Long in touch with Europeans, and the most heavily populated area in Africa, West Africa includes Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Dahomey, Nigeria, Burkinafaso, and Cameroon.
West African foods should not he a mystery to Americans, for it is from here that the slaves brought to North America the tastes and cooking methods that are now so deeply entrenched as to be considered part of American regional cookery.
Georgian and South Carolina rice was transformed into delectable casseroles after the blacks served it with black-eyed peas (called Hoppin’ John), plantains, yams, or peanuts. Coarse leafy greens, long considered cattle food, came to the Southern table glistening with bacon fat, spicy with onions and garlic and tender from slow cooking. Southern gumbo dishes are derived from okro or gombo – West African names for okra. In fact, grilled meats and fish and varieties of vegetables and beans introduced by the black cooks extended the Southern American diet incredibly. And quite possibly, the black cook’s penchant for washing hands may also have influenced cleanliness in American kitchens.
As in most of Africa, three-quarters of West Africa’s population is rural. Staples of the farmer’s diet include milk and curds and whey, varieties of wild cultivated green vegetables, dried peas, yams, corn, pumpkin, and several types of squash. Yams, corn, cassava, and groundnuts are indispensable in the West African diet. Cassava is used mainly for its flour – which when slightly fermented is called gari – and its leaves are used as a vegetable. Groundnuts are used in soups and stews and flavorful sauces. Eggplants, okra, garlic, onions, and tomatoes are important in many dishes too.
To the more sophisticated West African, fufu (made from yams or plantains) is still a staple but is prepared in more imaginative forms: fried cakes, dumpling-like balls, thin-fried chips, croquettes and fritters. To add variety, some of these are served sweetened and lightly spiced.
The rest of the diet is liberally laced with a wide variety of fish and seafood and there are many chick-en dishes flavored with groundnuts. Beef and mutton are scarce; chickens require careful cooking to tenderize. Eggs are used liberally and are an important part of many dishes. Both urban and rural dwellers use fruits in season as their means permit: bananas, plantain, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, limes and lemons, melons, oranges and the great variety of local tropical specialties.
This is an area where the new middle class is developing unusual and sophisticated dishes, combining indigenous fruits and vegetables in new ways.