Five Secret Cooking Oils of Sub-Saharan Africa
Thoughts of travel in Africa may conjure images of lions and elephants, or safaris seeking photographic trophies or even hidden treasures. True, this is all on offer, but for the culinary adventurer there are different kinds of quests to be had — especially when looking for ingredients to cook with. On a recent safari in Namibia, I “discovered” a rare oil derived from the endemic !nara plant (pronounced with a click sound followed by “na-ra”), which adds a unique, fruity and nutty flavor to meats and vegetables. It’s one of several “secret” oils found all around the continent if you look hard enough.
!Nara is a peculiar-looking spiky melon that grows nowhere in the world but in the Kuiseb Delta, where the Kuiseb River meets the Atlantic in coastal Namibia. For decades it’s been harvested by the Topnaar tribe, who boil the insides to produce a tasty pulp, and eat its oil-rich seeds as snacks. But it wasn’t until 2008 that a German-expat chef realized their potential to be cold-pressed into oil for cooking and cosmetics. Now the chef, Volker Huemmer, and his wife press the unique seeds into small batches of oil, with permission from the Topnaar chiefs and the local government. With the consistency of olive oil, its original taste teeters between sweet and nutty. To accentuate its nutty flavor, it’s infused with coffee beans in one variety; to bring out its sweetness, it’s bottled with a vanilla bean in another variety.
What looks like a green, leathery egg is the fruit of the mongongo tree — also known as the manketti tree — which grows in the sandy soil of the Kalahari Desert regions of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Each fruit has a pit in the center that holds a nutrient-rich nut — a food source that has helped the local San bushmen survive for centuries. With a fair-trade agreement, one Zambian company, Kalahari Natural Oils, buys mongongo from local tribes, and presses its oils for cosmetics. Since mongongo oil is used locally as a cooking oil, it’s also available in the region’s markets.
The marula, another fruit-bearing tree in Africa, is related to the mango. Found in many woodland areas of sub-Saharan Africa, marula fruit is highly regarded by both humans and animals as the “food of the kings” for its sweet taste. Humans ferment the pulp and age it to make Amarula, an African liqueur exported worldwide. Its kernels, meanwhile, are cold-pressed to make oil, which is ideal as a sweet and nutty dressing.
Watermelon may be thought of as the all-American picnic fruit, but its origins lie in southern Africa. Its cousin, the egusi, sometimes referred to by Nigerians and the Congolese as “wild watermelon,” yields seeds similar to those of a pumpkin. Oil-rich, the seeds are ground to make soup or pressed to make cooking oil.
As reported before, Akabanga is a spicy oil used as a condiment and seasoning in Rwanda. Unlike the aforementioned sub-Saharan African oils, Akabanga isn’t pressed from a kernel or seed. In fact, the liquid oil component is only 20 percent of the total blend; it’s merely vegetable oil that is added to the other ingredients for texture and consistency. The real flavor and heat comes from the extract of peri-peri peppers, which rate as high as 100,000 on the Scoville Heat Index. (That’s 20 times hotter than Tuong Ot Sriracha!) One or two drops of Akabanga would be sufficient to add heat and flavor to any dish — it comes packaged in small eyedropper bottles. It’s found in many restaurants and stores around Rwanda and via this online store.
Erik Trinidad is a food and travel writer, and author of the cookbook parody Fancy Fast Food: Ironic Recipes with No Bun Intended , based off his popular food humor blog .
Full disclosure: This trip was organized by CW Safaris and the Namibia Board of Tourism.