Hot Peppers! My Introduction to West African Cuisine

Hot peppers
By Maureen Murimi-Dan Karami

My first introduction to West African food was through plantain. My husband, who has a seemingly unhealthy appetite for plantain, introduced me to the delicacy several years ago. However, it is not until I went to Mama Ashanti, a lovely Nigerian restaurant that sits in the suburbs of Lavington, Nairobi, that I came face to face with a lot of Nigerian and Ghanaian dishes.

I was aware that pepper was a necessity, but I was not prepared for the assault on my taste buds when I landed in Cotonou. My first dish here was pounded yam accompanied by a sauce that had huge chunks of beef and cheese. The sauce had red oil all over it and yes, you guessed it; hot peppers.

Pounded yam
hot peppers
The unassuming sauce…

To say I had trouble with that meal is an understatement. I am a simple woman. I eat boiled foods that have ginger and a little curry. My husband eats fried foods that have all the spices I can find and hot peppers. We eat the same dish, prepared in two different ways. This is an arrangement that has worked for years.

For about a month, my taste buds and entire digestive system were in absolute shock. Meal after meal was prepared in what tasted like an entire pepper garden. The oil that was swimming in the food gave the health junkie in me, heart palpitations. I could not communicate my discontent with the lovely lady who used to prepare our meals because of the language barrier. So, I had to suck it up until we could move into our new house and I could once again prepare our meals.

I was a bit rigid in trying the local delicacies in restaurants. I still am to be honest. Because of the pepper. It has been eight months and I still find it a bit too much. It is hard to enjoy food that I have to cry about. I do love the meat on the streets, I like couscous and I like the pounded yam. Of course, I adore plantain. More importantly, I love me some bissap. It is made from hibiscus. But that is all I have found. I need to discover more things. Am I missing the good stuff?

Bissap made from Hibiscus sabdariffa shrub (Guinea Sorrel). The drink is called Zobo in Nigeria

Two months ago, we took an unhurried road trip from Bénin to Togo and Ghana. Food is language that is understood by all. Anglophone or Francophone, food is food. In West Africa, I have come to learn, the common food language is that of hot peppers. The dishes may vary, but there is a common denominator.

In every African restaurant I walked into, I asked for the same thing. I did not care what I was going to eat, as long as it was not too hot to handle. You will not be surprised to learn that I did not find what I was looking for. So, I capitalized on having heavy breakfasts and surviving on fruits and lots of water for the rest of our five-day long adventure. I tried; I really did. But what is the point of ordering food if you cannot taste it?

I love a good spread. On my cheat days and date nights, I enjoy a mighty fine meal. I indulge in everything; Thai, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Lebanese, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Beninese, Togolese etcetera.

So, if you know of an amazing African restaurant that serves amazing food with an option of little to no pepper in the food they serve, please let me know. I am still learning so please bear with me as I continue this journey.


Maureen Murimi-Dan Karami is “just another human who loves to write about her experiences.” Born and raised in Kenya, Maureen has a 5-year experience as a journalist. She spent two years in Corporate Communication & Digital Media, before moving to Cotonou, Benin Republic, where in her own words, “I have found that West Africa is an endless calabash of anecdotes and rich experiences.”

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