24. Jun, 2015

Africa's Famous Five

In most of the world, wheat, rice, potatoes and – to a lesser extent – maize are the staple carbohydrate foods, and pulses, carrots, cabbages and leafy greens the commonly eaten vegetables. In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, this is not the case. While Western colonists have left their mark on the food produced and eaten here, hundreds of millions still eat foodstuffs that few Europeans would recognise. Five of these are of particular importance in traditional African cuisine, and can also be put to good use in mainstream cooking: the African Potato, Cassava, Moro go, Okra and Plantains.

African Potato or Elephant’s Ear

In South Africa, the Amadumbe or African Potato (Colocasia esculenta) achieved notoriety when a former Minister of Health claimed that – eaten in combination with beetroot, olive oil and garlic – it could cure AIDS. Fortunately wiser counsel eventually prevailed and patients are receiving more conventional anti-retroviral treatment. Amadumbe may not be a miracle cure for dread diseases, but they are an important staple food for millions of people.

This ‘‘Potato of the Tropics’’ is found around the world in sub-tropical regions and is believed to have been cultivated by Man for more than 6 000 years. It originated in Oceania and South East Asia, and was spread by settlers to Africa and the Pacific. By which settlers exactly it was introduced to South Africa has not yet determined beyond doubt. One theory is that it was brought here by Indian indentured labourers in the 1860s, while other scholars claim that it was introduced to Southern Africa by Portuguese traders as early as 1500. It is a particular favourite of the Zulu people, who have long seemed to prefer Amadumbe over potatoes or sweet potatoes. Today the starch-rich, tasty corms are also a staple diet in many other parts of Southern Africa.

The Elephant’s Ear is one of the most useful staple foods in the world because it is hardy, all parts can be used and it can be harvested at any time of the year. It is a robust perennial plant with a large corm on or just below the ground surface and it has very large, heart-shaped leaves that are borne on thick stalks – hence the name. It can be grown all year round in subtropical and tropical areas. It grows well in moist heavy soils but will also do reasonably well in any soil provided it is moisture-retentive.

The primary use of Elephant’s ear is the consumption of its edible corm and leaves. In its raw form, the plant contains an irritant which causes intense discomfort to the lips, mouth and throat. This is due to the presence of calcium oxalate and microscopic needle-shaped raphides in the plant cells. Thus, both the leaves and the corms must be cooked before eating. Provided that the above precautions are taken, all parts of the plant are edible & nourishing.

The mature corms and young shoots of Amadumbe are mostly used as boiled vegetables, but the corms are also roasted, baked, or fried. Roasted or boiled corms can be eaten on their own or with stew. Amadumbe corms are very rich in starch and they are a good source of dietary fibre. In Kwazulu-Natal, the pre-boiled leaves and stalks are mixed with other ingredients and used in curries, soups, stir fries & casseroles. The corms can be added to the same hot dishes - but they are also excellent on their own as a roast/ boiled vegetable or cut into chips. Cooked corms are also commonly used in desserts.


Manihot esculenta, known variously as Cassava, Brazilian Arrowroot, Manioc or Tapioca, is a woody shrub and member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) of South America. There are both sweet and bitter varieties; each type with its own uses. It is extensively cultivated as an annual crop in the Tropics for its edible starch-rich tuberous root, an excellent source of carbohydrates. Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after rice and maize. It is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. Nigeria is the world's largest producer of cassava, while Thailand is the largest exporter. Cassava was a staple food for pre-Columbian peoples in the Americas and was often portrayed in indigenous art. It was introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders from Brazil in the 16th century.

The cassava root is long and tapered, with a firm, homogeneous flesh encased in a detachable rind, about 1 mm thick, rough and brown on the outside. Commercial varieties can be 5 - 10 cm in diameter at the top, and around 15 - 30 cm long. The flesh can be chalk-white or yellowish. Cassava roots are very rich in starch, but poor in protein and other nutrients. In contrast, cassava leaves are a good source of protein.

Cassava contains toxins, with the bitter varieties containing much larger amounts than the sweet cultivars. They must be properly prepared before consumption, as improper preparation of cassava can leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication, and even partial paralysis. Once harvested, bitter cassava must be treated and prepared properly prior to human or animal consumption, while sweet cassava can be used after simple boiling. Despite their toxicity, farmers often prefer the bitter varieties because they deter pests, animals, and thieves.

The cassava plant gives the third highest yield of carbohydrates per cultivated area among crop plants, after sugar cane and sugar beets. Cassava plays a particularly important role in agriculture in developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, because it does well on poor soils and in areas with low rainfall, and is a perennial that can be harvested as and when required. Its wide harvesting window allows it to act as a famine reserve and is invaluable in managing labour schedules.

Cassava-based dishes are widely consumed wherever the plant is cultivated. It can be cooked in many ways. The soft-boiled root of the sweet variety has a delicate flavor and can replace boiled potatoes in many uses: as an accompaniment for meat dishes or in dumplings, soups, stews and gravies. Deep fried (after boiling or steaming), it can replace fried potatoes, and has a distinctive flavour. It is also dried and ground into a flour that is used in breads, cakes and cookies. Because it has such a high carbohydrate content, cassava is fermented and/or distilled to make alcoholic beverages, and the makers of biofuels have expressed confidence in its ability to help provide this renewable resource.


Morogo, as it is called in Sesotho and isiPedi, imfino in isiZulu and isiXhosa, or muroho in Tshivenda, are three terms which are fairly identical in meaning, operating as collective nouns for "leafy greens" - which have been  foraged directly from the land for millennia. Also known as wild or African spinach, it occurs throughout Southern Africa and is harvested for human consumption. The most sought-after varieties include Lerotho, Thepe, Lephutsi, Delele and Nawa. It is considered a traditional South African dish, and forms an important part of the staple diet in rural communities. I still have vivid memories of my first vegetarian meals: pap and morogo, served by our Shangaan Nanny.  

The leaves of these plants are edible and delicious. There are many ways of preparing these vegetables, including steaming, boiling and baking. Some cultures also dry the leaves and consume them during winter, when chances of cultivation are not good. Westernisation has introduced exotic cultivated leafy greens, with Swiss chard in particular becoming a great restaurant favourite, but morogo has retained a loyal following. It has sadly been neglected by researchers, and no meaningful effort has gone into turning it into a cultivated crop. In fact, most species of morogo plants are still classified as weeds by the mainstream botanical community.

Many plants are harvested for morogo/imfino, and given the rich bio-diversity of South Africa, many are regionally specific. By far the most common species utilised is that of Amaranthus, a genus containing 60 different species, many of which are well-known in other parts of the world for their edible leaves. Amaranthus is often labelled as “pigweed”, sharing that derisive label with another species of plant used as Morogo, Portulaca oleracea, known as “porseleinblaar” (porcelain leaf) in South Africa. The latter has a long culinary history in the Western Cape, was widely used as a staple in stews and soups, and featuring in several recipes developed by the late Dr CF (Louis) Leipoldt, the original South African foodie.

Morogo leaves contain up to 36% protein. The exact vitamin content is dependent on the age of the plant and method of preparation; the plants contain Vitamins A and C, and complement the low levels of calcium, magnesium and iron in maize. Research on the three main varieties has found that its consumption may lower the risk of chronic cardio-vascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

One of the tastiest (and healthiest) ways to serve morogo is lightly fried in butter with lemon, salt and some hot spice like paprika, and served with soft puthu (mieliepap). It also makes a great stew with mutton and potatoes – not unlike Waterblommetjiebredie – and a vegetarian stew with onion, tomatoes and chillies. Abalungu trying it out for the first time can also prepare it as faux creamed spinach.


Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), known in many English-speaking countries as Ladies' Fingers or Gumbo, is a flowering plant in the Mallow family. It is valued for its edible green seed pods. As with many plants with wide distribution, its geographical origin disputed, some pundits claiming it hails from West Africa, and others insisting that it evolved in the Indian Subcontinent. The plant is cultivated in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions around the world. In the USA and its current and former dependencies the name okra is universally used, but in West Africa and the Caribbean it is called okro.

The species can grow up to 2 m tall. Some of its “relatives” include cotton, cocoa and hibiscus.It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate heavy clay soils and huge swings in moisture levels. It is, however, very vulnerable to frost, which can damage the pods. Okra was introduced to South-Eastern North America from Africa in the early 18th century. By 1748, it was being grown as far north as Pennsylvania. Thomas Jefferson noted that it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It has been a major part of Cajun and African-American cuisine ever since – remember the Carpenters’ hit song “Jambalaya”?

The pods secrete a characteristic "goo" or slime when the seed pods are cooked; which some people like. Others (yours truly included) prefer to minimize the sliminess by keeping the pods intact, and/or rapid cooking, for example stir-frying. Cooking with acidic ingredients such as a few drops of lemon juice, tomatoes, or vinegar may also help. Alternatively, the pods can be sliced thinly and cooked for a long time so the mucilage dissolves, as in Gumbo. The immature pods are often pickled.

Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar way to the greens of beets. Since the entire plant is edible, the leaves are also eaten raw in salads. Okra seeds may be roasted and ground to form a caffeine-free substitute for coffee. It is a popular health food due to its high fibre, Vitamin C and foliate content. Okra is also known to be high in anti-oxidants, calcium and potassium.


A plantain, or cooking plantain, is one of the less sweet cultivated varieties of banana. Plantains are typically eaten cooked, sometimes along with their leaves and fibres. They are usually large, angular and starchy, in contrast to common or "dessert" bananas, which are typically eaten raw and without the peel, usually being smaller, more rounded and sugary; however, there is no formal scientific distinction between plantains and bananas.

Plantains are a major staple food in West and Central Africa (Cameroon and the DRC), Central America, the Caribbean Islands and northern, coastal parts of South America (particularly Colombia and Venezuela). Plantains bear fruit all year round, which makes the crop a reliable all-season staple food, particularly in developing countries with inadequate food storage, preservation and transportation technologies. In Africa, plantains and bananas provide more than 25 percent of the carbohydrate requirements for over 70 million people.

Plantains contain more starch and less sugar than dessert bananas and are therefore usually cooked or otherwise processed before being eaten. They are always cooked or fried when eaten green. They can be eaten raw, but are not as tasty in that state as dessert bananas, so are usually cooked. When mature plantain are fried, they tend to caramelize, turning a golden-brown colour. They can also be boiled, baked, microwaved or grilled over charcoal, peeled or still in the peel.

Unripe plantains are treated in much the same way as potatoes and with a similar neutral flavour and texture when cooked by steaming, boiling or frying. After removing the skin, the unripe fruit can be sliced (1 to 2 mm thick) and deep-fried in hot oil to produce chips. Cooked green plantain (and cooked green banana) have a low glycemic index, unlike potatoes and many cereals. It may be an ideal carbohydrate for those on a “paleo” or caveman diet.

Plantains are also dried and ground into flour; banana meal forms an important foodstuff. Plantains are used in the Ivoirian dish aloco as the main ingredient. Fried plantains are covered in an onion-tomato sauce, often with a grilled fish between the plantains and sauce. A similar dish is called Boli in Nigeria – the plantain is usually grilled and served with roasted fish, ground peanuts and a hot palm oil sauce. It is very popular as a lunch snack in southern and western Nigeria, where it is popular among the working class as a quick lunch.

Plantain is equally popular in tropical East Africa. There the iconic plantain dish is Matoke, which was invented by the Baganda, and is now widely prepared in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and the eastern DRC. The plantains are peeled, wrapped in the plant leaves and set in a cooking pot on the stalks which have been removed from the leaves. The pot is then placed on a charcoal fire and the contents steamed for a couple of hours in water placed in the bottom of the cooking pot. While uncooked, the matoke (plantain) is white and fairly hard. Cooking turns it soft and yellow. The matoke is then mashed while still wrapped in the leaves, and often is served on a fresh leaf, then eaten with a sauce made of vegetables, ground peanut or stewed meat (goat and beef are common).

In conclusion...

As the Globe warms and weather patterns change, it is becoming increasingly important for mankind to focus on sustainability, and not only on crop yield. Many of today’s mass-produced foodstuffs may not be able to withstand the climate changes that lie ahead, particularly in harsh climates like the Sahel and the northern parts of Southern Africa. If we are to stave off famine and malnutrition, indigenous (or exotics that are well-adapted, like Amadumbe and Cassava) will have to be studied and enhanced so as to provide palatable, nourishing food to Africa’s fast-growing population. Amadumbe and okra are becoming familiar sights on our supermarket shelves; do yourself a favour and try them!