Exploring Gluten-Free Foods of West Africa

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While exploring international cuisines, you may have already sought out gluten-free options for Thai, Japanese, or Indian dishes, just to name a few. What about the wonderful variety of foods and cuisines from the African continent? As with Ethiopian food that we’ve covered previously, many of the staples and traditional dishes of Africa are gluten-free. Africa is the second largest continent in terms of both landmass and population, so it stands to reason that there would be a huge diversity of cuisines and foods across the continent. Let’s focus on some of the foods of West Africa.

Of the 54 countries that make up the African continent, 17 are considered part of West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cabo Verde, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.) Even within this region, between and within countries, there is much diversity in terms of traditional staples and ingredients. However, there are some ingredients and flavors that are characteristic of the region. Let’s look at some dishes and ingredients that are popular in several countries in West Africa and that are naturally gluten-free.


Basic Components of West African Food

While there can be a lot of variation from country to country, here are some things that make up many dishes across borders.

Spices – Black pepper, ginger, thyme, garlic, and chili are popular and commonly used in the region. Traditional West African spices and seasonings may be a little harder to find such as “sumbala,” made from fermented locust seeds that provide an umami flavor, and “banga spice,” a blend of local ingredients including chili, “banga stick” that is related to licorice root, “beletete” derived from palm fruit, and “aidan fruit” belonging to the pea family. While spices are naturally gluten-free, be aware that cross-contact is possible. When using spice blends, confirm that no gluten-containing ingredients are added.

Rice – A staple that is included in many West African dishes, including the region’s most famous dish “jollof rice,” which has many variations but basically consists of rice cooked in a sauce or puree made from tomato, onion, pepper, and spices like paprika, cumin, coriander. The dish is usually served with vegetables and meat or fish.

Cassava (also called manioc or yucca), Yams, and Plantains – Along with rice, these naturally gluten-free starches are prepared in many ways including boiled, baked, mashed, fried, and added to stews.

Fish and Chicken – More commonly consumed than red meats. In terms of red meat, goat meat is the most common.

Vegetables – Common options include okra, squashes, eggplant, and a variety of leafy greens.

Naturally Gluten-Free West African Dishes

Akara Black bean fritters made with black-eyed peas, okra, and spices.

CachupaTraditional dish from Cabo Verde (also known as Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 islands in the Atlantic). This slow cooked stew usually contains cassava, sweet potato, corn or hominy, beans, and fish or meat. Sometimes greens are added, too.

Chicken Yassa – Originated in Senegal and is popular in many parts of West Africa. A chicken dish flavored with thyme, onion, green pepper, vinegar, lime juice, and Scotch bonnet chili, the most common chili in West Africa. Can substitute habanero or jalapeno for the chili.

Fufu – A staple in Ghana, this spongey, doughy food is made from boiled and pounded starches like cassava, plantains, and yams or sometimes from a combination of two of these. Usually accompanies soups or stews. Sometimes called a “swallow food” as it is usually swallowed without chewing. The cooked starches are processed in a food processor, or more traditionally a mortar and pestle. Often used to scoop up stews or other foods.

Peanut Soup Peanuts are also known as “groundnuts” in Africa. The soup contains ground or pulverized peanuts, often along with peanut butter, combined with spices like ginger and garlic, sweet potatoes or yams, chicken, and greens.

SombiA coconut rice pudding from Senegal that is almost more of a porridge and commonly eaten for breakfast or as a snack. Made from coconut milk, shredded coconut, rice, and sometimes a little lime juice is added.

While many West African dishes are gluten-free, some common appetizers and snacks are made with wheat flour, so always inquire if eating out. Also be aware that bouillon may be used as a flavoring element so always confirm gluten-free status.

When exploring West African cuisine, there are many gluten-free options and recipes to try that won’t require modification. Enjoy these, and other, global culinary experiences. See Creating a Pleasurable Gluten-Free Experience for links to our coverage of other international cuisines.