Nigerian Spices

Written by diane crispell
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Nigerian Spices
An example of spices for sale in an open-air market in Africa. (Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Africa is a continent with diverse landscapes, traditions, customs and people. Its distinct regions grow specific spices, bark, roots and leaves that give complex taste layers to stews, meats, soups and rice. In West Africa's Nigeria, swamps, tropical forests, open woodlands, grasslands and partial deserts make up a diverse terrain. The different soils produce unique, tantalising spices introduced to the American palate via open-air markets, ethnic festivals and mom-and-pop restaurants in the United States. Nigerian spices include curry blends, egusi seeds, bitter leaf, fenugreek, mace, cloves, groundnuts, rose petals, grains of paradise peppers and palm oil.

Pepper Varieties

An old African adage laments that a day without peppers is a sad day. The pepper seed, its fruit and leaf are basic Nigerian seasonings. The Piper guiniensis, known in Nigeria as "hot leaf," produces piquant shoots, while the dried fruit is used like peppercorn. Another distinct Nigerian pepper, grains of paradise, tastes like a burst of jasmine, hazelnut, butter and citrus. It is pounded or ground and served as a table seasoning to give a cardamom-like, slightly bitter taste to food. Nigeria also cultivates the Ashanti pepper vine which produces edible leaves to flavour soups and stews and tastes like a mildly bitter, pungent, fresh herb.

Edible Flowers, Roots, Bulbs and Bark

Nigeria's tropical rainforest and woodlands produce edible hibiscus, primrose and rose petals along with export spices such as chillies, ginger, garlic, cayenne, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric. Stews made from beans, roots or leafy vegetables constitute main meals. A stew's spice originates from peanuts, cayenne, palm oil or black pepper. Sauces contain hot peppers, groundnuts and tomatoes. Nigeria uses groundnuts to give a curry a crunchy texture. Nigerian curries get their spark from cumin, coriander, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, fennel, cardamom, mustard, black peppercorn, fenugreek and sometimes ground chillies.

Edible Trees

The dawadawa tree grows in Nigeria's savannahs. It produces pods which are pounded into a black, fermented paste and then stored in hard cubes, cakes or balls. Although pungent, it adds complex flavours to Nigerian sauces. The kola nut tree grows in wet coastal forests and produces pods that have small, edible bitter nuts inside. Nigerians chew the nuts for energy because they contain two to three times more caffeine than coffee beans. The baobab tree grows in savannahs and produces green, fuzzy fruit with a mealy, fibrous pulp. The dried leaves are pulverised into a powder for soups or stews, or the pulp makes a sour lemonade.

Sauce, Rub and Seasoning Recipes

Make an African hot sauce using 12 deseeded chillies, one garlic clove, onion and bell pepper, two cans of tomato paste, 4 tbsp vinegar, 1 tsp each of sugar and salt and optional cayenne. Grind the chillies, garlic, onion and pepper. Add the other ingredients and simmer one hour. Make a Nigerian peanut spice rub for a Nigerian "suya" kebab by grinding 3 tsp of roasted peanuts, 1 tsp each of cayenne, paprika and salt and 1/2 tsp each of ground ginger, garlic powder and onion powder. Make a traditional Nigerian pepper soup seasoning by grinding 1/4 tsp each of ground pepper, ground clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Then add 1/2 tsp each of coriander seed, cumin and ginger and 3/4 tsp of fennel seed and pulverise into a powder.


According to a 1988 International Journal of Food Microbiology article, five unprocessed spices that included the grains of paradise pepper, red and black peppers, thyme and curry powder bought from the Port Harcourt main market showed high levels of Bacillus flora contamination. In a 1991 Cancer Letters article, carcinogenic nitrosamines measured lowest in bitter leaf veggies at 0.4 ppb, and measured highest in onions at 14.7 ppb. A 2005 Environmental Health Perspectives article revealed low levels of leaded gasoline contamination in Nigerian cocoa and chocolate. The contamination was thought to have occurred after the beans were harvested and dried, probably during the manufacturing and shipping of the products to other countries.

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