Popular American Soul Food With West African Roots

Many black American food staples have origins abroad

Chopped Okra
Okra. Rebecca Wilson/Flickr.com

Since soul food has roots in West Africa, black American cuisine includes far more items than fried chicken, ribs and watermelon. In fact, many black Americans routinely consume food, such as okra and yams, that West Africans continue to eat today. Learn the history behind these foods and how African slaves managed to maintain their food traditions after their forced entry into the Americas.

Yams

Yams are arguably the food that suffers from the biggest case of mistaken identity.

That’s because in the U.S., sweet potatoes have long been labeled yams, a tuber widely grown in West Africa. When Europeans shipped the first African slaves to the New World, they gave the captives yams to survive the Middle Passage. Once in the United States, Africans developed an affinity for sweet potatoes because they reminded them of the yam. In actuality, yams and sweet potatoes have no botanical connection. But today sweet potatoes remain a Thanksgiving meal staple.

Black-Eyed Peas

Black-eyed peas aren’t just a pop group but a fixture in African American and Southern cuisine. On New Year’s Day, these Americans customarily celebrate by having a serving of the peas, which are, in fact, beans. Black-eyed peas guarantee those who consume them on Jan. 1 good luck for the rest of the year, according to legend. Like yams, African slaves consumed this food during the perilous voyage to the Americas.

Slave traders then imported the legumes to the New World.

Virginians reportedly cultivated the food as early as the 1600s. Moreover, President George Washington enjoyed the food as well, referring to them in 1791 correspondence.

“In the American South, with both rice and black-eyed peas available, the natives of West Africa could prepare a dish that reminded them of home: a humble combination of rice and beans that eventually became known as hoppin’ John,” the Washington Post reported.

Okra

Due to okra’s slimy texture, the green vegetable rubs many people the wrong way. But for centuries, okra has played a key role in both black American and West African cuisine. A member of the same botanical group as cotton and hibiscus, okra is a key ingredient in gumbo but is also served fried as a side dish.

Oddly enough, gumbo is also one of the many West African words for okra as well as nkru ma. According to a National Public Radio piece about the food “because African slaves grew okra on many Southern plantations, the vegetable became associated with Southern American cookery and later with soul food. Although okra has become mainstream over the past few decades, it remains most dearly beloved in the South.”

Plantains

Plantains are a truly international food, widely harvested in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Plantains may not be as well known to the average American as the other foods on this list, but the food is consumed heavily throughout the African Diaspora, including in Caribbean locales such as Cuba and Puerto Rico and in certain Southern states of the U.S.

Known as dodo in West Africa, plantains resemble larger versions of bananas. While bananas can be eaten raw, plantains are typically grilled, boiled or fried by consumers.

Starchier than bananas, plantains are rich in magnesium, potassium, zinc and other nutrients.