Though there are obvious differences among the local cuisines in West Africa, there are also many commonalities, mainly in the ingredients used. Many dishes are enriched with a base of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers. Considered an essential and even "sacred" cooking technique in the region, the combination of these three ingredients sauteed in oil is analogous to similar concepts such as the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking in the United States, sofrito used in the Spanish-speaking world, soffritto in Italy, and the mirepoix of France. The most prevalent cooking oil is palm nut oil, traditionally associated with the coastal regions and contributes a distinctive color, flavor, and texture to food, while shea butter is more commonly used in the Sahel. Called karité in French, which comes from the Arabic word ghartī, it is prized for the rich mouthfeel it imparts.
Although West Africans ate far more vegetables and much less meat in the past, today their diet is heavier in meats, salt, and fats. Seafood is especially popular along the coast and many dishes combine both fish and meat. Dried and smoked fish flavor a number of sauces, stews, and other dishes, including condiments, in much the same way that anchovies and bacon flavor food in a number of other cuisines. It is often flaked and fried in oil, and sometimes cooked in a sauce made with the base of hot peppers, onions and tomatoes, various spices (such as soumbala) and water to produce an incredible combination of subtle flavors. Chicken is eaten nearly everywhere and chicken eggs are a common food and source of protein. Guinea Fowl eggs also popular. In some inland areas, beef, pork, and mutton are preferred, with goat meat being the dominant red meat. Suya, a popular grilled spicy meat kebab flavored with peanuts and other spices, is sold by street vendors as a tasty snack or evening meal and is typically made with beef or chicken
West African Cuisine
Spices play a relatively less prominent role in West African cooking compared to say, North African cuisine. Cooks use spices and herbs like ginger, coriander, and thyme sparingly but knowingly. Chilli peppers, however, are immensely loved in West Africa, both in fresh or dried and powdered form, particularly in the more hot-and-humid lands of the region. Introduced to Africa probably sometime soon after Christopher Columbus sailed to America by European sailors, it is said that the sweating induced by the spicy heat of chili helps to air-condition your skin. More than in other regions of Africa, West Africans utilize Scotch bonnet chile peppers with a liberal hand in many of their sauces and stews. The bite and fire of these extremely hot peppers (Scoville rating 200,000 – 300,000) add a unique flavor as well as heat. The chili is also supposed to help preserve food, as well as adding flavor to relatively bland tropical staples like root vegetables.
Vegetables are a part of any West African meal. Some commonly eaten vegetables include black-eyed peas, eggplant, pumpkin and other squashes, okra, as well as a staggering variety of both farmed and foraged green leafy vegetables, little known or used outside of the African continent. Baobab leaves, pumpkin leaves, rosella leaves, sweet potato leaves, and cassava leaves (which contain cyanide in their raw state, and are always blanched with boiling water before use to remove the toxins) are just some of the greens that are commonplace in a West African kitchen. Black-eyed peas form the basis for a popular fried snack, the well-loved Akara fritter.
Starchy tubers and root vegetables are used as staple food, to be served with their meat and vegetable dishes, often as a foil to the hotness of the peppers. Cassava, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, plantains, and yams are ubiquitous in the local diet, and they are usually boiled and then pounded with a pestle and mortar into a thick starchy paste called fufu.