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Global Eats: West African Foods Are Popping Up, But Still Have Ways to Go

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The region’s ingredients are trending in foodservice—and have direct connections to familiar U.S. southern cuisine—but wide acceptance is an uphill climb.

When chef Eric Adjepong competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef” in season 16, he dished out fufu and egusi stew while talking of his culinary experience on the ground in Ghana, from where his family hails. Each new challenge for the competitors brought more of Adjepong’s knowledge of West African cuisine to the table, literally, as he included ingredients from countries like Nigeria and nods to the foods of the African diaspora.

Adjepong ultimately didn’t win, but he did bring West African foods to the living rooms of plenty of “Top Chef” fans. West Africa, the part of the continent that includes Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon, isn’t necessarily known on the global scale for its cuisine. It’s often overshadowed by the tagines and couscous of Morocco and the babaganoush of Egypt. But most Americans have been unknowingly eating it for generations, thanks to its presence in current-day Southern fare as well as ingredients in specialty grocery stores.

“The history of relations between America and Africa has been mostly tragic [and] the media’s portrayal of Africa has not always been positive,” says Senegalese-born chef Pierre Thiam. “But today’s consumers are more conscious about the food they eat. Thanks to television, they are looking for the next frontier of food.”

That next frontier just may be West African food. The Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotter panel of buyers, chefs, industry watchers, and educators, named the cuisine a trend of 2019 and continues to note the increase in the region’s flavors showing up in products and spices. Recently, Whole Foods Market named foods from West Africa as one of its top 10 trends for 2020.

Thiam is the owner of the Pierre Thiam Group, which includes Yolélé Foods, a distributor that imports foods from West Africa, and Teranga Restaurants, a New York City-based chain of fast-casual West African eateries. He has also written two cookbooks, been honored with numerous awards, and is clear about his mission to bring the “unique flavors of Africa to the rest of the world.” Though he’s been at it since the mid-1990s, he’s just now seeing the growing demand for African products, especially through his work at Yolélé. “We can feel the pulse and excitement coming from a growing segment of the U.S. market,” he says.

West African ingredients include grains like fonio and sorghum, cassava, and superfoods such as moringa and baobab. The area is also known for its peanut sauce, spice mixes like suya (a smoky, nutty blend of peanut powder and paprika used on grilled meat kabobs in Nigeria) and fermented proteins, including seafood and locust beans. Restaurants will serve popular dishes like fufu, a thick porridge of cassava and plantains served with spicy sauces, as well as gari, fermented cassava root that can be eaten as a savory treat with nuts or a sweet dessert with honey. Egusi, the dried and fermented seeds from melons and squash, is the basis for a mouthwatering Nigerian stew, and banku, a corn and cassava dough ball served alongside fish or stew, is the staple food of Ghana.

The region’s food is vast, thanks to the tribal quality of the many cultures that reside along the coast of Africa. Thiam explains that foods in Senegal are seafood-based because of its proximity to the ocean. Ghana and Nigeria lean toward cassava and plantains. Malians pair their fonio, an ancient grain, with peanuts, while nearby in Benin, people turn it into a polenta-like cake. But the general motif is that the foods feature bold flavors, with fermented ingredients, spicy sauces, and plenty of superfoods.

A Superfood Halo
“It seems like once a month I hear of another food company launching an African superfood,” says Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, the leading moringa brand in the U.S. “Clearly times are changing with many African spices shooting to the top of trend lists.”

Curtis launched her company in 2014, after living in Niger and experiencing first-hand the health benefits of a local snack: moringa with peanuts. The leafy green has a higher nutritional value than kale and is thought to hold powerful anti-inflammatory properties akin to that of turmeric. “Even the poorest people in my village would add tons of spices and herbs to their food,” Curtis says. “It’s often surprisingly healthy.”

That may be why African ingredients like cassava flour, fonio, and moringa have first popped up in health food stores as well as the shelves of Whole Foods. Kuli Kuli can be found at Whole Foods stores across the country, and Thiam’s Yolélé Fonio, an ancient grain packed with vitamins and amino acids, will move to nationwide distribution in mid-2020.

Cassava flour has also been growing in acceptance among the gluten-free crowd, as the allergy-friendly starch is naturally nut- and grain-free. It makes a great substitute for baked goods for those with food sensitivities.

But the movement is still small. “The reality is that African cuisine is the least represented in food media versus foods from other regions and continents,” explains Kiano Moju, a culinary video producer and owner of Jikoni Culinary Creative Studio. She cited a conversation with Nnedi Okorafor, one of the writers behind Black Panther comics, noting that most people didn’t believe that Africans ate, let alone ate sophisticated cuisine. “When I looked at the type of information people had of African culture, there wasn’t much. The type of media coverage we get is one of political unrest, poverty, and wildlife—this portrait doesn’t show that the region has anything to offer the world. It’s a place the world needs to help.”

That’s a sentiment shared by two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Edouardo Jordan, who owns Junebaby in Seattle, Washington. “A West African chef or restaurant will always struggle to gain popularity until our country has a better appreciation of the folks that are cooking it,” he says. “Until respect, acceptance, and understanding happens, true West African foods will have a hard time becoming mainstream.”

It is true that many packaged products from the region include support for social causes as a prominent selling point. Kuli Kuli’s Curtis sources from small farmers, particularly women, who hand-harvest the moringa leaves and carefully dry them to best preserve the nutrients. As of the date of publishing, her company had provided $4.4 million in income to women-led farming cooperatives and family farms in Ghana and beyond. Kuli Kuli has also made an environmental impact in that it has planted or preserved more than 12.6 million moringa trees in the area.

Similarly, Thiam’s Yolélé partners with a local NGO, SOS Sahel, to hold them accountable to improving per capita income and increasing employment. Additionally, Yolélé donates one percent of its total sales—not just profits—directly to the NGO.

American Southern Cuisine Ties
One way in which West African chefs and food purveyors have helped combat the lack of African food knowledge is by showcasing West Africa’s link to America’s southern cuisine. It’s a strategy Adjepong vocalized during “Top Chef,” especially given that his main competitor was an Alabama-based chef.

During slavery, the uprooting of peoples from West Africa to the Caribbean and southern United States meant a transportation of food culture too. That’s how the tamarind tree, native to West Africa, ended up in Latin American and Mexican cuisine and how African spices play into Jamaican jerk seasoning. It also explains Southern staples like okra, black-eyed peas, and even techniques behind grilled meats. Beignets found in New Orleans hark back to the puff puff, a similar doughnut found in Sierra Leone and Cameroon, and Carolina peas and rice has a direct connection: it’s an iteration of the wildly popular West African dish, Jollof, a rice-based stew.

Thiam highlights the link between Southern cooking and West African food as a great starting point for consumers to understand the flavors. He also pointed out a new generation of chefs who are working with the ingredients in new ways, including Jordan and the award-winning Kwame Onwuachi who helms Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C. “More and more chefs of color are inserting little touches of West African in to the foods we cook,” Jordan adds.

Where that is quite possibly most pronounced is a restaurant across the pond, in London: Ikoyi. While not American, the British restaurant made waves in the food industry when it was anointed with one Michelin star in the 2019 guide. The basis of its food? West African spices.

“There are so many chefs who are continuing traditions and taking inspiration from West African flavors and fusing them with other culinary styles,” Moju says. “It’s important for Africans to have a voice in their own storytelling. It’s exciting knowing restaurants like Ikoyi can thrive with a menu that uses [these] ingredients.”

Stephanie Cain is a freelancer specializing in food and beverages.

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