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Dawadawa is the funky, fermented flavor bomb you need on your spice rack

The fermented seeds of the African locust bean are used to make a flavorful condiment for seasoning sauces and soups.
The dried seeds of the African locust bean go by many names, including dawadawa, iru, ogiri and sumbala.
The dried seeds of the African locust bean go by many names, including dawadawa, iru, ogiri and sumbala.TODAY Illustration / Alamy/ Zoe Adjonyoh

It looks like a truffle and performs like miso. That’s how I describe dawadawa to chef friends unfamiliar with this amazing flavor enhancer, one of my absolute favorite ingredients to work with.

This past year, many people spent their time learning to bake sourdough; many got busy with pickling and preserving as a new hobby to pass the time and decrease food waste. The interest in fermentation, its process and products has grown increasingly in the last few years, not least thanks to the recent slew of amazing fermentation-focused books, from "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz to "The Noma Guide to Fermentation" by David Zilber and René Redzepi.

Sumbala (African spice) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Balls of dawadawa (also called iru and sumbala) made from fermented African locust bean seeds.Godong / Alamy Stock Photo

If you are not yet a budding home fermenter, dawadawa just might take you over the edge. You've probably heard of the fermented favorites — koji, miso and kimchi — but now, allow me to introduce you to the fermented, dried seeds of the African locust bean, dawadawa, aka iru, ogiri or sumbala, as it’s known in other West African countries.

What is dawadawa?

Yet again, West Africa holds some secrets the culinary world has yet to fully uncover. For me, dawadawa is the queen of all fermented foods.

It's a local, aromatic seasoning widely used in preparing soups and stews across in West Africa. It is called "iru" by Yorubas, "ogiri" by Igbos, "dawadawa" by Hausas and "iru" or "eware" among the Edo people of Nigeria. The locust beans used to create this seasoning are cultivated from a perennial deciduous tree found in Africa.

Dawadawa Chocolate Plantain Cake

The heady smell of dawadawa is off-putting to some, but the deep umami from its fishy, fermented flavor means that a little of it will go a long way. It shines in seafood dishes but also gives a big boost of flavor to plant-based dishes. From my Dawadawa Jollof (a tribute to the northern Hausa community in Ghana) to Dawadawa Scallops and Dawadawa Chocolate Cake, I've found innumerable ways to infuse this ingredient in my cooking, as it’s extraordinarily versatile.

Traditional uses for the African locust bean tree

Locust beans grow on the Parkia biglobosa tree, which grows in a long belt from the Atlantic coast of Senegal, through southern Sudan and into northern Uganda.

As usual, we Africans waste nothing if we can help it. From root to fruit, the tree is edible and used in a variety of different ways. The bark is rich in tannins and used for tanning hides; boiled pods are used to dye pottery black; the leaves can be used in soups and stews; and the fruit, whose pulp is rich in carbohydrates, is eaten raw or mixed with water as a sweet and refreshing drink (I like to think of it as nature’s Gatorade).

The fermented seeds of the African locust bean are used to make this funky condiment.
The fermented seeds of the African locust bean are used to make this funky condiment.Zoe Adjonyoh

These fermented seeds are mainly used to make a condiment for seasoning sauces and soups. The Yorubas classify it into two groups: Iru Woro, which is commonly used to make stew, and Iru Pete, which is used to make ewedu and egusi soup.

The ground seeds are sometimes mixed with moringa leaves to prepare a sauce and are also used to make doughnuts, while the roasted seeds are used as a coffee substitute known as Sudan coffee or café nègre.

The leaves are sometimes eaten as a vegetable, usually after boiling and then mixed with other foods such as cereal flour. They're also used to wrap moimoi, a Nigerian steamed bean pudding. The seeds are commonly used as animal feed for livestock and poultry, and the young flower buds are added to mixed salads.

Health benefits of the African locust bean tree

But this magical little seed isn’t just a culinary wonder — it, like so many African ingredients, also has a myriad of health benefits and valuable nutritional properties.

The seeds, leaves and bark of the African locust bean tree have been traditionally used in West African communities to treat a variety of medical conditions such as malaria, diabetes mellitus, infections and inflammatory diseases.

The African locust bean is very important to West African culture, playing a role in major rituals like birth, baptism, circumcision, marriage and death.

Once you try dawadawa, you will be blown away by its capacity in your kitchen. Hold your nose and dive into this West African staple that could very well be the savior of your spice rack. But before you do, please purchase it responsibly — preferably from communities that have spent hundreds of years using it.