Lotus plants of the species Nymphaea lotus L. were an important ingredient in African traditional cuisine. Found throughout tropical Africa and in the Nile Valley, their collection and processing for the table is reported by various colonial writers.
The frustration, though, is the lack of specific information about how they were processed, stored and prepared – and who did the work – in different parts of Africa. As well, information as to where and how they continue to be prepared and eaten.
For example, here in Burundi we have multiple swampy areas that are filled with papyrus and lotus plants. Even though I have a strong hunch that both were eaten in the past – I have, as yet, no information that they continue to be collected and eaten. But I’m keeping up the search.
Here are entries that I’ve found from 19th Century explorers regarding the collection and cooking of lotus in differenet parts of Africa. It’s not much, and certainly raises many questions.
(On a tributary of the Zambezi River):
As we ascended, we passed a deep stream about thirty yards wide, flowing in from a body of open water several miles broad. Numbers of men were busy at different parts of it, filling their canoes with the lotus root, called Nyika, which, when boiled or roasted, resembles our chestnuts, and is extensively used in Africa as food.
Groups of men and boys are searching diligently in various places for lotus and other roots. Some are standing in canoes, on the weed covered ponds, spearing fish, while others are punting over the small intersecting streams, to examine their sunken fish-baskets.
All the tribes of the White Nile have their harvest of the lotus seed. There are two species of water-lily–the large white flower, and a small variety. The seed-pod of the white lotus is like an unblown artichoke, containing a number of light red grains equal in size to mustard-seed, but shaped like those of the poppy, and similar to them in flavour, being sweet and nutty. The ripe pods are collected and strung upon sharp-pointed reeds about four feet in length. When thus threaded they are formed into large bundles, and carried from the river to the villages, where they are dried in the sun, and stored for use.
The seed is ground into flour, and made into a kind of porridge. The women of the Shir tribe are very clever at manufacturing baskets and mats from the leaf of the dome palm. They also make girdles and necklaces of minute pieces of river mussel shells threaded upon the hair of the giraffe’s tail. This is a work of great time, and the effect is about equal to a string of mother-of-pearl buttons.
From: Sir Samuel W. Baker, The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile. 1861
1st March, 1873.—Embarked women and goods in canoes, and went three hours S.E. to Bangweolo. Stopped on an island where people were drying fish over fires. Heavy rain wetted us all as we came near the islet, the drops were as large as half-crowns by the marks they made. We went over flooded prairie four feet deep, and covered with rushes, and two varieties of lotus or sacred lily; both are eaten, and so are papyrus.
(Near Lualaba River) …The amount of water spread out over the country constantly excites my wonder; it is prodigious. Many of the ant-hills are cultivated and covered with dura, pumpkins, beans, maize, but the waters yield food plenteously in fish and lotus-roots. A species of wild rice grows, but the people neither need it nor know it. A party of fishermen fled from us, but by coaxing we got them to show us deep water. They then showed us an islet, about thirty yards square, without wood, and desired us to sleep there. We went on, and then they decamped.
From: Horace Waller - The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Continued by a Narrative of His Last Moments and Sufferings, obtained from His Faithful Servants Chuma and Susi [1869-1873]
(Southern Sudan):”January 5.–Arrived at Kutchuk Ali’s station at 10.30 A.M., and took in wood. The country is all flooded, and both the natives and the traders are without corn, the crops having been destroyed by the extraordinary rise of the river. The people have no other grain than the scanty supply yielded by the seeds of the lotus, which they collect from the river. I met several men who had formerly served under Ibrahim, when we accompanied Khoorshood Agha’s party to Unyoro many years ago.
From: SIR Samuel W. Baker, Pacha – Ismailia. A Narrative of the Expedition to Central Arica for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, Organized by Ismail, Khedive of Egypt. 1869-1873
An upcoming blog will be about the Lotus-Eaters of North Africa.
[First posted September 2009, Revised 07 December 2011]
- Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal: review (telegraph.co.uk)
- South Sudan could shake up Nile River status quo (csmonitor.com)
- Gg’s Lotus Root Soup (achievingdomesticgoddessness.wordpress.com)
- A Colonial Elephant Hunt in Central Africa – Sir Samuel Baker (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Experts shed light on lost diary (bbc.co.uk)
- Paper scans unmask Livingstone’s fury at slave killing (newscientist.com)
- Dr Livingstone ‘lied in famous account of slave market massacre’ – Telegraph.co.uk (news.google.com)
- Lotus (esscentualalchemy.wordpress.com)