Enjoy the diversity of a continent right in your backyard by growing some of Africa's tastiest fruits and vegetables.
Try this traditional Red Red with Fried Plantains Recipe.
The expansive continent of Africa is made up of over 54 countries. The vast landmass is comprised of every kind of topographic feature from mountains and plateaus to mangrove swamps, deserts, and stunning islands.
Last year, I met a woman originally from Africa who teaches African cooking classes. When I asked her if she cooked with any unusual African vegetables, she told me that Africans in the United States cook with the same kinds of vegetables that Westerners do — tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and peppers.
While this may be largely true since our selection at the grocery stores may be limited, a continent as large as Africa, with over 3,000 distinct ethnic groups, certainly grows and cooks vegetables that go beyond what is on our supermarket shelves. Fortunately, North American gardeners can grow these special vegetables ourselves in order to get a taste of Africa.
The selection of vegetables presented here represents the diversity of Africa and are socially or economically important crops, traditional crops, or just plain fascinating to grow or eat.
‘Tunisian Baklouti’ Pepper
I have regular cravings for the spicy, saucy, richness of North African dishes. In Tunisia, a small country on the Barbary Coast, sauces such as the versatile red harissa sauce are made from the native ‘Tunisian Baklouti’ pepper. A medium-sized, red, tapering pepper, ‘Tunisian Baklouti’ is also used with couscous and tagine dishes. The pepper has firm flesh and is very flavorful. It is often described as fruity and almost sweet, with a rich, hot flavor that becomes milder upon cooking. It’s used to spice up foods, although it’s mild enough that hot pepper lovers would be able to take a bite as is.
The ‘Tunisian Baklouti’ plant grows an average of about 2 1/2 feet tall and is very productive. Seeds can be started indoors several weeks before last frost. Seedlings should be planted out when the soil warms. As all peppers, ‘Tunisian Baklouti’ will thrive in full sun and can be grown successfully in containers.
A few weeks ago, I attended a talk and cooking demonstration with Tambra Raye Stevenson, nutrition educator, food justice advocate, and founder of NativSol Kitchen. She made a millet salad so easy, colorful and delicious with fresh organic corn, peppers and tomatoes, I was instantly hooked.
She explains why millet is important: “Known as bird food in America, millet is a food staple of the Fulani tribe in Africa. Packed with antioxidants and micronutrients like magnesium, vitamin B and phosphorus, millet is a great addition to our diets.” Stevenson has actually traced her heritage to the Fulani tribe of Nigeria and Niger, and has found it a joy to incorporate food staples like millet into her diet and reap the health benefits in the process.
Cultivated for thousands of years, the tiny little grains have been an important crop in Africa as it is adapted to poor, infertile, dry soils, and is even reliable in countries adjacent to the Sahara desert. Millet is an important crop for these reasons. Fonio is a species of millet also known as “hungry rice” because it is a sustainable crop and has the potential to improve nutrition, particularly in rural areas, by offering food security.
Fonio is one of the fastest growing grain crops and is versatile in cooking. It is used for breads, as a grain like couscous, in millet and bean dishes, and is even made into a famous beer in Northern Togo. Millet should be seeded directly about 2 inches apart in rows about 1 foot apart. Millet thrives in full sun and is ready for harvest when the seed heads become golden brown, about 60 to 90 days later.
Closely associated with millet, the cowpea has also been cultivated for thousands of years. Cowpeas are found in different sizes and in a range of colors from white, brown, red, green, and black, and can be speckled or solid. There are also red-eyed, purple-eyed, and most famously, black-eyed cultivars.
“From Sengalese cooking in West Africa to African-American homes in the U.S., black-eyed peas are a key bean in the kitchen,” says Stevenson. “Rich in potassium, protein, and fiber, these low-fat beans can be on anyone’s plate seeking to keep calories at bay. Known in preparing accara fritters, black-eyed pea salad is a healthier alternative.”
Last fall, I harvested the easy-to-grow black-eyed peas and pondered how I would use the dried seeds — in hoppin’ john, stew, or salad perhaps. Traditionally, the use of black-eyed peas and other cowpeas go further than simply waiting to shell the dried seed at the end of the season. Cowpeas can be used in all stages of growth. Young leafy greens and shoots are prepared as a vegetable. Small green pods can be eaten, and the tender peas can also be harvested as fresh green peas. Because they fix nitrogen in the soil, cowpeas are also a great green manure crop.
To grow a cowpea such as the black-eyed pea, seed directly into warm soil about 4 inches apart and in rows about 2 feet apart. Cowpeas like sun and will quickly climb up a pea fence or trellis. Use at any stage of growth, or wait until the plant dries at the end of the summer to shell for dried peas.
'Goyo Kumba' Eggplant
Eggplants grown in Africa are typically small, about 3 inches, but vary in appearance. African eggplants are smooth and round, but often have indentations that make the fruit look similar to a small pumpkin. Colors range from lavender to pink, yellow, green, white, purple, and practically black.
One of the most beautiful African eggplants is the shiny red ‘Goyo Kumba’ eggplant. Other informal names describe the lovely ‘Goyo Kumba’ well: “red African eggplant,” “scarlet eggplant,” “pumpkin on a stick,” “mini pumpkin tree.”
In North America, the ‘Goyo Kumba’ is often described as ornamental not only because of its unique and pretty appearance, but because when harvested red, it is often too bitter to eat. What many people don’t know though is that for culinary purposes, the African eggplant should be harvested while still young and green, when the seeds are small and when fruits are tender and slightly sweet. African eggplants are prepared in any number of ways, but are delicious slowly cooked in meat or rice dishes and with other vegetables in stews.
To grow ‘Goyo Kumba’ for edible or ornamental purposes, start seed indoors several weeks before last frost. Plant out in the garden in a sunny spot when the soil warms. Plants can grow to about 4 feet high and will produce the little fruit prolifically. Harvest young for eating or plant in the flower bed for ornamental purposes.
African Horned Melon
The African horned melon is another ornamental fruit that is highly unique. Informal names describe this melon well: “cucumber melon,” “jelly melon,” “hedged gourd,” and “blowfish fruit.” The African horned melon is often referred to by the name “Kiwano,” coined by New Zealanders. Though native to Africa, the melon grows vigorously in New Zealand, where some institutions describe it as invasive. The African horned melon is about the size of a large pear, oval-shaped, and is covered with horn-like spikes. Young fruits begin a greenish-yellow and settle to a dark orange color.
Traditionally, this melon is important as it is a source of water during the dry season in the hot African deserts. In Zimbabwe, the melons are enjoyed as a snack like any other fruit, and are also added to salads. The inside of the fruit consists entirely of cucumber-like edible seeds surrounded by a jelly-like flesh. To use, the melon is cut in half, squeezed and slurped — seeds and all. Some people may prefer to spit the seeds out or strain the seeds through a sieve.
The taste of the African horned melon is most often described as cucumber-like, with hints of lime or banana. The fruits have a very mild tartness. Beyond eating them directly as snacks, creative cooks have used African horned melons to make cocktails, sorbets, salad dressings, and sauces. To grow the African horned melon, start seed indoors several weeks before last frost. Plant out in a sunny spot when soil begins to warm, and the plant will quickly vine along a fence or trellis. Since melons become less tart as they ripen, harvest melons to eat when they develop a deep orange color.
Okra has become almost synonymous with the satisfying Southern gumbo dish many Americans are familiar with. Both names are of African origin, “gumbo” coming from the Portuguese word “quingombo,” the name for the plant in the Congo and Angola areas of Africa. Though it is not certain that okra is native to Africa, there is a wide variety of okra in the West Africa area, which supports the theory that okra originated there. Either way, it has been cultivated in Africa for generations.
Okra holds many health benefits and is high in fiber, vitamin C, folate, calcium, and potassium. It is also rich in antioxidants.
Fans of okra love the very mild, earthy taste. The parts of the okra plant are mucilaginous, meaning they can be slimy when cooked. In soups and stews like gumbo, the gooey quality can be an asset in helping serve as a natural, soluble-fiber-packed thickener. However, some people wish to minimize the mucilaginous quality by using cooking strategies such as keeping the pod whole, cooking briefly, or conversely, cooking for a very long time.
Okra is easy to grow in a sunny garden, but it is a very large plant. Okra plants can grow to 6 feet high, and dwarf cultivars may be preferred in smaller gardens. Start seeds directly in the garden in late spring, after the soil begins to warm. Alternatively, seeds can be started indoors a few weeks before last frost. Plants should be spaced 12 to 24 inches apart. In summer, the plant blooms with large, pretty flowers. Okra pods grow quickly and must be picked young as the pods get very tough as they mature. Keep a close eye on the plant, checking on it every other day or so during the harvesting season. Pods should be picked when only about 2 to 3 inches long.
Gardeners with a long, hot season may like to try growing the Bambara groundnut. Like the most famous groundnut, the peanut, Bambara groundnut has a high protein content and also fixes nitrogen in the soil. Bambara groundnut is native to Africa, likely originating from Bambara, in West Africa. It has been an important crop because it offers good nutrition and reliable performance in less-than-desirable soils. Where other legumes fail, Bambara groundnut thrives.
The Bambara groundnut is similar to the peanut in that at the end of a very long and sunny season, digging the plants up unveil loads of ripened pods containing the nuts. The Bambara groundnut is rounder than a peanut and differs in taste. Whereas the peanut tastes nutty with a high oil content, the Bambara groundnut tastes closer to a bean with a different texture as it has a lower oil content.
The Bambara groundnuts are also more difficult to shell. The tough shells are historically pounded open with a mortar and pestle. Because they are shelled more effectively by hand than machine, they don’t offer much commercial value. In fact, they’re often considered a “woman’s crop” because seeds are saved and passed along from mother to daughter-in-law or given as gifts for families to cultivate mostly for their own consumption.
Bambara groundnut is tasty in traditional dishes such as spicy stews eaten with plantains. They are also ground into flour and cooked into cakes or breads, mixed with other cereals, or used in cold salad-type dishes. Bambara groundnut requires a very long cooking time — about 45 minutes for fresh shelled beans.
To grow Bambara groundnut, plant as with peanuts and ensure a long bright season. Under optimal conditions, a good harvest can be had in about four to five months.
Gardeners living in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 11 may be lucky enough to grow plantains, too. Plantains, from genus Musa, differ from the standard “dessert” banana, which is sweet and soft. Plantains can sweeten when extremely ripe, but are typically low in sugar content, larger, firmer, and starchy. In contrast to the yellow sweet banana, the plantain is a “cooking” banana and not generally eaten raw.
In Africa, plantains are usually boiled or fried and are a delicious accompaniment to fish stews, bean dishes and soups. The large leaves of the plantain are dried and used to wrap foods such as the traditional kenkey, a ground corn dough, which is fermented and then steamed. Even the stem of the plantain plant is used in cooking.
While the plant may look like a type of palm tree, it is actually a perennial herb. The plant dies back after each fruiting and sends up rhizomes for the next generation of fruit. Some cultures will harvest bunches of plantains, then cut the plant lengthwise and peel the outer layers. Inside is a soft shoot that can be eaten. Plantains are usually started by rhizomes and require a climate that is consistently warm, humid, and sunny. Flowers will appear after about a year, and fruit will be ready after another four to eight months.
While many North American gardeners may not be able to raise a plantain plant for fruit, everyone can grow the plant for its beautiful leaves that lend a tropical feel to any garden landscape. The plantain plant is easy to grow in containers and should not be over-watered.
The best native vegetables of Africa share some important characteristics. With a climate that is not always hospitable for growing food and seasons that are often hit with drought conditions, African vegetables thrive in hot, dry climates. Many of these vegetables provide good reliable, year-round nutrition, especially for rural areas in which food storage and supply can be short.
African vegetables also contribute to one of the most diverse culinary histories in the world. The taste of a plethora of ethnicities and cultures within the continent come alive with African vegetables. With a good seed supplier, most North American gardeners can try growing and cooking them at home.
Try this traditional Red Red with Fried Plantains Recipe.
Wendy Kiang-Spray is a gardener, cook, and high-school counselor.
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