When you think of vegetable superfoods, trendy kale and classic spinach no doubt come to mind. But, while these leafy greens do pack in a good amount of iron, fiber, vitamins, and even a little protein, they ain’t got nothing on traditional African vegetables.
Although you might not have heard of many African vegetables, nutrient-packed indigenous veggies like spider plant, amaranth, and cowpeas are experiencing something of a renaissance across the African continent. Popular African root vegetables such as cassava and amadumbe are even finding their way to other parts of the world.
And with good reason. Beyond the health benefits, many African vegetables are versatile, varied, and, above all, tasty. Whether you want to make use of the plant’s fruit, leaves, roots, seeds, or stems – or all the above – there’s sure to be a delicious African vegetable recipe for it. And, for a continent so plagued with drought and difficult growing conditions, the hardiness of many of these plants makes them a reliable income source for many families.
So, what are some of the traditional African vegetables you should know about? Keep reading to learn more!
As this article explains, African vegetables don’t come much tastier than cassava. Also known as yuca or manioc, this king of African root vegetables looks like sweet potato and tastes like a nuttier version of a regular potato. Be sure to check out this article for more info.
With double the calories and carbs of potatoes, cassava is perfect for providing sustenance to large families and energy to those with physical jobs. It’s also gluten-free, packed with nutrients, and is a hardy plant that has no problem surviving the toughest of conditions to thrive across Africa.
As well as a good amount of vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine, as a starchy vegetable, cassava is an excellent source of resistant starches. These starches pass through the digestive tract almost unchanged, nurturing good bacteria in the gut and boosting gut health as a result.
Although there are two varieties of cassava – sweet and bitter – the most common type in the US is sweet cassava. Try it as an alternative to regular potatoes as cassava fries, roast cassava, or mash. Although, make sure to remove the skin and woody core, and always cook it before eating to neutralize the harmful cyanide compounds it contains.
As with other African root vegetables, it’s possible to eat the protein-packed leaves too, which are the main ingredient in traditional African vegetable recipes such as Rwandan isombe. And, for those of you following a gluten-free diet, tapioca starch made from cassava serves as a natural gluten-free flour for making bread, pasta, and cakes.
2. Spider Plant
Like many African vegetables, spider plant has a variety of different names, including Shona cabbage, cat’s whiskers, and African cabbage.
This green leafy vegetable flourishes through a lot of the African continent and is a staple in many African dishes and recipes, including spider plant cooked in sour milk.
Spider plant is also one of the few indigenous South African vegetables that have gained popularity in the region in recent years. Non-native crops like spinach and beetroot are often more typical in South Africa but many are turning to indigenous vegetables for their superior nutritional qualities. Spider plant, for example, is high in antioxidants, protein, vitamins, and micronutrients.
And, as with many other traditional African vegetables, you can eat spider plant seeds and roots as well as the leaves. Spider plant seeds have a pungent taste that makes them a good alternative to mustard seeds, while the leaves have a bitter taste. Although, cooking, soaking, or fermenting the leaves neutralizes this bitterness, making them a flavorsome addition to soups, pickles, sauces, and stews.
This versatile plant grows with ease in the humid lowlands of Western and Central Africa. Amaranth leaves are one of many popular West African vegetables, consumed in places like Guinea, Liberia, Benin, and Sierra Leone, as well as Kenya.
It’s typical to cook the leaves with tomato, onion, and butter in many African countries while Amaranth fritters are a favorite in South Africa. A variety of traditional stews and soups like Tanzanian mchicha also use amaranth leaves as a key ingredient. And, you can use the seeds as a cereal grain, sprouts, popcorn, or as flour.
Both the leaves and seeds are an excellent source of vitamins and protein, while the leaves also pack in plenty of essential minerals such as iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
Cowpea is an important crop across many parts of Asia and Africa, although its roots (no pun intended!) go back to Central Africa, where this legume has long grown as one of the region’s oldest crops.
Cowpea is mostly cultivated for its protein-rich peas or seeds. These pack in as much as 35 percent protein, but also contain a good amount of carbohydrate and B vitamins, making them a staple in many diets.
As with many traditional African vegetables, the leaves and immature cowpea seed pods are also edible. Many African vegetable recipes for traditional stews, curries, and soups call for the seeds and leaves. But, unlike spider plant leaves, you shouldn’t cook those from the cowpea plant with soured milk. Instead, cowpea leaves go better with peanut or soybean paste.
You can also ground the seeds down into a paste or flour. Cowpea flour is typical in baking as well as for use in the processed meat industry as a key ingredient of chicken nuggets. Farmers then use the rest of the cowpea plant as either fresh animal fodder or as hay or silage, showing why cowpea is such an important crop. What’s more, it’s drought-resistant and thrives in even the poorest soil conditions, making it a reliable source of income for many families.
5. African Eggplant
Also called bitter tomato, scarlet eggplant, mock tomato, and Ethiopian nightshade, African eggplant is an important indigenous crop. Like many African vegetables, it thrives even in poor soil, often provides a high yield, stores well, and is hardy enough to resist droughts. African eggplant is also an important source of income for families since you can eat the leaves and shoots as well as the eggplant itself.
While the eggplant you’re more used to seeing in US stores is almost always dark purple, African eggplants come in a variety of shapes and colors, including green, yellow, white, and red. This is because the plant comes in four different groups – gilo, shum, kumba, and aculeatum. Although, if you want to look out for them in farmers’ markets, they resemble little mini pumpkins with a soft tomato-like flesh.
Many African vegetable recipes call for African eggplants, especially traditional recipes from Central and West Africa where they’re most popular. You can consume African eggplant both raw and cooked, while the leaves and shoots are great for using in stews, soups, and pickles. In terms of nutritional value, African eggplants contain potassium, fiber, beta-carotene, iron, and calcium.
Also known as garden huckleberry, nightshade is a herbaceous plant that grows up to 2.5 feet high. Nightshade leaves are popular ingredients in creamy soups and African vegetable recipes. Although, when boiled, blanched, or stir-fried, nightshade leaves also serve as the perfect accompaniment to meat, rice, or other vegetables.
Nightshade shoots are also edible, although you need to be more careful with the fruit this plant produces. While you can eat the small and shiny purple berries from the nightshade plant as a fresh fruit, it’s more common to turn them into jams. However, the green berries are poisonous.
Alongside cassava, amadumbe is one of the most popular and versatile African root vegetables. Also called taro, this ‘potato of the tropics’ is actually unrelated to the common potato. Although, if you try amadumbe roots, you’ll find that they are starchy and full of carbohydrates and fiber like regular spuds.
As with potatoes and cassava, you have to wash and cook amadumbe roots before eating them as they’re toxic when consumed raw. Boiling tends to be the preferred cooking method across most of Africa but you can roast or fry amadumbe too.
As with many traditional African veggies, you can eat the leaves and flowers of the amadumbe plant. And, since Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana are the world’s biggest producers of amadumbe, it stands to reason that the heart-shaped leaves are one of the most popular West African vegetables.
Try These African Vegetables For Yourself
While it may not be easy for you to get your hands on many of these African vegetables at your local store at the moment, it’s worth remembering their names for future reference.
After all, if Africa is waking up to the superior nutritional qualities of these resilient plants, it shouldn’t be long before the Western world follows suit. And then you’ll be able to cook up a batch of amaranth fritters or cowpea leaves to go with your cassava mash.
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