Locust bean is a type of legume that is native to West Africa. In The Gambia and Senegal, it is called Netetu, but it has various other names in Nigeria, depending on the tribe. It is known as "iru" by the Yorubas, 'ogiri 'by the Igbos, "dawa dawa" by Hausas and Irú or eware among the Edo people of Nigeria.
Did you know that locust beans have been used in Africa for centuries as a food source and for medicinal purposes? In fact, locust beans were once so valuable that they were used as currency! The first recorded use of locust beans dates back to the 14th century. Locust beans were introduced to Europe in the 16th century and have been used in various cuisines ever since.
The seeds are left to dry in the sun, after which the outer shell is removed to reveal a small, brownish-black bean. The beans are pounded into a paste or ground into a powder, which can be stored throughout the year.
In The Gambia, locust beans are valued for their ability to add a rich, umami flavour to a wide variety of dishes. They are used in soups, stews, sauces, and other dishes to enhance the taste and aroma and are often paired with other intensely flavoured ingredients like ginger and chilli peppers.
Using locust beans in food demonstrates the deep connection between food and culture in West Africa and highlights the importance of preserving and celebrating traditional ingredients and cooking methods.
One of the key benefits of locust beans is their rich nutritional content. They are a good source of protein, fibre, iron, and other essential vitamins and minerals. This makes them an important food source, particularly in regions where access to different types of protein is limited.
Locust beans are high in lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and calcium. It also contains many essential nutrients such as potassium, ascorbic acid, phosphorus, tannin, phytate, and oxalate. The nutritional value of locust beans indicates that it is an excellent source of macro and micro-nutrients.
The African locust bean tree has also been found to possess wonders. For instance, the pulverised bark of the tree is used to treat burns, infections and wounds and serves as one of the ingredients in treating leprosy. The decoction of the bark is also used as a bath for fever and as a hot mouthwash to steam and relieve toothache in Cote d'Ivoire. Other uses of locust beans are -
Traditionally, the beans are harvested and fermented, resulting in a pungent, perfumed paste or powder used to flavour soups and stews. Once the locust beans are harvested, they can be used fresh, dried, frozen, or roasted.
If you use dried locust beans, you must soak them in water for at least eight hours before cooking. This will help to soften the beans and make them easier to cook. Fresh locust beans are not soaked and can be cooked directly.
Locust beans can be cooked in a variety of ways. They can be boiled, roasted, or ground into a powder or flour and used to make dishes like porridge, soup, or stew. Locust beans can also be used as a thickener for sauces or stews.
The African locust bean's fruit pulp, foliage, and seeds can be used to feed livestock and poultry. The leaves provide useful though not very palatable, fodder. The locust beans have also been used as an energy food source during famine or drought.
Locust beans are generally safe to eat, but there are a few things to remember. You may be allergic to locust beans if you have a latex allergy. Symptoms of latex allergy include itching, swelling, and difficulty breathing. If you experience these symptoms after eating locust beans, seek medical attention immediately.
Additionally, locust beans can cause gas and bloating in some people. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is best to consult with a healthcare professional before eating locust beans.
The production and consumption of locust beans in West Africa have been controversial. Some people have criticised the unhygienic fermentation process, which involves leaving the beans to dry in the sun for several days. Others have pointed to the strong smell of the beans as a turn-off for those who are not accustomed to it. Additionally, there have been concerns about the safety of some commercial varieties of locust beans, which may contain harmful additives or contaminants.
Purchasing them from a reputable source is essential to ensure the safety and quality of locust beans. Many local markets throughout West Africa sell locust beans, which can be purchased online from speciality food retailers. When purchasing locust beans, look for products that have been certified as safe and free from harmful additives or contaminants.
Despite these criticisms, locust beans remain essential to West African cuisine and culture. Recently, there has been renewed interest in traditional ingredients and cooking methods, including locust beans. Chefs and food bloggers worldwide are experimenting with the flavour and texture of locust beans, incorporating them into new and innovative recipes.
The Gambia is home to several women's cooperatives that produce and sell locust beans and other traditional ingredients. These cooperatives provide a source of income for women, who are often excluded from other economic opportunities. Some organisations also promote using traditional ingredients and cooking methods to preserve West African cuisine and culture.
While there are some concerns about the safety and quality of certain types of locust beans, they can be used safely and effectively with proper care and attention.
Locust beans are a unique, versatile and nutritious food ingredient in West African cuisine. They are a good source of protein and other essential nutrients, and their robust and savoury flavour makes them a popular ingredient in many traditional dishes.
So, if you are looking for a new, nutritious legume to add to your diet, locust beans are a great option! They are versatile, healthy, and delicious. Give them a try.