From akara to acarajé: Culinary traditions that bind Africa and its diaspora
It is a delicious dish popular in southern parts of the US, one with an inviting aroma and an interesting name. Hoppin’ John—made with black-eyed peas and rice, chopped onion, sliced bacon and salt—is a dish like no other.
Inspired by West African cuisine, Hoppin’ John, jambalaya, and feijoada are some of the dishes made from beans, meat and vegetables mixed with rice that are common among people of African descent in the Americas and around the world.
From West Africa’s shores to South America and the Caribbean—black-eyed peas (also known as cowpeas) have become a potent symbol of the cultural ties that still bind Africa and its diaspora. Cakes made of peeled and mashed peas deep-fried in palm oil are sold on the streets under many similar names on different continents. In Brazil they are called acarajé, in Nigeria akara.
While black-eyed peas are also part of the diet of people living in places such as India and Myanmar, they’re mostly consumed in West African countries, particularly Benin, Guinea Nigeria and Senegal, as well as in the Caribbean, Brazil and the southern United States, which has long had a large African-American population. The peas are said to have been taken to the Caribbean and the Americas on slave ships.
Kangni Alem, a Togolese novelist and playwright, told Africa Renewal that he couldn’t believe it when he chanced upon women in Brazil selling acarajé on the street. He was visiting Bahia’s capital, Salvador, widely known as the “West African capital of South America,” while on a cultural escapade.
“For once, I thought I was in Lomé,” Mr. Alem said, not so much because of the makeup of the population but because “they were frying the bean cakes right there,” he marveled. He was so impressed that he later wrote about the encounter in his novel Les enfants du Brésil (The Children of Brazil).
“Poor man’s meat”
Black-eyed peas are part of the daily diet of millions of people in Africa. They are either boiled and eaten with rice or fried in tomatoes and onions and eaten with a combination of rice and fried plantains. They can also be ground into flour for porridge.
Called niébé in parts of the Sahel, the
black-eyed peas are dubbed “miracle peas,” or “poor man’s meat” in most of sub-Saharan Africa because of their high nutritive value and their ability to grow in harsh conditions.
According to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the black-eyed pea grain “contain[s] 25% protein and several vitamins and minerals. It is resistant to drought, performs well in a wide variety of soils, and being a legume, replenishes low fertility soils when the roots are left to decay.”
While details on global consumption and trade remain scarce, Nigeria is the largest producer, importer and consumer of black-eyed peas in the world. A 2016 United States Agency for International Development study estimated that consumption is 18 kg per person in Nigeria, 9 kg per person in Ghana and 1.8 kg per person in Côte d’Ivoire.
African countries produced over 96% of the estimated annual harvest of 5.4 million tonnes of black-eyed peas during the same year, with Nigeria accounting for 61% of the continent’s share and 58% globally, according to IITA.
Different varieties of black-eyed peas have been developed by IITA as part of the institute’s research activities. Some have bigger seeds and high-yielding crops that mature faster; others have been engineered to resist pests. The organisation’s genebank holds the world’s largest and most diverse collection of black-eyed peas, with 15,122 unique samples from 88 countries.
In the US, at the Sweet Home Café in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a poster on the wall quotes American food and agricultural activist Natasha Bowens: “With roots in many countries across Africa and the complex impact of southern history, America’s black food culture and the stories it carries is vast and deep.”
Bowens’ 2015 book, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming explores the significance of land and culinary traditions in the history of African-American identity and highlights how some foods eaten today can be traced back to their African origins.
In the museum and its café in the US capital and on the shores of Brazil, the enduring African influence on what is now considered local cuisine is undeniable.