Black history provides a taste of centuries of food made good

By Winifred Adeyemi, Director, AFRICA: Seen & Heard

The UK’s Black History Month (1st – 31st October 2022) remembers and celebrates people of African heritage and their history around the world.

Black food cultures, heritage and culinary traditions are as diverse and numerous as each unique ethnicity, community and nation across the global African diaspora.

One thing the worldwide collection of communities share is deep roots in Sourcing, Society and Environment, the three tenets of the Food Made Good Framework:


Credit: Ollivier Girard Rich in vitamin C and with antiviral properties, Baobab fruit is both an ancient and modern superfood.

Africa is the continent with the world’s longest record of human habitation. The earliest ancestral Africans sustained themselves by hunting and gathering. They enjoyed a food culture based around the seasons. Their diet centred on locally foraged fruit, grains, nuts and seeds such as baobab, figs, star apples, millet, sorghum, walnuts, kola and sesame.

Wild foodstuffs – eggs from local bird populations including flamingo, guinea fowl and ostrich, rainforest honey, edible flowers, berries and fungi were harvested whilst protecting the environment and managing food stocks. These scarce delicacies added relative luxury and pleasure to the pre-historic palate.


Line fishing from canoes off of the Cape Verde islands, 1880

African fishermen caught fish and seafood in a respectful manner. Their responsibility over millennia provides a lesson in sustainably managing diminishing fish stock and marine environments today.

140,000 years ago in the Middle Pleistocene era (Ice Age), Africans used simple fishing equipment to catch shallow-water fish. Across the continent there was an abundant diversity of marine resources that established favoured tastes, regional staples and seasonal consumption: wild oysters within Senegalese mangroves, rock lobster speared off the coast of Southern Africa and freshwater fish caught in Central Africa’s Lake Tanganyika which is bordered by modern Burundi, DRC, Tanzania and Zambia.

Minimising environmental impact, protecting local communities and workers’ rights continues the positive practises of the past.


Credit: Library of Congress African-American women preparing collard greens in 1938

An inexhaustible range of naturally grass-fed mammals including antelope and buffalo from the East African plains and the giant “grasscutter” rodents of the West African savanna are historic examples of African consumption of “better meat”.

Cattle originating from the Near East were domesticated across the continent around 10,000 years ago. A diversity of indigenous breeds adapted to the unique ecosystems and are reared for local beef and milk to this day.

Before the Columbian Exchange introduced tomatoes and chilli peppers to the African culinary repertoire, meat dishes were historically flavoured and fortified with indigenous protein-rich plant ingredients. Oil palm nut pulp was favoured in the Niger Delta, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. Egusi melon and ogbono wild mango seeds were used across Nigeria. Groundnut butter enriched signature dishes still eaten today in Ghana and Sierra Leone. 

The Horn of Africa’s opulent use of seasoning preserves a rich history. Ethiopia’s signature berbere spice could be considered an edible artefact of the Kingdom of Aksum’s control of the Silk Road’s Red Sea route during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  Saaqar, a Somali beef dish translating as “small ones” in Arabic underscores a long regional commitment to reasonable portions.

Historically, agriculture and food cultures across the African diaspora were centred on plant-based cuisine. This resulted in rich foodways and a diverse repertoire of vegetable-led dishes: pumpkin leaf stew in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, callaloo in West Africa and the Caribbean, collard greens and okra in the American South’s soul food and Creole cuisines.

Radiocarbon dating at the Munsa archaeological site in 2006 indicated that bananas were cultivated in Uganda 4,500 years ago.

Green bananas and plantain have been integral to African diaspora food cultures across the Caribbean and Latin America for centuries. Introduced by the Spanish colonists they were quickly integrated into many regional dishes – fried as patacones in the El Chocó department of Colombia, boiled and served as “hard food” in Jamaica and mashed to form orbs of mofongo– a direct relation of African fufu – in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.


Credit: Margaret Houston Dominick Carolina gold rice is the ancestor of long-grain rice across the Americas.

African agriculturalists originating from West Africa’s rice-growing coastline, which stretched from Senegal through Sierra Leone and Liberia, were highly sought after and commanded a premium on the auction block in 18th century South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah are an African-American people descended from the enslaved rice farmers. They live across the Low Country states and Sea Islands of the USA.

The Carolina Gold rice variety that their ancestors successfully cultivated in the 1780s is being reintroduced as an heirloom product along with Sea Island red peas. The preservation of these historic foods employs local farmers and takes the traditional New Year’s Eve dish Hoppin’ John to higher culinary heights!

Beans have provided nourishment throughout Burundi’s food history. Landlocked in the Great Rift Valley, the nation’s farmers continue to minimise environmental impact by growing crops rather than rearing livestock. The mainly vegetarian population enjoys balanced homemade meal options.


Credit: Niels Van Iperen Traditional irrigation systems continue to manage water usage and minimise energy costs across Africa

There are numerous examples throughout African history of valuable natural resources being managed to protect the environment and reduce environmental impact.

Traditional agriculture was mainly rain-led with early Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITK) centring on the development of vital irrigation systems. The continent’s earliest irrigation systems were established along the banks of the River Nile. The ancient Egyptians constructed large walled basins which filled with water during the summer floods and were lush with mineral-rich silt when the water receded in early autumn.

Along the River Niger in Mali, the Flood cropping technique prescribed the planting of rice close to the river throughout July and August. During the autumn floods, the water flooded the rice plots and optimised growth. The rice crops were harvested when the water receded between December and February.

Farmers in regions with unpredictable rainfall and plant-scorching droughts focused on food crops that remain staples of African diaspora cuisines today.  Cowpeas, more commonly known as black-eyed peas are beloved from Nigeria to Brazil and are one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops.

Charred remains dating from the 2nd millennium BC have been found in the rock shelters of Central Ghana.  As cowpeas can be grown in parched or sandy soil, require minimal rainfall and can survive drought, it is no surprise that they have been favoured throughout African agricultural and food history. Their stems and stalks also provide high protein fodder for livestock. As cowpea plants provide shade, preserve moisture and protect soil, in later eras they were grown intercropped with maize and cotton.


Men and women on the production line of a Brazilian sugar mill in 1816

The ultimate Black history example of eliminating business waste-to-landfill is the invention of cachaça, the signature Brazilian spirit. In the 1600s, Africans enslaved and working in sugarcane mills collected the froth they called “cachaça” from the boiling sugarcane during the first step of sugar production.

After fermenting the foam it became the beginning of the spirit we know today.  From 1780 it was a daily ration in Minas Gerais, boosting morale and energy levels. Each modern cachaça cocktail is a tribute to Afro-Brazilian ingenuity, innovation and zero waste sustainability and provides an unexpected taste of history throughout October.

Black History Month provides time to reflect upon and celebrate the major contributions and continued impact that people of African descent have had on global food culture and sustainable practices.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email