West Africa is a region that was once home to some the greatest African kingdoms, including the Mossi and Ghana kingdoms, as well as the great kingdoms of Mali and Benin.
The region was the hub of trade and commerce from ancient times to colonial times, attracting Arabs from the Middle East and Europeans from Portugal, Spain, Germany and France.
All of this has played a big role in the region’s cuisine, which fuses Middle-Eastern and European influences as well as indigenous influences to create a variety of distinct dishes.
Take a look at popular dishes from countries in West Africa:
Beninese cuisine is widely recognized in Africa for its unique and exotic taste. The country’s cuisine varies between the two main regions, namely the coastal south and the semi-arid and savannah-dominant north. Corn is the staple food of the south, whereas yams dominate the north. Rice, beans, tomatoes and couscous are popular in the country, with a myriad of fruits such as kiwi, pineapples, peanuts and avocado are enjoyed.
Most of the dishes are light on meat as it is quite pricey in Benin. Fish and chicken is popular with southerners and beef and pork with northerners when meat is prepared. Palm or peanut oil is mainly used for frying, and the main ketchup that is enjoyed is a spicy peanut sauce.
Kuli Kuli is a popular Beninese dish. It consists of ground peanuts bound together to create balls, which are then fried in peanut oil.
Akara, which is a popular street food in Nigeria and Senegal as well, is black eyed beans fritters made with black eyed peas, onions, eggs, spices and salt and fried upon ordering from the vendor. Akara is served with Dja, which is a spicy tomato sauce.
Burkinabé cuisine is quite simple and healthy, consisting of staples sorghum, millet, rice, maize, nuts, potatoes and yams. Dishes are often accompanied by vegetable sources, chicken or fish.
A staple in any dish is Tô, which is millet, sorghum or corn that forms the base of a dish. Tô is popularly eaten with chicken, or Babenda, which consists of bitter greens such as spinach, kale or swiss chard, fermented locust bean (also known as soumbala) and dried fish such as sardines or anchovies.
Riz Gras is another popular dish, which is an oil-heavy stew that is popularly made with chicken. The meat is cooked until it falls off the bone.
Ivorian cuisine is quite cosmopolitan as it fuses Middle-Eastern and French flavors with traditional West African flavor. Cassava and plantains are popular in Ivorian cuisine and peanuts are widely used in dishes.
Kedjenou is a popular spicy stew dish that is made with chicken and vegetables. It is slow-cooked in a sealed pot with little or no water added, bringing out the rich and savoury flavors of the chicken and vegetables.
Attiéké is a popular side dish which is made with grated cassava, and is very similar in taste and consistency to couscous. It is eaten with fish or meat.
A popular Ivorian starch, which is also popular throughout West Africa is fufu (or foufou), which is boiled cassava or plantains that is mashed and served in the form of balls. It is usually eaten with an accompanying soap.
A popular Ivorian snack is aloko, which are fried bananas.
Cape Verdean cuisine is very hearty and unique, drawing influence from its Creole, Portuguese and African heritage. Seafood is often cooked fresh from the ocean, adding to the cuisine’s uniqueness.
The national dish of the islands is cachupa, which is a type of stew consisting of mashed maize, onions, green bananas, manioc, sweet potatoes, squash, yams, tomatoes and cabbage. It is seasoned with bay leaves, garlic and pimento, and bacon can be added to it.
Another popular type of stew is feijoada, which is a bean dish that is made in a variety of ways in different parts of the islands. Canja de galinha is a popular rice soup with chicken that is a must-have dish at Cape Verdean weddings.
Cape Verdeans have a sweet tooth because of the wide variety of fruits available on the islands. Doce de papaya is a popular dessert, which is a type of papaya jelly. The national drink is called pontche, which is a mixture of grog and sugar-cane molasses, refined with citrus fruit and cloves.
Gambian cuisine is well-known in Africa for its ingenious method of combining different kinds of spices and ingredients.
The country’s most notable dish is Domoda, which is a traditional Madinka stew made with concentrated groundnuts, vegetables and white rice.
Benachin or jollof rice is popular dish that is not only made in Gambia but throughout West Africa and is adapted in a number of ways by different tribal groups. Gambia’s Wolof tribe-inspired jollof rice is cooked in one pot and includes various vegetables and fish or meat, giving it a very bright colour.
Ghanaian cuisine is simple but flavorsome, consisting of staple foods such as rice and yam.
Jollof rice is one of the country’s most popular dishes, which consists of rice, tomato paste and meat. Fufu is widely popular in Ghana, and is made with cassava, yams or plantain. The starch is boiled then pounded into dough-like consistency, and is eaten with an accompanying soap or sauce.
Chichinga is a popular Ghanaian street food. It is grilled skewers made with chicken breast or beef and a spice mix called suya, which is a blend of peanuts, ground spices and hot pepper. It is the go-to snack for anyone wanting a pick-me-up because of its spicy and savoury flavour.
Guinean cuisine is derived from the various West African tribal groups, including the Madinka and the Bambara groups. It is also influenced by the early Portuguese, Spanish and Middle-Eastern traders that frequently traded in the region, as well as the French who colonized the country.
Rice and cassava are the most notable staples, with dishes varying from region to region.
Fou Fou (or fufu) is also popular in Guinea as it is in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire. It is also made with cassava or plantain and boiled to form a dough-like consistency, and enjoyed with an accompanying soap.
Poulet Yassa is the country’s signature dish, mainly consisting of braised chicken with lemon and caramelized onions. Traditional Guinea sauces are eaten with many dishes, including the popular maafe sauce, which is made from groundnuts. The sauce originates from the Madinka and Bambara peoples of the region.
For those with a sweet tooth, deep-fried plantain is the go-to dessert or snack as it is both delicious and sweet.
Unlike it neighbour Guinea, Guinea-Bissau was colonized by the Portuguese, and fuses much of its traditional cuisine with Portuguese tastes and style of food. Rice is a staple in the diet of residents near the coast and millet a staple in the interior. Common ingredients in dishes include yams, sweet potato, cassava, plantain, onion and tomato. Cashews, coconut, palm nut and olives are grown, and palm oil is usually harvested.
A popular dish from the country is Cafriela de Frango, which is garlic, onion and chili-marinated chicken pieces that are cooked on the hob before being grilled.
Palm wine is the preferred drink, especially during wedding celebrations and funerals.
Liberian cuisine is mainly influenced by African American culture as the country was founded by freed American slaves in 1822. The cuisine also draws influence from Italian, French and cuisine from the West African region, creating a unique taste.
A wide spectrum of seafood, especially shrimp, is available as the country lies on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mesurado River. Jollof rice is mainly at the centre of any dish, with accompanying vegetables including eggplant, onions and pepper.
Liberians love the dish called the Monrovian collards and cabbage, which consists of bacon, onion, red and black pepper and collard greens. Fufu is also quite popular as it is in other West Africa countries including Guinea, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. However, Liberians prefer to make the starch with boiled cassava. Fufu is popularly eaten with a beef soup made with beef, dried codfish, tripe, and other smoked fish.
Another favourite dish is palava, which is a beef dish made with peanut oil, tomatoes, red pepper and spinach.
Malian cuisine is heavily influenced by the various tribal groups found in the country. The main foods used in dishes are rice, millet, yams, cassava, plantain and fish.
Most Malian dishes centre on jollof rice or fufu, both which are served with a soap dish such as Sakasaka, which is a vegetable soup with green onion.
Grains are often used to make porridges, such as bouille, which is a dish consisting of sweet milk and cereal that is mainly eaten for breakfast.
Kola nuts play a big role in Malian cuisine. Not only are they eaten as a snack, but they are given as gifts and as signs of respect. Tea is popular in Mali and the serving of it is a ritualized affair, where it is served in 3 rounds: the first for life, the second for love, and the third for death.
Mauritanian cuisine is influenced by Arab, French, Moroccan and Senegalese cuisine while drawing from its rich Berber heritage. Camel milk has always been the staple food of Bedouin, nomad and pastoral communities, providing them with enough nutrients to sustain them throughout the often harsh climate of the Sahara Desert. Camel milk cheese is a popular food in Mauritania as it is made in the country under the brand name Caravane.
Mauritanian cuisine is generally rustic and flavoursome, with dried dates being a common snack and popular staple meats being camel, chicken, lamb and seafood. The capital city Nouackhott is home to one of the largest and most vibrant fish markets in all of West Africa, and fresh fruit and vegetable stalls can be found in local markets.
Meals are mostly served in a communal fashion, with fresh meat and fish dishes being served over a bed of couscous or rice. Senegalese-style thieboudienne, which is a coastal dish of rice and fish served in a white and red sauce made from tomatoes, is considered as the country’s national dish.
Another popular dish is called mafhe (or maafe), which is goat or camel meat in peanut, okra and tomato sauce served over rice and can also be made without meat for vegetarians.
Niger’s geographical location, with Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south and Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, makes it a melting pot for different types of cuisines. Its cuisine consists of Arab, French, Central and West African influences, with staples being millet and camel milk, all which become important sources of food during the hot and dry months.
Families that live in the southern region grow crops such as sorghum, maize, pulses, beans and vegetables, whereas northerners live a nomadic lifestyle, mainly eating a diet of millet and camel milk.
Rice and meat is often reserved for special occasions, so most meals consist of starch and vegetables. One specialty dish is foura, which consists of small balls of ground and slightly fermented millet that is crushed with milk, sugar and spices. The meal salaat is often used as a starter as it is a salad made from seasonal vegetables.
Tea is quite popular to Nigerien cuisine, and like in Malian culture, it is ritually served in 3 parts, with the first serving being bitter to represent death, the second serving being milder to represent life and the third serving being sweet to represent love.
Kola nuts are a popular snack that locals eat to boost their energy due to their high caffeine content.
Nigerian cuisine is as varied as the many tribal groups that form part of its population, adding to the country’s food diversity. The cuisine is also flavoursome, using various spices and herbs along with palm or groundnut oil. The country is never short of staples such as rice, yams, plantain and cassava, and it is also big on meat and fish dishes.
Jollof rice is considered as the Nigerian national dish. It consists of chicken, tomato, pepper, onion and spices including chili if a hot flavour is preferred.
Akara is a popular street food that is made with peeled brown beans that are blended with onion and spices and then deep-fried in palm oil. They are best eaten with agege bread.
Fufu, like in most West African countries, is a staple with any dish.
If you feel like something meaty, suya is a must-have street food. It is widely considered to be a specialty of the Hausa people of northern Nigeria and Niger, and consists of skewers of meat spiced with a special spice mix called yaji, which are then grilled to perfection over an open flame. The skewers are often served with sharp, raw chopped onions.
Senegalese cuisine draws influence from French, Portuguese and North African cuisine and seamlessly fuses these with traditional Wolof dishes. Fish is popular by the coastal regions, while peanuts, millet, rice, couscous, sweet potatoes, lentils, black-eyed peas and various other vegetables dominate the semi-arid interior. Chicken, lamb, eggs and beef are also widely used in Senegalese cooking.
Senegal’s national dish is a spicy fish meal called thiéboudienne. The fish is simmered with vegetables in tomato paste, tamarind and habanero pepper, and served over rice. It’s a specialty that originated in the former French colonial capital of Saint-Louis, and is served during special occasions as it requires elaborate preparation.
Yassa is a popular spicy dish of chicken or fish that is marinated in lemon juice before being grilled and caramelized. It is served over rice.
Mafe is a dish also loved by the Senegalese, and consists of a chicken, lamb or fish stew that is simmered in peanut butter sauce with vegetables such as yuca, yams and turnips.
If you have a sweet tooth, having banana fritters for dessert is something you’ll love. Banana fritters are made by frying banana batter and sprinkling with sugar. Having fresh fruit for dessert is also a Senegalese custom, and often, a main meal or dessert is followed by a cup of tea or coffee.
Sierra Leone is nicknamed “Sweet Salone” for its deep and rich food culture that dominates streets stalls and upmarket restaurants.
Stews are a fundamental part of the country’s cuisine, with groundnut stew being the national dish. The stew consists of chicken and vegetables that are flavoured with ground nuts, such as cashews and peanuts, and it is often served as the main meal. Fufu or rice are often served as the starches to accompany the stew.
Other popular stews include okra stew, which is made from the okra flowering plant of the mallow family, and cassava and potato leaf stews, which consists of the leaves of the vegetables that are spiced with various spices and fish stock and served with fish, goat or chicken. Jollof rice is also popular in the country, and is made by frying rice with beans and serving it with a spicy onion-based sauce.
Popular street food includes kukhri, which is rice and sauce, plassas, which are fried dough balls and plantain with spicy gravy, as well as deep-fried plantain chips.
Togolese cuisine is considered to be one of Africa’s finest and most unique cuisines as it effortlessly fuses local traditional cuisine with French and German influences.
Maize is the most common starch found in Togolese cuisine, and other starches include yams, cassava, plantains and rice. Fish and shellfish are the popular choice of protein, and meat and poultry are included in most dishes. Many locals still include agouti or bush rat in their diets, although it isn’t widely included in most mainstream menus.
Groundnut stew, which is also popular in Sierra Leone, and the the spicy chicken or fish dish Yassa are loved by the Togolese.
The West African staple fufu is eaten by locals with sauces made from peanut, goat or palm nut.
The Togolese also love a dish called akume, which is a savoury porridge made from maize flour and served with one of the many sauces available. Pâtes accompany the akume dish, and they are generally made from aubergine (eggplant), tomato, spinach or fish.
A popular side that is eaten with many dishes is djenkoume, which are tomato cornmeal fritters.
If you’re at the coast, having grilled prawns fresh from the ocean is a must.
Your taste buds will have the time of their lives in West Africa with the wide variety of delicious and interesting flavours.
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