The nutty thing about the groundnut, also known as peanut or groundpea, is that it’s in fact not a nut. Botanically, it is classified as a legume, belonging to the same family as beans, peas and lentils. It is an essential ingredient in cooking across the African continent. There’s the famous groundnut soup of Ghana – a thick soupy sauce based on groundnut and tomato, often served with chicken; the Nigerian suya meat skewers dusted in hot spices mixed with ground peanuts; and there’s spinach or morogo stew cooked with peanut butter in southern Africa.
I’ve seen the first, pale green shoots of the groundnut break through the soil in Senegal; watched as fresh groundnuts have been ground to paste in a traditional stone mill in South Sudan; caught a whiff of the appetizing aroma of groundnuts roasting in metal drums over coal fires in Ghana; and bought recycled glass bottles filled with roasted groundnuts off the street in Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere in West Africa.
Europeans have really missed something when it comes to the groundnut, eating it mainly only as a salty bar snack. According to Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants (National Geographic, 2008), the groundnut is second only to the soybean in protein content, and in much of Asia and Africa it is the crop that yields “the highest protein per acre of any food.” Since it grows underground it is also comparably more resistant to pests such as locusts.
Groundnut paste adds a natural creamy thickness to stews, sauces and smoothies, and gives extra depth and character to cooked vegetables, poultry, meat and fish. When added whole or chopped to a dish, the peanut brings crunch, texture and a rich taste. As a snack in Africa, groundnuts are often served boiled and slightly salted.
The Bambara groundnut (also known as jugo bean) is indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, but the peanut is the one widely used in cooking today and commonly referred to as groundnut. It was brought to the continent from South America by the Portuguese colonizers.
“While Africans did use groundnuts of some sort, most notably the Bambara groundnut, prior to the Columbian Exchange, the nut of preference is now certainly the peanut. Peanuts migrated from Africa to the United States during the period of the Slave Trade, forever confusing many who think that peanuts are of African origin. They are from the New World, but they have certainly taken over the minds and hearts, and stomachs, of much of Africa,” notes Jessica B Harris in her classic The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1998).
You can easily make your own groundnut paste to add to a stew by grinding the dry, fresh groundnuts in a mixer, though these days it is also quite easy to find unsweetened peanut butter in the shops.