Wednesday 27 July 2022

5 West African Ingredients You Need To Try

 There’s nothing more exciting than expanding your culinary repertoire and cooking with ingredients you may not have encountered before. Unless you are from West Africa, the ingredients below may be completely new to you. Perhaps you’ve encountered some of them at a restaurant or perhaps you know of them through a friend or family member. Whatever the case, I hope this article inspires you to diversify your vegan menu and make these ingredients a staple in your household. The ingredients below are just a small handful of typical West African ingredients that I think everyone should get acquainted with. They can all be found at any well stocked African grocery store or even from online retailers.

1. African Yam

Tubers and root vegetables feature in many West African recipes. Beyond sweet potatoes and white potatoes, yam is worth adding to your shopping list. Indigenous to West Africa, they tend to be very large in size, with a rough brown exterior and a white or cream starchy flesh that is firm but fluffy when cooked. In terms of flavour, yams can range from mild and slightly sweet to slightly bitter depending on the variety. In Nigeria, yam is referred to as the “king of crops”, with an annual yam festival dedicated to this versatile ingredient. They are a great source of fibre, potassium and vitamins A, B6 and C. It is important to peel and cook yam before eating it. Treat it the way you would treat a potato by boiling it, frying it, roasting it or mashing/pounding it. In addition to eating them fresh, yams are dried and ground into flour that is used to make ‘bolus’ meals such as Amala.

If you’re just getting started, some delicious yam recipes you can try include Asaro (savoury yam porridge), Boiled Yam with Scrambled Tofu and Yam Pepper Soup.

2. Honey Beans

This variety of beans is also known locally as ewa oloyin or sweet beans in Nigeria. It gets its name from its distinctly sweet flavour. They are brown in colour, shaped like kidney beans but much smaller in size than typical kidney or black-eyed beans. They boast a ton of health benefits and are a great source of protein, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. Like other varieties, it is recommended that you soak the beans for a few hours or overnight to reduce the gas that causes bloating and other digestive issues. You can cook and use them much in the same way as you would any other bean variety - in soups, stews, salads, and more. If you would like to explore some tasty West African bean recipes, I would recommend Ewa (stewed beans) with fried plantain, Akara (bean fritters) and Moin Moin (steamed bean pudding).

3. Egusi Seeds

Also known as melon seeds, these cream-coloured, oval-shaped seeds are indigenous to West Africa and come from a bitter gourd that resembles a watermelon. The seeds have a nutty, earthy taste and are predominantly used as a thickener and flavour enhancer in many traditional dishes. As well as being protein-rich and packed with essential fatty acids, they are a great source of vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. To use in cooking, the seeds need to be dried, hulled and ground to. A coarse powder. These days it is very easy to buy the whole seeds or ground seeds from African or international grocery stores. Try this mouthwatering recipe for classic Egusi Soup which you can serve with yam, fufu, rice and other starches.

4. Garri

Garri can best be described as a coarse cassava flour. It is made by peeling, grating or roughly blending fresh cassava to mash. The cassava is then fermented and dried to eliminate any toxic compounds before it is sieved and dry roasted or fried. You are guaranteed to find a bag of garri in most Nigerian homes as it is a much-loved staple. It is mainly used to make a ‘bolus’ meal known as Eba which is eaten alongside soups and stews such as Egusi Soup, Okra Soup and Efo Riro. It is also used to make a refreshing snack known as soaked garri or garri water, which is usually served with a handful of roasted peanuts. I have even used garri to make gluten-free cookies.

5. Bitter Leaves 

As the name suggests, this dark, leafy green vegetable has a distinct bitter taste. It boasts an array of health benefits and is a great source of protein, vitamin C, iron, zinc and folic acid. Used for its medicinal properties in traditional West African medicine, it is a common ingredient in many traditional soups and stews. Before cooking, it is recommended that you rinse the leaves several times to reduce or eliminate the strong bitter taste. Add small amounts to soups and salads, and try out this traditional recipe for Bitter Leaf Soup. 

If this list whets your appetite then you will love my cookbook Vegan Nigerian Kitchen


  1. We bought yam is the local store for exotic foods. After cooking the yam is slightly bitter. I like the taste, just I wonder if it is safe to eat. I read there is a biter variety of yam that is poisonous, it the one we got somehow related to it?

    1. Some yam varieties are naturally bitter and safe to eat. If it's sold at the store, chances are that it is the safe variety.