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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Pepper is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.
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
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 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.
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
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.