Even if you’re a big produce lover, there is probably a section of the produce department that you avoid because the second you look at it you think, “I don’t know what to do with that!” Several of those funny-looking fruits and vegetables you never pick up come from Africa, and if you know how to prepare them, they can be delicious.
Gourds have been around since around 13,000 BC and have been used as tools, musical instruments and of course for sustenance. Africa was one of the first continents to domesticate the gourd, and Africans still use them to make stringed instruments. You can cut a gourd down the middle and roast it in the oven, or cut it into large chunks and boil it in water until it’s soft. Any type of gourd tastes great with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, but you can also fill the center with cooked raisins and nuts, or rice.
Baobab trees are native to Madagascar, but found elsewhere in Africa. The fruit are sometimes called monkey bread, and are full of vitamin C. The inside is full of red strings, and a white foamy substance—the white substance is the fruit and the only part you want to eat. You can eat it raw, but you can also crush the fruit into a powder and add it to smoothies, or sprinkle it over pudding or creamy dessert.
Treat a horned melon just like a pomegranate: just cut it open and scoop the seeds out. The inside is slimy and green and some say the flavor is a mix of cucumber and kiwi fruit, but as it becomes riper it will taste like a banana. One popular thing to do with the horned melon is to make a sorbet by blending it with frozen banana chunks, frozen pineapple chunks and some sweetener.
These fruit look rather bland on the outside, but when you break open their dry, brown shell, there is a fruit inside with a similar consistency to a date. Just remove the strings, pop the fruit in your mouth, and spit out the pits just like you would a cherry pit. Tamarind has several health benefits, most notably a high vitamin C content, and natural laxative properties. You can usually buy tamarind syrup or tamarind concentrate, which makes sweet salad dressings.
You’ll either see these in an apple-green hue, or bright red, and they look just like miniature plums. They are too sour to eat raw, but taste great in jam, or even in a punch. See a recipe here.
Cowpeas are one of the most cultivated crops in semiarid tropical Africa, but you might know them as black-eyed peas. They taste great boiled and mashed with bacon bits, or substituted for kidney beans in chili. You can also mash them and blend them with garlic and lemon juice for a dish similar to hummus.
This sphere-like, fuzzy vegetable is popular in Southern cooking. You can eat it raw—it tastes best dipped in ranch dressing or hummus—or you can fry it, boil it or stew it. Okra fries are a delicious, more nutritious substitute for regular fries. The exact origins of okra are debated, but some have said Ethiopians and West Africans first cultivated the plant.
Often sold before they’ve transformed into their date state, desert dates are a light, yellow-green hue, and grow in bundles on thin branches. When they’re ripe you eat them the same way you would a regular date. They add great flavor when added to porridge or oatmeal, and the oil is said to relieve headaches. The desert date tree is native to most of Africa.
You’re probably familiar with yams, but you may not have known that they are definitely not the same as a sweet potato, and originally came from West Africa. Yams can be barbecued, boiled, baked, smoked, or mashed into pies.
Sorghum is a grain and you can usually find it in flour form, but there is also sorghum molasses and sorghum syrup. The crop is native to tropical and subtropical regions of all continents, including Africa. Today, sorghum flour is gaining popularity among gluten-free bakers.