African foods that have no name in European languages

Sao on the tree in Douala
There were myriad consequences to colonialism in Africa, and as we know, most of the continent still hasn’t recovered. But I will leave that discussion for the experts in geopolitics and history.One of the consequences is not much discussed: the vocabulary of food products, in particular of fruits, leafy greens, and vegetables.

If an item doesn’t exist in the “West,” i.e. Europe and North America, it didn’t get a name. For years, there was little travel within the African continent. It was more expensive and convoluted to go from Douala to Dakar than from Douala to Paris. 

Nowadays there are many more African airlines, and even if you are on your way to Paris or London, from an African metropolis, you can make a pit stop in Addis Ababa, for example.

But if you are going to another country, and would like to eat your favorite food, how do you know if you can find it in that country? For that matter, even when you travel to another town, and you are sure that the greens you love exist there, how do you ask for it if you don’t know what it’s called?

I found out very coincidentally that what I knew as “prune” in Cameroonian French (plum), sao in the Douala language, also existed in Nigeria. They resemble Italian plums, hence the nickname. In the ibiobio language, they are called eben. This is a savory, slightly oily fruit that is not eaten raw, but boiled or grilled. In Douala, when it’s in season, you will find it at sidewalk vendors, barbecuing it along with corn, to be eaten together. Sao are a little oily, and a little sour. They don’t keep at all: they spoil in a matter of days, so it would be very difficult to export them. I did find another name: Safou.

One word that did migrate: gombo, i.e. okra; the word traveled with Congolese slaves to America, and became the famous Louisiana soup called gumbo.

Below I created an ongoing list of names of a variety of African produce and spices, as well as a few cooked dishes, in as many languages as I can obtain. I’d love it if you’d send in the name of an item in your own language, if it’s not already there, and add your country if you don’t see it. I’ll list the contributors, too, if they accept.

  1. Soya, suya: grilled meat on skewers (Nigeria, Cameroon)

  1. Maffe: peanut sauce stew (Senegal, Cameroon)

  1. Kiling-kiling (maloukhieh in Arabic, Jew’s mallow in English) (Cameroon, Egypt)
    Note: the above is prepared so differently in Cameroon than in the Middle East that I didn’t recognize it. The Lebanese in Cameroon informed me that it was one and the same as the main feature of a beloved dish, well known in Egypt and Lebanon.

  1. Bewole: a mild green leafy vegetable that is a bit similar to spinach (Cameroon)

  2. Ndole (Cameroon) - Bitter leaf in Nigeria.
    Note: Ndole is known not only as the green: leaves from a bush, super bitter unless treated with kaolinite, but as not only the most famous dish of the Duala people, but also in the meantime it is almost like the national dish of Cameroon. It is prepared with dried tiny shrimp, groundnuts, meat, and more.

    Ndole leaves cooked on an open fire

  1. Fonio - unknown in Central Africa, as far as I know, but very well known in West Africa (Senegal, Mali). It is a little similar to Amaranth, but much faster to cook.

Note: Chef Pierre Thiam is bringing it to widespread attention in the United States..

  1. Sao: “Official” name: Safou. A bit like the cooked version of avocado. In other Cameroonian languages: sa (Yabassi), saa (Bankon/Abo), bitoho (Babimbi), atchip (Dschang/Bamileke).

  2. Jangsang is a spice that resembles a hard chickpea, but otherwise has nothing in common with anything European or Middle Eastern that I know. It is crushed in small quantities and added to stews for a very distinct flavor.

    Jangsang spice 

  3. Eguzi (Nigeria), ngondo a singreti (Duala/Cameroon): ground dried melon seed, and the sauce made with this main ingredient.

  4. Okazi leaves (nigeria), from a climbing vine, which makes a slimy soup; it exists in Cameroon too, probably in the South and Northwest (near Nigeria), but it may have another name.

  5. Fufu (Cameroon and others), putu (South Africa), sadza (Zimbabwe), ugali, posho: as per The Guardian's "Hit me with your ugali stick": "In much of Africa south of the Sahara the base of a meal is a flour (from ground cereals, yam or cassava root) boiled with water. Fufu, ugali, posho, mealie-meal, nsima; the name changes with region and language, but is usually translated as 'porridge'. Which isn't very accurate - proper ugali or fufu is more stodge than soup, something with a texture close to window putty." Fufu and its brethren can also be made from maize. Sometimes it is called couscous in Cameroonian French, but it's not the North African couscous.

    Cooking fufu in a traditional kitchen in Abo, Cameroon

    12. On a note related to fufu, cassava sticks in Cameroon are called miondo, and in Congo they are chikwangue. In French they are called bâtons de manioc.


  • Many thanks to contributors to this list (which will be updated with additions from the readers!): Amélie Essesse, Epee Ellong, Faith Adiele, Atim Oton, Stephie-Rose Nyot.

  • The vocabulary is not written with the phonetic alphabet. 

  • The article from The Guardian was written in 2008, but it's worth perusing the comments and links. The question of Sub-Saharan food becoming mainstream/popular is on its way to being answered, thanks to the many chefs from various countries, and the internet; there is now a large contingent of Nigerian-Americans, and recipes are even being published in the New York Times, albeit apparently rather modified for American palates. And what a great cooking blog link: The Congo Cookbook


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