Sierra Leonean Food Staples

Bananas

Bananas form an important part of the diet of the people of Sierra Leone. This is amply evidenced by the presence of banana plants in almost every village, town, and city in the country.

Wild banana has its origin in the tropical parts of Asia. The fruit originally is hard and full of seeds, but when cultivated and domesticated it has become sweet and seedless.

The Arabs began to grow the plant in parts of northern Africa, and the banana then spread to the Iberian Peninsula across the Mediterranean Sea. The Portuguese also ‘discovered’ the banana growing in Africa.

Bananas are commonly eaten without further preparation and are mostly served at the end of a meal. In southern Sierra Leone there are six banana cultivars, four of which are ‘green’ and two ‘red.’

All the available evidence indicates that the word ‘banana’ originated in Sierra Leone.

Bananas, Green

These are unripe bananas. They are sometimes used as a green vegetable, mostly boiled, with or without their skin.

Beans

The bean plants have their origin in Central and South America and were commonly used by the Aztecs. Many variations stem from this ancestral plant: Limas, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, green beans, kidney beans and black-eyed peas, are among the most common.

In Africa, black-eyed beans (which are indigenous to the continent, where they are a staple food), mung beans and red kidney beans are most commonly used. Beans are used in several types of dishes, for instance: soups, stews, rice dishes, salads and as snacks.  They are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Cassava (Manioc/Tapioca)

Cassavas are an important source of dietary carbohydrates in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world, with its roots providing food for over 500 million people. It comes with hard and starchy white flesh.

This vegetable is the basis in the making of cassava flour. Cassava contains a strong poison, cyanide, which needs to be eliminated during the preparation of the flour. This is done by cooking or fermenting the vegetable. Drying and grounding comes next, which leads to cassava flour – or gari – ready for storage or use.

The cassava or manioc plant has its origin in South America. Amazonian Indians used cassava instead of or in addition to rice, potato and maize.

Portuguese explorers introduced cassava to Africa through their trade with the coastal communities and nearby islands. Africans then further diffused cassava, and it is now found in almost all parts of tropical Africa. They adopted it for several reasons: the cassava plant can be cultivated in shifting systems and it gives flexible harvest. Furthermore, it is resistant to locust attacks and drought.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a spice, which originally came from the Moluccas (Indonesia) and was brought to Africa by European traders. This seasoning is one of the ingredients used in five-spice powder. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens

Clove

The clove plant has its origin in Indonesia (the Molucca Islands). The Portuguese carried it to the East African islands. Today clove is produced on a great scale both in Madagascar and Tanzania. Clove is a common spice in African cookery, and is also one of the ingredients in five-spice powder. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Coconut

Coconut is truly a tropical fruit, spread on its own to tropic coastal zones all over the world. The flesh and milk from coconuts are widely used in Africa.

Creamed coconut is used grated onto casseroles or used to make coconut milk by dissolving it in boiling water. Coconut is used in relishes, frying dishes, sauces, desserts – you name it. Coconut milk is also widely used in all kinds of warm meals.

Fresh coconut is sometimes peeled into slivers and used as topping on desserts. It is sometimes grown on plantations, but is mostly harvested directly from wild trees.

Coriander/Cilantro

The coriander plant is native in the Orient. In Africa, fresh coriander is used to garnish both hot and cold dishes. Coriander adds an intense pungent flavour to stews and soups. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Cumin

Cumin is a seasoning, which was first cultivated in ancient Egypt. It was originally used in the cuisines of the northern part of the continent but was later introduced to Central Africa. Cumin is commonly used as a basis in sauces to accompany chicken and other meat dishes. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Eggplant (Aubergine)

Eggplants originally came from India and were further spread to the Mediterranean and Africa. Greeks and Egyptians feature the eggplant as a daily fare.

African eggplants are usually of the smaller and bitterer kind. They are usually yellow, and most commonly referred to as garden eggs.

Eggplant is used widely in West Africa. It is chopped, cooked and mixed into a variety of vegetable dishes, meat-/fish-dishes and sauces. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Garlic

This is most truly an Asian plant, but also the ancient Egyptians used it widely. Today, it is present in cookery all over the continent, as well as in the rest of the world. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Ginger

Ginger has its origin in Asia, probably India. The Romans imported it via Egypt. Because of its root form, ginger was more easily shipped than most seasonings, and it was thus widely spread at an early stage of History.

Ginger was a favourite spice amongst the ancient Romans. Today it is one of the most common used seasonings in African cookery. Non-alcoholic beer is also made of ginger in the western part of the continent, as well as in the rest of the world. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Groundnuts

Groundnuts are valuable cash crops for small-scale farmers in the semi-arid tropics. The main use of groundnut is as a source of edible oil, but the high oil and protein contents also make it an important food crop.

Groundnuts are mostly cooked and pureed into a thick, rich sauce and spooned over plantains, rice, different kinds of animal staples, etc.

Originally, groundnuts came from southern Bolivia and northern Argentina, where the local Indian peoples cultivated them. Then the groundnut was “discovered” by Spanish explorers and spread throughout the world, including Africa.

Today, most of the groundnut production takes place in the Sub-Saharan part of the continent, being a favourable source of nutrition and cash earnings in semi-arid zones.

Lentils

Lentils are one of the world’s oldest cultivated foods and they are known to been cultivated in Egypt 5,000 years ago and were probably introduced by the Egyptians to both the Greek and the Roman cultures.

The plant is believed to have had its origin in northeastern Iraq. Today, lentils are used all over the African continent, as in the rest of the world. They are most commonly soaked overnight, boiled and mashed together with other vegetables to be used as accompaniment to a meat or fish dish. They are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Millet

Millet is an ancient grain that originates in Asia or Africa. More specifically, millet is believed to have originated in the mountains of East Africa and has further been domesticated by Ethiopians.

The grain is rather resistant to drought and it is a useful crop in any soil, even ones with little nutrition. This makes millet an important food staple all over the continent, especially in the semi-arid areas. It is mostly grown as a major staple on community or private fields and consumed locally.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg is a seasoning plant, which originated in the Moluccas. European traders brought it to Africa. It is ostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Okra

Okra is a vegetable that is extremely popular in African cookery. It is often added into soups and needs no special preparations besides washing, topping, tailing and cutting up. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Onions

Different species of wild onions exist worldwide. Onions were already used by the Sumerians (modern Iraq) and the ancient Egyptians. Today, they are an important flavour ingredient on most African tables, as well as in the rest of the world. Onions are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Parsley

Parsley is an herb, which probably is indigenous to the Mediterranean. It is said to have been brought to North America by the ancient Vikings (medieval Scandinavians). Throughout Africa, chopped fresh parsley is often sprinkled on top of all kinds of dishes. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Pepper

This famous spice has its origins in India. In fact, it was because of pepper Columbus made his trip to America. European traders in general found their way all over the world in search of ‘the five noble spices’ – pepper, ginger, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.

Green pepper is an unripe pepper fruit; white pepper is the fully ripened fruit. Unripe peppercorns, dried and ground, give black pepper.

Chilies or hot peppers are now grown in West Africa and are commonly used as seasoning both in fish and meat dishes, as well as in soups and stews. Chilies come in red, yellow or brown.

Szechwan pepper is one of the ingredients in the already mentioned five-spice powder.

Pepper is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Plantains

Plantains are a member of the banana family. These fruits can either be green, yellow or almost black, according to their ripeness.

When plantains are green and unripe, they have a chalky texture and flavour resembling a potato. Plantains should not be eaten raw, but once cooked, boiled, fried, baked or roasted, they have a wonderful flavour. Plantains are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Rice

The domestication of rice ranks is one of the most important developments in early history, because this grain has fed more people over a longer period of time than has any other crop.

The rice plant has been diffused and carried all over the world. Originally, rice was grown by direct seeding and without standing water, under conditions only slightly different from those to which wild rice was subject.

In some parts of Africa, rice is still grown under these conditions. However, presently, rice is mainly grown in swampy lowlands under standing water.

The incorporation of wild rice into an agricultural system has taken place in Africa. Originally wild rice plants were found in most parts of the tropics/sub-tropics (indigenous). By the river Niger it was further grown and developed into more commonly known rice sorts. Rice also gradually spread from areas of the Mediterranean to a few locations in North Africa.

Rice is mainly grown as a major staple, where water access allows it, on community or private fields, but also big scale in irrigated landscapes (often government, community or private-owned plantations). Much of the rice consumed in Africa, however, is imported or donated from Asia.

Bitter Balls

Bitter balls or Jakarto as it is commonly known in Freetown is a fruit from the African garden eggplant called Solanum Aethiopicum. It is low in sodium, low in calories and very rich in high dietary fibre.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes have their origin in tropical America and are now grown everywhere in the Tropics. European traders brought the plant to Africa.

Sweet potatoes can be boiled, roasted, fried, creamed or baked in their skins. They are easily combined with both sweet and savoury dishes. They are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Tamarind

The tamarind plant originated in Tropical Africa and India. It is mostly grown small scale in compound gardens.

Wheat

The growing of the wheat plants originated in the earliest Middle Eastern agricultural societies. It was spread to Egypt where it is widely grown today. Wheat is most commonly baked into bread.

Wheat is the most important grain of the northern hemisphere, but also used in Africa. Though mostly imported, it is also grown on a wide scale in South Africa and the Maghreb countries in large private or community fields.

Yams

Yams are a vegetable that should not be confused with sweet potatoes. Yams come with a white flesh and texture, similar to a turnip.

The flesh can be eaten boiled, roasted, baked, mashed or made into chips. Yams are native to tropical regions throughout the world.

It is cultivated for its edible tubes, and comes in all sizes. Yams are mostly grown small scale in compound gardens, but also on a bigger scale in wetter climates.