and come in all sizes. Mostly grown small scale in compound gardens, but also on a bigger scale in wetter climates.

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