IN Western lands peanut butter is often thought of as little more than something to spread on a slice of bread. In some African lands, however, it actually plays a more important role in daily life. How so?
In central Africa, many popular dishes are prepared with peanut butter. Here, as in other developing areas, flour and cornstarch—ingredients used to thicken stews and sauces—are often hard to come by. Peanut butter is thus commonly used as a substitute.
However, it is not simply a matter of purchasing a jar of peanut butter at a local grocery store. There it is sold by the teaspoonful, and it is quite expensive. Many African women therefore prefer to make their own. How this laborious task is accomplished is quite fascinating. The following information was gleaned by speaking with several African women.
Evidently, peanuts are not a difficult crop to care for. The hardest part is preparing the soil. This is done at the beginning of the rainy season when the ground is still dry and hard. In April the seeds are sown by hand, and if the rains come early, the “nuts” can be harvested by the end of August or the beginning of September.
The peanut is actually not a nut but a legume—a member of the pea family. Peanuts do not grow on trees, as you might have thought; rather, they grow on low bushes, which have a peculiar way of producing their fruit underground. Peanuts are thus commonly called groundnuts or earthnuts.
In central Africa the average field for growing peanuts may be about 300 by 150 feet [90 by 50 m]. Some people have planted them on a small piece of land near their house. A short-handled hoe and a machete are commonly used to work the field. This can involve backbreaking effort! The crop requires a lot of upkeep, at least at first. The field needs to be watched so that rodents do not dig up the seeds and eat them. And the soil needs to be kept loose and free from weeds.
Especially near harvesttime does the field need watching. Children may be placed on guard as the harvest approaches. One woman reported that a neighbor found her peanut bushes high up in nearby trees. Monkeys had carried them up there and enjoyed a feast at her expense!
The harvest is usually a family affair. Everyone goes to the field to help. The plants are uprooted by hand and left to dry, and then the peanuts are broken off and brought back to the village in big bowls, which are carried on the heads of the harvesters.
What happens to the peanuts then? After being washed, they are boiled in salty water. Some are eaten immediately by the family, but the majority are retained for later use in cooking. They are spread on the ground near the house and allowed to dry completely. Someone has to keep an eye on them to protect them from roaming goats who would like to help themselves to a snack.
After the peanuts are dried, they are stored in a house made of grass mats and mud and built on stilts. This keeps the peanuts dry, and it also keeps away the rodents as well as children who may be looking for something to eat while Mother is still working out in the field.
From Peanuts to Peanut Butter, how so?
The nuts must be shelled before they can be made into peanut butter. Then they are roasted, usually in a wide, flat pan over a low wood fire made on the ground. This gives them their nutty flavor and makes them easier to skin. The peanuts are left to cool, and the skins are rubbed off. A grinding machine is then used to crush the roasted peanuts into a creamy butter. If no machine is available, a housewife will spread them on a large, flat stone and crush them with a bottle or a round stone.
Stew thickened with peanut butter
The peanut butter will soon be put to good use as a sauce thickener, usually in a dish that is made in one pot and served with cassava, plantain, or rice. If you wonder how a dish flavored with peanut butter tastes, why not try making one?
You can follow a standard recipe and prepare a stew of meat, onions, garlic, and tomato paste. Cook it until the meat is tender, and add chopped spinach if desired. While that is cooking, stir a little water into some peanut butter to make a paste—approximately one cup for every two pounds of meat—and stir it into the stew. Let it cook for ten minutes or more on high heat so that the taste of the peanut butter will not be too strong. If the sauce is not thick enough for your liking, add some more peanut butter. Salt to taste. If you like things spicy, you can add some hot peppers.
Many find that such a dish served with rice is delicious! And while yours may not be absolutely authentic, you will have some firsthand experience with the use of peanut butter—African style!