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Healthy eating, West African style
Azmina Govindji RD
Shams Dharamshi
9 May 2010
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    Okra and Fish Soup. Photo: Nazma Lakhani

    Okra and Fish Soup is a traditional dish from West Africa. Nazma Lakhani

    Eating well is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. Recent efforts by the United Kingdom Government have focused on raising awareness of diet-related risks among West African families through their Change4Life campaign. If you enjoy West African cuisine, here are some tips to help you cook nutritious traditional foods for your family.

    Traditional West African meals usually have a large helping of carbohydrate such as yam, rice or plantain. Starchy carbohydrate foods are generally good for you; however, how you cook them can make them less healthy. If you cook the rice in lots of palm oil, it becomes higher in unhealthy saturated fats, and if you fry the plantain, then its calorie count rises. Soup or stew which often accompanies the starchy food may also be high in fat, and it is the saturated fat from palm oil that needs particular attention.

    Does this mean that you should stop eating these foods? I suggest not. But do make an effort to understand how unhealthy ingredients make their way into your cooked dishes, and be aware of how much you eat. That way, you can enjoy the same traditional foods with a clearer conscience.

    Cook well to eat well

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    Grilled plantain makes a tasty and nutritious snack. Photo: Nazma Lakhani

    Grilled plantain makes a tasty and nutritious snack. Nazma Lakhani

    One of the beauties of home cooking is that it often doesn't involve measuring ingredients. So, you may pour palm oil straight from the bottle. Or you might use coconut cream. But this does no favours to your health – like palm oil, coconut cream is rich in unhealthy saturated fats.

    The classic red colour of palm oil is quite appetising, and if you're used to using a certain amount, it can be tough to change. Start by simply measuring what you use now; even if you find you are using six tablespoons of palm oil when you cook, at least you will know how much you have added. Knowing your starting point, you can cut down gradually. Try adding some tomato puree to provide the vibrant red colour, while reducing the amount of palm oil that you need (see recipe for fish and okra soup).

    The other ingredient to keep an eye on is salt. Too much salt can increase your risk of high blood pressure, which tends to be more common in people of African and African-Caribbean origin. Try measuring the amount of salt you use in cooking and choose fewer salty ingredients like ground smoked shrimp and other smoked fish.

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    Avoid oily and creamy salad dressings – try fresh lemon juice and herbs instead. Photo: Nazma Lakhani

    Avoid oily and creamy salad dressings – try fresh lemon juice and herbs instead. Nazma Lakhani

    Limit the number of fried snacks that your family consumes – save foods like plantain chips, chin chin and puff puff for special occasions. Instead, try rice cakes, fresh, canned or dried fruit, char-grilled corn on the cob, or grilled plantain as a tasty snack. Choose fruit canned in water or natural juice rather than in sugar-rich syrup.

    Watch out for hidden fat. Trimming fat off meat is a good thing, but don't assume that if you can't see those white fatty layers, there is none there! Buy the leanest meat you can and peel the skin off chicken. Chicken breast meat is lower in fat than thighs or legs so go easy on the drumsticks.

    Throw extra vegetables into stews and soups so that you get more nutrients. Leafy vegetables work well in soups. Get into the habit of serving a side salad with meals (choose a low fat dressing like lime juice with black pepper).

    And for all the family, being physically active is another really important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Even kicking a football in the garden or walking round the block regularly helps you burn calories and stay healthy.


    Try these West African dishes from the Nutrition Centre: Fish and okra soup and Grilled plantain.

    The colours and flavours of West Africa

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    Kente cloth worn at a festival in Kpetoe Agotime, in the Volta region of Ghana. The colours and patterns of the cloth convey different meanings and are said to symbolically preserve the history, ethics and moral values of the people. Photo: Flikr/okrahoma/john nash

    Kente cloth worn at a festival in Kpetoe Agotime, in the Volta region of Ghana. The colours and patterns of the cloth convey different meanings and are said to symbolically preserve the history, ethics and moral values of the people. Photo:

    The continent of Africa is steeped in tribal and ethnic diversity. Its geographic regions in the west, east, north and south vary in language, religion and even cuisine.

    West Africa comprises some 16 countries, from Mauritania to Nigeria, spread over some 5 million square kilometres. Its colonial past under the Portuguese, French and the British has added to the linguistic diversity of the region.

    Among the peoples of the region are talented craftsmen, known for their wood carvings, paintings and sculptures. Another influential tradition – particularly among the Akan people of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire – is the brightly woven cloth called kente, a fabric made of interwoven cotton or silk strips. The unique colours and patterns of the cloth convey different meanings and are said to symbolically preserve the history, ethics and moral values of the people.

    The West African diet is heavy on starch, light on meat, generous with fat and commonly cooked together in one pot. The staple is a dish known as fufu. This is made from root vegetables such as yams or cassava and mashed into a mound; it sometimes is also made from grain such as millet. Fufu is generally served with a soup or stews.

    Chilli is one of the most flavourful ingredients in a West African dish; some of the dishes served would earn respect from even the most dedicated chilli heads! Originally from South America, chilli peppers were introduced in West Africa by Portuguese traders in the mid-15th century. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves also came to the region through the Arab spice trade routes.

    West African cuisine offers more seafood than the rest of the continent, and interestingly, one finds dishes that mix seafood and meat together! Typically, the dishes are stew-like. Peanuts are a common ingredient, served in soups, stews, garnish or pounded into a paste.

    Learn more about the Aga Khan Development Network's work in Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.