The Oil-Nuts of West Africa

The Oil Nuts of West Africa
Eben van Tonder
15 June 2023


It was Beyers Cronje, a colleague in the project I am involved in for the Spar group who alerted me to the fact that groundnut pulp was an ingredient in the local delicacy of suja. The groundnut pulp is what is left after the oil has been extracted.

This now brings about two products from groundnuts which are intimately associated with meat. The one is the pulp and the other is the oil. Meat preservation in West Africa was done through drying it in the son and the other was boiling and deep frying it. For deep frying, groundnut oil was used.

I was interested to learn how old these traditions were and if the peanut or groundnut was a relatively recent addition to West Africa, were there nuts that fulfilled this function before the peanut showed up?

Igbo men in the Oil Rivers area of present-day Nigeria bring calabashes full of palm oil to sell to a European buyer, c. 1900 (Image © Jonathan Adagogo Green / The Trustees of the British MuseumCC BY NC SA)

The Peanut

Peanuts, also known as groundnuts, were introduced into West Africa during the early stages of the transatlantic slave trade. The exact timing and specific individuals responsible for the introduction are not well-documented. However, historical records suggest that peanuts were likely brought to West Africa by Portuguese traders and explorers in the 16th century.

The Portuguese, known for their maritime expeditions, established trade routes along the West African coast during this period. It is believed that they introduced various crops from the Americas, including peanuts, to West Africa as part of their commercial activities.

Peanuts quickly became integrated into the local agricultural practices and diets of West African communities. Over time, they became a significant staple crop in the region, with West Africa now being one of the largest producers of peanuts globally.

While the exact details of the introduction of peanuts into West Africa may be challenging to trace with precision, it is generally acknowledged that Portuguese traders played a role in bringing this crop to the region during the 16th century.

Nute Used for Oil Extraction Predating Peanuts

There are several nuts native to West Africa that have been used for extracting oil prior to the introduction of the peanut (groundnut).

  1. Palm nut: The palm nut is widely used in West Africa for its oil extraction. Palm oil, derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is a staple cooking oil in the region and has been used for centuries.
  2. Shea nut: Shea nuts are native to West Africa and have been used for extracting shea butter, a popular ingredient in cooking, cosmetics, and traditional medicine. Shea butter is known for its moisturizing and healing properties.
  3. African oil bean: The African oil bean is an indigenous tree found in West Africa. The seeds of the African oil bean contain oil, which is extracted and used for cooking in some regions.

The Pulp of These Nute Used in Meat Recipes

The pulp of some nuts found in West Africa, such as palm nut and shea nut, have been used in combination with meat in traditional West African dishes. One example is the Nigerian dish called “Egusi soup” or “Miyan Gushi” in Hausa, which incorporates the ground pulp of melon seeds with meat or fish. The melon seeds are sometimes substituted with the ground pulp of other nuts, including palm nut or shea nut, depending on the regional variation and availability of ingredients.

In the case of palm nut, the pulp is often boiled and then pounded or processed to extract the oil. The resulting paste, known as “palm fruit concentrate” or “palm fruit extract,” is then used as a base for soups or stews, which can include meat, fish, vegetables, and other ingredients.

Similarly, shea nut pulp or shea butter may be used as an ingredient in certain West African meat dishes, adding flavour, richness, and texture to the overall preparation. However, it’s important to note that the specific uses and combinations of nuts and meat can vary across different regions and cultural traditions within West Africa.

Earliest Known Dates for Oil Extraction from Nuts in West Africa

The exact earliest known dates for oil extraction from nuts in West Africa are challenging to pinpoint due to the lack of precise historical records. Oil extraction from various nuts has been a traditional practice in the region for centuries, passed down through generations. The methods and techniques for extracting oil from nuts have likely evolved over time.

For example, palm oil has been extracted from palm fruits in West Africa for centuries, with evidence of its production dating back to ancient times. The use of shea nuts for extracting shea butter also has a long history in the region, as shea trees are native to West Africa and have been utilized for their butter for many generations.

It is important to note that these practices predate the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of peanuts (groundnuts) to West Africa. Peanuts were brought to the region during the colonial period and became a significant crop, but the extraction of oil from other nuts predates the introduction of peanuts.

While specific dates may be challenging to determine, the extraction of oils from nuts in West Africa has deep historical roots and remains an important part of the region’s culinary and cultural heritage.

Vessels for Deep Frying

In ancient West Africa, traditional vessels and equipment for frying food, including meat, varied depending on the specific region and culture. While it is difficult to provide precise dates, there is evidence of the use of various types of vessels for cooking and frying in ancient West Africa.

One common vessel used for frying in many West African cultures is the “calabash.” A calabash is a large, hollow gourd that can be used as a container for cooking and frying. It was often cut in half, cleaned, and used to hold oil or fat for frying food. The calabash would be placed over a fire or heat source, and the oil or fat would be heated for frying.

Other types of vessels and cooking equipment used for frying in ancient West Africa included clay pots, cast iron pots, and various types of metal pans or skillets. These materials were readily available and used for various cooking purposes, including frying.

It’s important to note that the specific materials and vessels used for frying food in ancient West Africa varied depending on the time period, location, and cultural practices of different communities. The availability and use of different cooking vessels evolved over time, influenced by local resources and technological advancements.


Tracing the history of the various seeds and nuts used in oil and butter production is closely associated with the search for ancient African meat processing technologies.