Oldways has created the African Heritage Diet Pyramid with the help and knowledge of experts in African American and African Diasporan history, cuisine, nutrition, and public health. This healthy eating model was designed specifically for African Americans, and African descendant populations everywhere, to introduce them to their Healthy Heritage. It can also be used by anyone wanting to use heritage as a guide to eating well. The Pyramid celebrates the individual foods and the traditional healthy eating patterns of African Heritage, with roots in America, Africa, the Caribbean, or South America. Visit African Heritage Diet Pyramid’s website for more information. To download an illustration of the African Heritage Diet Pyramid here.
Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar (ACV), or cider vinegar, is typically used in salad dressings, marinades and vinaigrettes. Unpasteurized ACV contains “mother of vinegar” which makes for the cloudiness in some vinegars and is filled with nutritious enzymes and good bacteria. Traditionally, it has been used in making crab-meat dip, pickling vegetables, dressing cooked beets, and it’s been enjoyed in U.S. Southern cooking as a bright flavoring for all kinds of veggies like collard greens, green beans, black-eyed peas, and cabbage. Look for it in your market’s vinegar aisle.
Arrowroot: This root is dried and powdered into one of the most easily digested of all thickening starches. It is often used as a substitute for cornstarch. The majority of the worlds supply comes from St. Vincent in the Caribbean. It’s usually found in the spices section at a grocery store, right next to the cooking starches.
Barley: Barley is a grain eaten like rice or millet or wheat. Barley is delicious on its own; it makes for a lovely porridge; and, it is also used in soups, stews, for making breads and beer. Its African roots lie in North Africa, where it was first cultivated from the wild, and it was a staple cereal in ancient Egypt. In Africa today, it’s been said that barley has the potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, help rural development, and support sustainable land-care if it is more widely harvested.
Beet Greens: Beet tops contain many vitamins and minerals, like vitamin A, zinc and iron. In Africa, the greens are typically cooked whole, including the leaves and long red stems, and added into stews. Beet roots were commonly pickled in America’s Southern cuisine, like many other vegetables. The greens are part of the “cooking greens” family and go well in greens mixes, with collards or kale. You can add them to a pasta pot during the last 3 minutes of cooking your noodles, saute them with a healthy oil and garlic as a side, or blend them into your sweet potato mashes.
Black-eyed peas: Black-eyed peas are one of the most frequently used beans in African, Latin American and African American cooking. They are used in many main dishes, like Hoppin’ John, or as a side dish or fritter. Black-eyed peas are a great source of protein, fiber, and potassium. One serving (half a cup) is only 70 calories, and they have zero fat or cholesterol. It is a popular tradition for African Americans to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck throughout the year. You can help to ensure a healthy heart by enjoying them weekly!
Brazil Nuts: Native to Brazil, Brazil nuts are considered the world’s richest food source of selenium, a mineral that helps boost your immune system and fight against certain cancers and diseases. Eating 1 or 2 Brazil nuts daily gets you the maximum amount of selenium you want (you don’t want to consume too much!).
Breadfruit: This large, round, soccer-ball sized fruit is the staple starch in many Caribbean dishes. It has the flavor of a potato, and the texture of freshly baked bread. Eaten either green or ripe, breadfruit can be substituted for white potatoes in almost any recipe. In the Dominican Republic, it is known as buen pan or “good bread” and is commonly roasted, baked or boiled, and mixed with coconut milk and banana leaves. In Puerto Rico, it is known simply as pana and is prepared with salted cod, onions and olive oil.
Broad Beans: Also called fava beans, broad beans are believed to have originated in North Africa, eaten mostly in soups and stews. They are an excellent source of folic acid, and they are readily available dried or canned. Cook them up with olive oil and spices, tomatoes, or ginger.
Callaloo: Callaloo is the name of a classic Caribbean soup and also the name of the leafy green that makes up the soup. In Trinidad and other eastern Caribbean countries, callaloo is often made with okra, and sometimes with coconut milk, chili peppers, lobster meat, and other seasonings all simmered down into a side-dish stew. Slow-cooked collard greens are an African American expression of traditional callaloo. Canned callaloo is available in the U.S., but spinach can also be substituted in African Heritage dishes.
Calabaza: This winter squash is cousin to the butternut and acorn squashes, which can be interchanged in different recipes. Calabaza is frequently found in soups and stews in Africa. It is increasingly available in supermarkets and is often called West Indian cooking pumpkin. Because it is so big, it is usually sold in pieces. Look for pieces with bright orange skin with no blemishes or dark marks.
Cassava: Also known as manioc, mandioca, or yucca, this starchy tuber is eaten in Latin America, West Africa, and the Caribbean. With its delicate flavor and starchy consistency, it can take the place of potatoes in any meal. It is used as a vegetable in many stews and dishes, and it is also dried and ground into flour for traditional fufu dishes. Cassava meal can be found in supermarkets selling Latin American and Brazilian products.
Chard: One of the leafy green vegetables, chard is in the same family as beet greens (they look and taste very similar). Green chard, red chard, and rainbow chard are all available, named for the colors of their stems. Salty to taste, with a little bitter bite, a big bundle of chard cooks down to a small amount. It is especially delicious in pasta or rolled up in injera/flatbread.
Coconut Milk, Oil & Water: Coconut, from the palm tree, offers itself as a prize food to cooks on both sides of the Atlantic. Many African heritage dishes use coconut milk in their preparation, especially fish and rice dishes. Coconut milk is a source of healthy fat, and you can find “light” coconut milk for less total fat. Coconut oil is a wonderful cooking oil, used in small amounts, and it can be found with both a strong coconut flavor or neutral (almost no flavor). The oil is of great interest to scientists today who are studying its variety of potential health benefits. Coconut water can be found in many stores today too, and is a great source of electrolytes, which help you hydrate more quickly and fully. Drink it on its own or as a base for a smoothie.
Coriander: Coriander is the seed of cilantro, and it is mentioned in Africa as far back as ancient Egyptian days. It is an herb used heavily in Brazilian and other Caribbean cooking especially within curries. Coriander adds a warm tone to any food, and is commonly paired with lentils and other beans, onions, potatoes, stews and cooked vegetables. For the most flavor, roast the seeds in a dry pan for a few minutes until you can smell their aroma strongly.
Couscous: Couscous is small, round pasta that is cooked and eaten like rice. Couscous takes on spices and flavors beautifully, and is traditionally served with a vegetable stew spooned over it or as a side dish to chicken or vegetables. Look for whole wheat couscous, which you can find in the rice or pasta sections of the grocery store, plain or pre-spiced in boxes. It has a very quick cook time of only about 5 minutes! Cook it in vegetable broth for added flavor, and, for best texture, fluff it with your fork immediately after it’s cooked to separate the granules.
Cowpeas: These peas are close relatives of the black-eyed pea, just smaller in size. For a wonderful African Heritage medley mix cowpeas with a little bit of healthy olive oil, diced tomatoes (or tomato paste), onions, peppers, eggplant and curry powder.
Cumin: Native to the Nile Valley, cumin gives a pungent, peppery flavor to many North African spice mixtures. This herb is the ingredient that gives curries their distinctive flavor—and a powerful one at that, so don’t use too much! Cumin seeds and cumin powder are both available in grocery stores.
Dandelion Greens: The name “Dandelion” means “lion’s tooth,” and these greens actually look like they could jump out and bite you! They bear jagged, irregular leaves and they are packed with a spicy, bitter flavor in their greens. While they may look fierce, they are one of the healthiest plant foods that we know. Use them in salads, steamed or sauteed for an extra bite in flavor.
Dates: Dates are a fruit native to North Africa and they were used by ancient Egyptian bakers as a sweetener to their pastries. They may be pitted and stuffed with fillings like walnuts, almonds, tahini or lemon peel. They are a good source of fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. Use them for sweetening fruit and nut desserts, pie crusts, puddings, and other treats.
Dende: (See Palm Oil)
Figs: Fig trees have been around since ancient times. They are especially high in fiber and rich in calcium, potassium and iron. Originally from North Africa, today we most commonly see these fruits in dried form, but if you can find them fresh, they are certainly worth the search. The fresh ones are plump and juicy, and less sweet than their dried counterparts.
Fufu: Fufu is a staple food of Central and Western Africa. It is a thick paste, often used as the base of soups and stews, that is made by boiling starchy root vegetables and tubers. These starchy vegetables are pounded into a doughy paste with a mortar and pestle that make an edible “bowl” for soups. Making traditional fufu is very laborious–you can find fufu powder made from cassava in African markets, online or in specialty stores. Fufu is known as mangu in the Caribbean, made from plantains or yams, and ugali in Eastern Africa, made from cornmeal. Try it as one of your new African Heritage foods.
Groundnut: An African term for nuts that grow underground (rather than on trees), most commonly used for “peanuts.”
Hearts of Palm: Hearts of palm are literally the hearts of the trunk of a palm tree. They are high in several healthy minerals, like manganese, and low in sugar, fat and calories. Hearts of palm are found fresh in the Caribbean, Brazil, and Costa Rica (where they are called palmito). In the U.S., we find them mostly canned. Because of this, there is a higher sodium content, which can be lessened simply by soaking and rinsing them. Hearts of palm are commonly used in salads or they can be eaten on their own.
Jollof Rice: Jollof Rice is an African spicy rice dish. It is also called Benachin meaning one pot in the Wolof language, and it is a popular dish all over West Africa. There are many variations of Jollof rice. The most common basic ingredients are basmati rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, and red pepper. Beyond that, nearly any kind of vegetables or spices can be added (nutmeg, ginger, cumin). It is nicely complimented by another African staple—black-eyed peas.
Kidney Beans: Kidney beans, also called chili beans, are named for their kidney-like shape. They have a mealy, hearty texture, and they are used by many people of Caribbean heritage. Kidney beans are also used in New Orleans and much of southern Louisiana cooking, especially in the classic “Monday Creole” dish of red beans and rice.
Mango: This tropical fruit is known by some as “the king of fruits.” Mangoes have been in Africa since 1000 AD, when they were brought by travelers from Persia. In the Caribbean and Africa, many meals end with a basket of fresh mangoes for dessert. They are also used in cooking, especially in seafood dishes. Mangoes can have either yellow, red or green skin, and they should be purchased when they are firm but with a slight yield to the touch and a light fragrant smell.
Millet: Millet is a major food source in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, like India and Africa, and it is featured in the traditional cuisine of many others. Millet is a small, round, golden cereal grain that you can boil into a fluffy, mild-tasting base that goes with almost any dish, like mashed potatoes. Or you can toast the millet first and bring out a richer flavor that shapes the meal. Millet is extremely nutritious, rich in B vitamins, protein, potassium, and zinc, and it is gluten free. You can usually find millet in the rice section of grocery stores. And it only takes about 20 minutes to cook!
Moqueca De Peixe: A classic Brazilian fish stew dish made with palm oil, coconut milk, red peppers and onions, and white fish.
Olive Oil: Olive oil is well known for being the popular healthy oil from the Mediterranean. North African countries, like Morocco, have long cultivated olive oil. South Africa has become a major producer of olive oil, too, with olive groves rising all over the region. Its health benefits come from its unique makeup of good fats and antioxidants. Use it moderately as a salad dressing, a dipping sauce, or a cooking oil. Look for extra virgin olive oil for the greatest health benefits.
Palm Oil (also called Dende in the Caribbean): Palm oil comes in a variety of strengths and colors, ranging from a deep red-orange to almost transparent. The more color there is, the higher the nutrient content will be, so choose unrefined red palm oil whenever you buy it. Some people love the flavor; others find it overpowering. It works in dishes from Brazil and West Africa where it is mixed with other foods that balance its strength. Many people use a little bit to add that reddish color to many African heritage foods, like soups and grains. Palm oil is high saturated fat, but a different kind of saturated fat than what we typically find—one that works differently with our bodies. It has the same healthy properties as carrots and other red-orange foods, and scientists have found many health benefits from red palm oil in moderate amounts.
Papaya: Papaya is an eye-catching tropical fruit with green skin, orange-pink flesh and black pearly seeds in the middle. Depending on ripeness, papayas can be very mild tasting or very sweet. The meat of the papaya is often eaten raw (but don’t eat the seeds!), as a snack, breakfast, or dessert, and it can also be cooked in stews, curries, or salads. Look for papayas in the produce section of your grocery store. Like the mango, purchase them when they are firm but with a slight yield to the touch.
Peanut Oil: Peanut oil is a healthy cooking oil derived from peanuts that has a peanutty aroma and flavor. It is commonly used when cooking at high-temperatures because it can tolerate a high heat. Use moderate amounts when sautéing or broiling.
Pigeon Peas: Sometimes called congo peas, pigeon peas are one of the most popular peas of the African diaspora, found especially in the “rice and peas” dishes of the Caribbean. They are often served there as a pigeon pea stew with plantains, and in Trinidad and Tobago they can be found combined with pumpkin and meat.
Plantains: Plantains are the “big brother” of the banana family. Unlike the banana fruit, plantains are cooked as a staple starch throughout the Caribbean. They can be eaten at any ripeness, and they become sweeter as they turn from green to yellow and black. In Ghana, plantains are eaten with cabbage or fish stews. In other parts of Africa, boiled plantains are mixed with peanut paste, onion, and palm oil to make eto. A popular breakfast in Africa is a dish of plantains sauteed with black-eyed peas in red palm oil. In Southern U.S. states like Texas, Louisiana and Florida, plantains are typically grilled. They can also be eaten raw or roasted. They are full of potassium and high in fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C. Plantain or banana leaves are also used in African heritage cooking to wrap up foods being baked, poached or steamed—which adds a wonderful flavor to the food. Aluminum foil or parchment paper can also substitute.
Prawns: Prawns are related to the shrimp family, but the term “prawn” has been used in the U.S. to loosely describe large shrimp in general (“king prawns” and “jumbo shrimp” are commonly used). Shrimps and prawns contain cholesterol, but they are low in saturated fat. If you have high cholesterol, eat shrimp and other high cholesterol foods sparingly, until you have balanced your levels. Shrimps and prawns contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be good for your heart, your brain and more.
Salt Fish: Salt fish is used in many African Heritage dishes, with salted codfish as one of the most popular types. Look for salt fish with white flesh rather than yellow, as yellow indicates age. Soak overnight or boil and rinse in water to reduce the sodium content. Once the sodium is lessened, salt fish is a healthy protein, calcium and vitamin D source. Dried smoked shrimp is also very common and is found in both West African and Afro-Brazilian cooking. Dried shrimp can be purchased at many Asian markets.
Sesame Oil: Sesame oil is a fragrant and nutty oil. Its crunchy seeds originated in Africa. There are several kinds of sesame oil available, which vary in color and strength of flavor. Colors range from pale yellow to golden to a deep brown; the darker brown type is made from toasted seeds and has a stronger taste than the others. Traditionally, sesame oil has been used often in halal cooking and all over the world in light stir-fry or omelette dishes.
Scotch Bonnet Peppers: These peppers are used for flavoring in many cuisines worldwide, but especially in dishes throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Scotch bonnet peppers give that distinct flavor to “jerk” dishes, like Jamaican jerk shrimp and chicken. Use them in your homemade sauces to marinate vegetables and seafood, or add them to your beans for extra zest.
Shea Butter: Unrefined shea butter is derived from the seed of the African shea tree. It has a smoky, nutty smell and creamy texture. Its main component is the same healthy fat as olive oil, called oleic acid, which has been shown to have many health benefits. It can be used as a butter substitute in baked goods or spreads, and it can even be used as a wonderful skin moisturizer! When you purchase some, you can separate out a small amount to use on your skin in dry weather.
Sorghum: Sorghum is a very important food crop in Africa; it can grow in very dry conditions and it is very inexpensive to cultivate. Sorghum can be substituted for wheat flour in some baked goods; although, since it is gluten-free, it doesn’t offer the rise of wheat. Its neutral, sometimes sweet, flavor and light color make it an easy fit in a wide variety of dishes. It has a low glycemic index, too, so it sticks with you longer than some other flours. A wide variety of recipes using sorghum can be found online and in cookbooks, particularly those catering to a gluten-free diet. These recipes include muffins, breads, pizzas, pastas, casseroles, cookies, cakes, pies and more. To get you started, here are links to some sorghum recipes on the Whole Grains Council website.
Spinners: Spinners are tasty Caribbean dumplings. They can be made with whole cornmeal and whole wheat flour to accompany hearty pumpkin or vegetable or red pea soups. Experiment with herbs or spices to make them. They may be small, but they’re quite filling!
Tamarind: Tamarind is a traditional food plant of Africa. In the U.S., you’ll usually find it jarred, in a jelly-like form or a cooking sauce. It is sweet when ripe, and a little sour when young. It can be made into a very sticky, sweet sauce, used in meals and desserts alike. In various parts of Africa, you’ll find tamarind used as a garnish to beans, mixed with millet for breakfast, or crushed into a juice. Tamarind has been shown to help with digestion (what a yummy way!).
Teff: Teff leads all grains—by a wide margin—in its calcium content. In Ethiopia, teff is usually ground into flour and fermented to make the spongy, sourdough bread known as injera. Today, teff is moving way beyond its traditional uses. It’s an ingredient in pancakes, snacks, breads, cereals and many other products, especially those created for the gluten-free market. Check out the Whole Grains Council’s recipe search engine for delicious teff recipes.
Watercress: These greens are members of the cabbage family, and they are related to the radish and mustard greens–both noteworthy for their peppery flavor. Typically eaten raw in salads and in sandwiches, watercress is extremely healthful, containing high amounts of iron, folic acid, calcium and (uniquely) iodine–which is very good for our thyroids. Traditionally, watercress was harvested and eaten in the American South. In the 1940s, the town of New Market, Alabama was named “Watercress Capital of the World.” Enjoy its acclaim and health benefits in your next lunch!
Yassa Chicken: Yassa Chicken is a famous Senegalese dish that is popular throughout Western Africa. It is made by marinating chicken overnight in lemons, onions, oil and a little mustard, and is often served with carrots and olives, rice, or couscous.