Several readers have asked for more information about dika or ndika, the wild mango of tropical Africa that is discussed in this recent entry, from which a tasty relish is made. It is a fabulous ‘MPT’ – Multi-Purpose Tree species – in which almost all parts have some use.
Below, I am concentrating on culinary aspects of the tree; but in future blogs I will talk more about MPTs and NTFPs (non-timber forest products), which are very important in the cuisines as well as in other aspects of life in most non-Western societies.
More about Wild Mango Relish:
Below is another description by Sir Richard Burton on the processing of the wild mango, taken from a brief article entitled: A Day Amongst the Fan (1863). It is interesting that, even by the mid-19th Century, the product was being used to adulterate chocolate in France:
Lately, before my arrival, all the people had turned out for the Ndika season, during which they will not do anything else but gather. The ” Ndika” is the fruit of a wild mango tree (M. gabonensis], and forms the “one sauce” of the Fans.
The kernels extracted from the stones are roasted like coffee, pounded and poured into a mould of basket work lined with plantain leaves. This cheese is scraped and added to boiling meat and vegetables ; it forms a pleasant relish for the tasteless plantain.
It sells for half a dollar at the factories, and the French export it to adulterate chocolate, which in appearance it somewhat resembles. I am ready to supply you with a specimen whenever you indent upon me…
The following information on the processing of dika (wild mango) is extracted from Aluka, an excellent online source – though I am not sure it is freely accessible outside Africa:
The principal domestic use is for the preparation of odika, or dika bread, also known as Gabon chocolate.
For this the cotyledons are ground and heated in a pot, lined with banana leaves, to melt the fat, and then left to cool. The resultant grey-brown greasy mass is dika bread. It has a slightly bitter and astringent taste with a more or less aromatic odour. Pepper and other spices may be added, and it may perhaps be subjected to woodsmoke. The end product may be made up into cylindrical packets wrapped in a basket-like or leaf-wrapping. It can be kept for a long time without going off and it is used as a food-seasoner.
An alternative method of preparation, more akin to the making of vegetable butters, is to take the fresh or stored cotyledons and pound them into a paste. This can be done in quantities according to the immediate requirement. A third preparation, known in Gabon as ovéke, is to soak the kernels for 15–20 days till soft and then to knead them by hand into a cheese-like paste.
A fourth practice is known in Sierra Leone, in which the cotyledons are dried and ground to a brown ‘flour’ in which form it can be stored for use as an additive to food as and when required (19). The crude dika paste yields on heating or boiling 70–80% of a pale yellow or nearly white solid fat, dika butter, which has qualities comparable with cacao-butter, and is, in fact, a possible adulterant or substitute for the latter in chocolate manufacture.
The National Academy of Sciences, Lost Crops of Africa – Vol 2, has a chapter on the tree, here. Since I have free access to it (as do those of us living in impoverished countries like Burundi – a tremendous service on the part of the Academy!), I will paste in the appropriate paragraphs:
In season these companionable trees, which can grow as high as 40 m, become laden with green-and-yellow fruits that look like small mangoes. Depending on the species, the fruits vary between sweet and bitter.1
Although the sweet version is mainly enjoyed fresh, it is also turned into jelly, jam, or “African-mango juice.” There’s even been an attempt to make dika wine—the result, so its maker claims, being compared in tastings to a
Seen in Africa-wide perspective, however, the fruit is a tiny resource compared to the seed. Each year harvesters gather “dika nuts” by the thousands of tons. The hard round balls, which look something like smooth walnuts, must be cracked open to get to the edible part.
The kernels found inside have the texture normal to nuts and can be eaten raw or roasted likecashews. Most, however, are processed. Some are pounded into dika butter, a product akin to peanut butter or almond paste.
Some are compacted into blocks resembling chocolate (once called Gaboon chocolate). Many are pressed to squeeze out the oil that makes up more than half the kernel’s weight.
In the main, though, the kernels are ground and combined with spices to form the key ingredient in “ogbono soup.” This extremely popular special dish is a sort of unifying regional favorite (although every country fervently considers that it produces the best).
Like okra and baobab leaves, this so-called dika bread provides the slippery texture so beloved in African soups, stews, and sauces. It also adds a sharp and spicy tang that is unforgettable.
Given the popularity of ogbono3 soup, dika kernels are traded on both a local and a regional scale. All across western Africa they bring high prices, especially out of season. Even as far back as 1980 it was calculated that a farmer could make US$300 from the seeds gathered off a single dika tree.
Strongly flavored condiments such as dika are crucial to diets where staples are bland in the extreme. Sharp tasting soups, sauces, or stews add both flavor and nutritional balance to cereals, tubers, plantain, fufus, and doughs (cold gelatinous, warm glutinous, and steamed non-glutinous) that anchor the West African diet.
Traditionally, these condiments contained local bushmeat, fish, leafy vegetables, dawadawa, dika, spices, or oils. In more recent years, however, foreign ingredients—including tomato, onion, garlic, chili pepper, black pepper, celery, and parsley—have begun making inroads.
Even European processed products, including bouillon cubes and dehydrated soup mixes, are nowadays prime ingredients in traditional African sauces. Nonetheless, the original components—including dika, okra, egusi, sesame, spicy cedar, peanuts, oilbean seed, as well as an immense variety of leafy vegetables—still remain in common usage.
1 In recent years the two forms of this versatile plant have been proposed as separate species but acceptance has been incomplete. The “eating type,” which yields good fresh fruits, retains the original name Irvingia gabonensis. The “cooking type,” whose seeds are widely processed across West Africa, is called Irvingia wombolu. Harris, D.J. 1996. A revision of the Irvingiaceae in Africa. Bull. Jard. Bot. Belg. 65:143-196.
2 The wine produced after 28 days of fermentation had 8.12 percent alcohol content. Akubor, P.I. 1996. The suitability of African bush mango juice for wine production. Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. 49:213-219.
Ogbono soup, mentioned above, is a popular dish in parts in West Africa where the tree grows. Here is a nice recipe, with additional information, from The Congo Cookbook.
There are older records of the tree being found here in Burundi and I will be verifying upcountry, as part of participatory assessments later this year to identify wild foods that are collected, sold, processed, and eaten.
The next couple of blogs will be about two other plants that are rich both in symbolism and in multi-use – the the lotus (or loto) that is associated with the Lotus Eaters of Libya, and the lotus of the Nile Valley.