With the resurgence of vegetable gardening, many people are looking to the past for inspiration. A large number of us want to connect with our heritage through the foods we grow and eat. It gives us a tangible link to our ancestors that fills our hearts as well as our bellies with satisfaction. People around the world are looking to reconnect with their roots, no matter where they have ended up.

baobab fruit

Baobab fruit is high in Vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus and carbohydrates

African native foods are gaining in popularity

The traditional foods from the African continent have spread throughout the world and many of them are commonplace just about anywhere you go. Very few people haven’t eaten okra, or black-eyed peas. However, have you ever eaten African yams (these aren't sweet potatoes!) baobab or tamarind? There was a cultural bias for many years about traditional foods, because they were considered food of the poor and uneducated. It is amazing that many of these spurned fruits and vegetables are often higher in nutrition than their higher-class counterparts and people are rediscovering their benefits.


Tamarind juice, paste or powder is a great cultural addition to your menus

Try African Yams and have the tubers shipped right to you

Not able to grow a baobab tree? Have the organic, non-GMO fruit powder shipped right to you.

Try sweet tamarind pods for an unusual snack


Grow some okra, it's African

Okra is definitely a native African food. Wild plants can still be found in Ethiopia and the history of people using okra for food goes back to the dawn of history. It was even noted as early as the 12th Century that okra was especially good rolled in meal and fried. However, something that most people do not know is that the seeds produce an edible oil when dried and ground. The pods themselves are full of dietary fiber that helps stabilize blood sugar, so is an excellent choice for diabetics, although the deep-fried version defeats the health benefits and isn’t the best way to prepare it in that case. Okra thrives in hot climates and was introduced to the American South along with the slave trade. Stories have emerged where African people wove the okra and cowpea seeds into their hair, so as to always have them with them in case they were captured. That’s how much they loved and used these vegetables.

purple hull peas

Cowpeas originated in Africa

Cowpeas were also a staple of the African diet. The peas were used dried, as we commonly see them, or the young peas broken and cooked like string beans. The young leaves and tender vine tips were also cooked and eaten much like we do spinach, so it was definitely a multi-purpose plant. And there’s so much diversity! If all you’ve had are black-eyed peas, then you’re missing out. There’s literally hundreds of varieties, each with their own unique flavor. Cowpeas love, hot climates as well and even grow well in soil of dubious fertility. They even fix nitrogen back into the soil, so can be used as a composting cover crop.

There are a number of African-American owned seed companies and food blogs

While many of the better-known seed houses offer traditional African seeds, why not look to the smaller vendors and blogs for information, recipes and seeds. There are several out there that can set you in the right direction if you are starting from scratch. The Backyard Chicago Garden is a wonderful blog by Tequia Burt. She spotlights vegetables and recipes of African origin and some adopted into the culture as well. The Fish Pepper is one of those plants. These peppers probably came to the Philadelphia area from the Caribbean and have developed almost a cult following by the chefs on the Atlantic seaboard. Many seed vendors offer the Fish Pepper. The plants are beautiful just by themselves with their white-striped leaves. I’m growing the Fish Pepper myself this year and it is definitely a standout in the garden. You might check out Truelove Seeds for some other culturally significant vegetables. They source their seeds from small independent growers and publish a blog devoted to helping people raise their gardens. Artie’s Home is another small vendor that started on a small farm in Texas. They offer seeds and even home decorative items, most of them created by small independent artisans. Seed Mail Seeds is another African American owned seed company that offers many varieties at attractive prices. The owner, a vivacious woman named Stefane, says no one is too old or too young to grow a garden. A little searching will definitely turn up more of these great entrepreneurs.

nigerian yam

African yams are a significant source of fiber and also high in potassium and manganese

Add some culturally significant food to your family's menu

No matter how you go about it, there are a number of vegetables that are culturally significant and if they aren’t on your family’s menu, you should introduce them to some. There are many ways to prepare okra if you aren’t sure about the slime. You can even pickle it just like a cucumber, or add it to soups to cook down until it disintegrates. However, I advise you to learn to love it as-is. A perfect companion stewed with tomatoes, or rolled in cornmeal and fried in an iron skillet. Search out purple hull (there are a number of strains), red ripper or lady peas. Cook into a big pan of Hoppin’ John or stew them till the pot liquor is thick and creamy to pour over cornbread. Add a big pot of collard greens and you have a whole meal that many ancestors often ate. Even in my middle-class, white-bread family, no summer meal was complete without at least one of these treasures.