I don’t want to brag—that’s a lie, yes I do—but my pantry is bursting with amazing flavors and ingredients from West Africa. I dedicated several pages in my cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, to highlighting some of those ingredients: kenkey, fufu, bambara, black-eyed beans, fonio, rice, millet, and amane (dried smoked fish), among them.
Still, there’s a question of what might count as a pantry staple in today’s West Africa. How many Ghanaians in the metropolises of Accra, Kaneshie, and Takoradi still count such ingredients as staples? A new middle class chases Western flavors fervently, for sure. And there is an increasing sense of ambivalence toward what I and many chefs in the diaspora consider the treasures of West African cooking.
But the chop bars of Accra and Tema are still there, still making traditional food using these ingredients. Of course, the many mothers, grandmothers, and aunties across Ghana still define their cooking by the use of them. And as a modern chef, so, ultimately, do I.
I could wax lyrical about pulses and grains, fermented foods, smoked foods, the huge variety of chiles and heat, and the abundance of delicious fruits all central to the West African pantry, but there just isn’t space for that. Instead, here’s a little rundown of my favorite everyday indigenous spices to serve as a jumping off point as you cook my fish and chips with shito and more.
Calabash Nutmeg (African Nutmeg)
Calabash is the superhero nutmeg, dressed like a Black Panther character with its veined red helmet. It’s Africa’s indigenous variety of nutmeg, and you might know it as African or Jamaican nutmeg. The fruits are collected from wild trees and then the seeds are removed and dried. The seeds are sold whole or ground to be used in stews, soups, cakes, and desserts. The smell and taste of calabash nutmeg is very similar to the common variety, though it has a deeper woodiness; its flavor is intensified when toasted. Calabash is said to have many medicinal properties, from relieving constipation to repelling insects.
Ashanti Pepper (Uziza/Cubeb Tailed Pepper)
Cubeb pepper (also known as tailed pepper or piper cubeba or Java pepper due to its indigenous origin) is Africa’s version of black pepper. It has a woody pine tree aroma with a mild, peppery, clove-like flavor and a slightly bitter finish. Once baked, cubeb pepper loses its bitterness and takes on a more rounded, complex flavor with hints of nutmeg and cardamom, making it great for baking (I recommend using it in the Cubeb Spiced Shortbread from my cookbook), although it’s most frequently used to flavor vegetables and meat stews. Used medicinally, it is reputed to act as an appetite stimulant and relieve indigestion.
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Hwentea (Guinea Pepper/Ethiopian Pepper/Grains of Selim/Senegal Pepper)
This spice comes from the fruits of a shrubby tree that’s found in Africa. Its pods contain little black seeds that have a musky, aromatic flavor that tastes like a combination of toasted jasmine, ylang-ylang, and cumin. It’s fruity with peppery notes and is commonly used in the making of shito, but it can also be infused into warming drinks such as guinea pepper and ginger tea. The pods can be crushed or cracked open and added whole to soups and stews, then removed before serving. Guinea pepper pods can also come smoked and can be ground before being used as a spice rub for fish or meats. I grind it and use it in an African peppercorn spice rub for steaks.
Mesewa (Grains of Paradise/Alligator Pepper/Melegueta Pepper)
Native to West Africa, this spice is a member of the ginger family. Its tiny, round seeds are reminiscent of miniature nutmegs. Medieval spice traders called this the grain of paradise and claimed that the peppery seeds grew only in Eden and had to be collected as one floated down the river out of paradise.
Once crushed, the seeds release a pungent citrusy aroma with hints of jasmine and cardamom. If you bite into one, you’ll notice that the peppery heat slowly intensifies and develops on the palate. They are great used as a spice rub for fish, especially if you toast them in a dry frying pan before crushing. Grains of paradise are also said to have aphrodisiac qualities. I can vouch for this.
Dawadawa (Iru/African Locust Bean)
The powerful-smelling African locust bean, also known as dawadawa, is a highly effective flavor enhancer in many soups and stews. It is mostly used in the northern regions of Ghana and is reputed to have innumerable health benefits, among them aiding in the management of diabetes and hypertension and being an antidote to snake bites. The cake-like mixture has a pungent smell when fresh, but the aroma subsides during the cooking process to deliver deep savory flavor. It’s also high in protein, making it great for adding a meaty intensity in both flavor and nutrition to vegan dishes.
Koobi (Dried Salted Tilapia)
You can think of the preparation and use for this as you might salted cod, though it has a more intense fermented aroma. Used in soups, koobi is preferred over dawadawa in southern Ghana. Southerners are situated along the coast where fish is readily available, whereas northerners have the African locust bean growing around them. Koobi, then, does a similar job of delivering savory umami to many soups and stews. While I prefer to use dawadawa for ease of application, since it comes in powdered form as well as pods, I’ve recently learned that koobi is increasingly used in Chinese cooking. It’s something everyone should try once!
This seasoning originated in Southeast Asia and was imported from India via Egypt by the ancient Romans. The fact that ginger was a root, and therefore could be relatively easily shipped, meant that its use quickly spread to other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Africa, where it became a commonly used ingredient in cooking. Nonalcoholic beer and other drinks are also made from ginger throughout the continent. The small knob of African ginger yields 10 times the flavor of the stems we find in supermarkets in the West and global North. Did you ever notice the smell of the peel when you grate or peel ginger? All the fiery flavor of ginger is hidden in that skin, so stop throwing it away! Ginger forms part of my holy trinity of West African cooking—ginger, onion, and tomatoes—I would struggle to make any traditional dishes without these three golden ingredients.
Ground Hot Pepper
I refer to this ingredient in a lot of my recipes. It’s an African chile blend made of African bird’s eye chiles similar to cayenne and habanero powder. Ground hot pepper goes in pretty much everything! Blended with ginger, it makes a marinade for plantain when I’m making kelewele—and it’s used in the base of almost every soup and stew, including okra soup, fante fish stew, and light soup. It’s used as readily as salt in cooking; any of my recipes that require extra hot chile pepper, the origin is this.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious