African Wild Edible Plants - The Food of Our Ancestors
The consumption of wild plants is an ancient culinary tradition, as they serve both as a source of nutrition, in addition to a source of healing.
Prior to the agricultural practices known today, man survived and thrived off of foraging wild edible plants (WEP). Think pluck off a tree, pry from a bush, available and eaten only when it’s in season. Man’s way of eating was guided by Mother Nature herself. Throughout the world, wild edible plants (WEP) and fungi (such as mushrooms) have great cultural significance. Additionally, they have provided nutritional benefits to indigenous farming and hunter-gatherer communities for generations. Across West Africa, the consumption of wild edible plants continues to be a significant part of the culinary culture, and not just for forest inhabitants either. Visiting any of the local markets one will find stalls filled with amazing produce, vegetables, roots, herbs and spices, foraged from the 'bush'. The local names by which these ingredients are known vary from village to town and from tribe to tribe, and so do their uses. Though wild edible plants from West Africa remain largely undocumented with limited supporting research, the oral culture passing down information from one generation to the next among West African people has helped to preserve some of the knowledge of their existence and uses in cooking and healing.
When it comes to spices, in Nigeria for example, 48% of all spices consumed are wild harvested, even till this day. The remainder are either cultivated - primarily chilies, ginger, turmeric - or imported spices and processed seasonings. Yes, fortunately or unfortunately, imported spices and processed seasonings are becoming the preferred flavor enhancers of use even in traditional dishes. The importance of indigenous spices, however, does remain as they are a critical element to local diets, providing much needed food biodiversity, vitamins and minerals, in addition to their easy access. These foods were eaten by our ancestors and are intrinsic to local food culture creating a strong connection between past and present. Everything from scent leaves (African blue basil) with its strong fragrant aroma, Njangsang (Ricinodendron heudelotii) used to provide a nutty flavor and as a thickener, fermented locust beans (Parkia biglobosa) with their deep umami flavor and fermented African oil beans (Pentaclethra macrophylla), both of which are high in protein. These, and others, play important defining roles in the flavor and aroma of West African cuisine.
Fruits, seeds, leaves, stems, barks, and roots are used in cooking depending on the plant in question. Most plants are edible in their entirety. Over generations, indigenous peoples have learned to preserve these foods naturally by sun drying, shade drying, burning, smoking or fermenting them, extending their availability during the course of the year. This has also supported the availability of these local ingredients and spices to cities and towns further away from their source, and export to international markets.
Some popular superfoods sourced from Africa are actually wild edible plants. Baobab, tamarind, moringa and hibiscus, which have made their way onto the global food stage in different formats, are sourced from rural communities that forage and process these experiences. Though some are now being cultivated, many remain WEPs. There are even more of these so called superfoods, that are really just ‘foods’ available and used across Africa, that have not made it onto the international culinary scene, such as locust beans, nalta jute and African blue basil, horned melon and the thousands of lesser known wild edible plants such as monkey kola, desert dates and African nettle.
What does this all mean? Well, when it comes to food and biodiversity and the cuisine of our African ancestors, particularly West African ancestors, there is still so much more to explore. And, West Africa as a region has much to contribute to diversifying what lands on plates around the world. They are nature's gifts to us, hidden flavor gems to many, that both nourish and due to their high medicinal properties, heal. Our job is to help give more people access to these extraordinary ingredients and tell the stories behind them.