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Moringa, fonio, baobab… the (re)discovery of African superfoods

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Monday, 29 March 2021 10:47

Paris may be a gastronomic capital, but chefs, nutritionists and scientists from Africa's diaspora are rediscovering and promoting the virtues of natural foods from the continent. They are finding a large range of products that are easier to digest, with low glycemic index and numerous other health benefits. Move over, croissant...

For Fatoumata Diarra, a specialist in Afro vegan pastry, the adventure began almost by accident. “A few years ago, during my maternity leave, I wanted to make a cake… but I didn’t have any wheat flour. I thought of cassava flour that my mother, who is of Senegalese origin, had given me. And the test I did in my kitchen was so successful that I started to experiment with more and more African flours to create new pastries.”

After gaining a qualification in pastry making and completing a “healthy pastry” course at the Parisian school Ferrandi, Diarra has enriched her knowledge and know-how of special ingredients from the continent. She celebrates them in the kitchen, for various restaurants, but also in workshops and “Afro tea times” in Paris.

Gluten-free and slow sugars

“I work with fonio, which has a particularly low glycemic index, to add crunch to pastries, but also plantain, manioc and sweet potato flour. These products are gluten-free and much easier to digest: rich in starch, they contain slow sugars instead of fast sugars, and these are more easily absorbed by the body.”

Most of these products were already familiar to her… But they were not considered to be of much value and never used to make Western pastries. Bouye juice, or ‘monkey wine’, for example, well known in Senegal, and made from monkey bread, the fruit of the baobab tree, is an already popular drink. It is acidic, and a little vanilla sugar or orange blossom can be added…

Protein and vitamins

But beyond the taste, consumers are generally unaware of its health benefits: monkey bread is a source of fibre and antioxidants (35 times more than in grapes, for example), and is naturally very rich in calcium, vitamin C (six times more than an orange) and potassium.

“Africans sometimes find it hard to see the value of natural foods that come from home,” says Fousseyni Djikine, owner of two BMK restaurants in Paris. “They eat it without realising the tremendous value of their own culinary heritage. My father, for example, who is from the Kayes region in Mali, has always eaten the fruit of the baobab tree… but because he had no choice. This is all the more regrettable because this special fruit comes from plants or trees that do not need intensive watering. A baobab can grow in a very arid environment…”

The young owner has created grocery shops in his two establishments.

Among other natural products, there is moringa, which is sometimes used in couscous preparations or in infusions. The properties of this shrub, which actually originated in India but has long been established in tropical regions of Africa, are quite amazing. Nicknamed the ‘tree of life’ or ‘miracle tree’, this superfood contains as much protein as a beef steak, four times more vitamin A than a carrot, as much magnesium as dark chocolate, and 25 times more iron than spinach!

Warding off diabetes and ulcers?

However, you may be put off by its price… €7 for 100 grams of powder on the shelves of the BMK grocery shop. The Esteval brand, a family-owned SME created in 2008, works with producer groups in various regions of Senegal (Thiès, Tambacounda, Casamance). “But one teaspoon is enough,” says Djikine, who explains that this small quantity already provides the vitamin C content of three kilos of oranges.

Moringa has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. But a host of recent scientific studies, published in particular on the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, have clarified its virtues. Its antioxidant properties could prevent complications after menopause (study by Shalini Kushwaha, Paramjit Chawla and Anita Kochhar, 2012). It could fight diabetes, hypertension, ulcers, or even protect the tissues of the liver, kidneys and heart (Stohs SJ et al. 2017).

Calling all footballers

Although nutritionists and scientists seem to be unanimous in praising the merits of African superfoods, they still need to be made popular in order to compete with industrial foodstuffs, which are heavily advertised on the continent as elsewhere. “We should organise a counter-advertising campaign,” says Djikine, who admits to daydreaming about footballer Frédéric Kanouté, or other famous celebrities, extolling the merits of his products.

While waiting for these products to become available in Western supermarkets, many websites already stock them, such as ibemifood.com or racines-shop.com, online shops that are committed to ethical produce. The Parisian shop ‘Un Monde Vegan’, which is a little more expensive, offers very good quality products on site and online. Many ‘exotic grocery shops’ also sell these ingredients. And even if the packaging for the latter is not always as attractive, the benefits of these superfoods are unbeatable.

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