What Africa's slaves brought to American cuisine

How African slaves and their descendants shaped how Americans cook and eat. No one saw that coming.

The Transatlantic slave trade was the biggest deportation in history and a determining factor in the world economy of the 18th century. This was a time when millions of Africans were torn from their homes, trafficked to the American continent and sold as slaves.

What the Americans may not have anticipated however would be the huge impact of the African diet and food on their future cuisine.

The effects are most notable in the Southern states where, soon after their arrival, seeds were planted to feed the massive slave population, mostly those of the foods that they had been forced to leave behind.

And so plantation families began enjoying creations of “African” vegetables, seeds and starches.


Different cooking techniques also came about when slaves entered the plantation houses as cooks. One-pot cooking, stews, gumbos, thickening with okra or nuts all became popular. West African cooks also prepared greens by laying meat on top, and without that influence the Southern tradition of using smoked meats as seasoning may never have begun.

Revenge of the leftoversAfrican slaves were also only given the “leftover” and “undesirable” cuts of meat or vegetables from their masters, something which has influenced the style of cooking in the South today. As a result we have seen the emergence of dishes like chitterlings (chitlins) - the cleaned and prepared intestines of hogs, slow-cooked and often eaten with vinegar and hot sauce.

The cooks were also accustomed to large quantities of greens and vegetables in their diet, so when they cooked they incorporated more of these sorts of foods into the daily meals. Some historians say that the addition of such vitamin and mineral-rich food plants saved white slaveholders from nutritional deficiencies.

Here are some of the most important ingredients, and dishes, that came about because of this tragic movement:



Most of North Carolina’s economy is based on rice production and the rice arrived in the colony as leftover subsistence food for slaves. This grain is called the “Carolina Gold”.

As a result of the crop’s popularity Africans were plucked from rice-producing regions - such as Casamance, a region in the South of Senegal - to find slaves who knew how to cultivate rice and they were then shipped to the Carolinas or Mexico.

There are two “families” of rice in the world. One of them is from Asia and the other from Africa. The African rice, whose scientific name is oryza glaberrima, is the one that arrived in the Americas on the slave ships.


Rice is a key ingredient in jambalaya, created in Louisiana though its true roots are hard to ascertain, though the African influence is certainly there. Many believe that it’s originator was from the rice dishes of West Africa such as Jollof rice or Thiéboudienne, the national dish of Senegal.


The common ingredients are there; rice, tomatoes, onion, bell peppers, tomatoes and fish or meat. But versions of these one-pot rice dishes travelled from place to place with slaves and settlers, being adapted to local ingredients and preferences along the way.

Black eyed peas

Black eyed peas traveled to America by slaves who worked on the rice plantations. They travelled from Africa as food for the enslaved and the seeds were also planted in Jamaica to grow food. It was eventually grown in North Carolina in 1714, and in Virginia by 1775. As it grew more popular it even became a traditional dish served on New Year day to bring good luck.

Hoppin’ John 

The good luck dish was called “Hoppin’ John”. With both rice and black-eyed peas available, the natives of West Africa could prepare a dish that reminded them of home: a humble combination of rice and beans that became a widespread tradition.



Couscous, tiny granules made from steamed and dried durum wheat, plays an important part in the Louisiana diet - served with yoghurt at breakfast or part of an evening meal. It was first introduced into America by Senegambian slaves served with a green, leafy sauce.


Like other crops, okra was probably brought over to be cultivated as a cheap foodstuff to feed the burgeoning slave population. Okra may have been introduced to southeastern North America in theearly 18th century. By 1748 it was grown as far north as Philadelphia and it was well established in Virginia by 1781.



Gumbo originated in Louisiana and is probably the region’s most famous dish. This popular stew or soup, is made up of vegetables mixed with chicken, pork, shrimp, or crayfish with okra as the main ingredient. In fact, the dish likely derived its name from either the Bantu word for okra “ki ngombo”, suggesting that gumbo was originally made with okra.


Food historians believe that African slaves helped introduce the watermelon, now the most consumed melon in the US. The fruit eventually became a major symbol in the iconography of racism in the United States through the “watermelon stereotype”. In various images, the fruit was used to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided watermelon and a little rest.

Collard greens

Collard greens (kale or sukumawiki to some of us!) been cooked and used for centuries. The Southern style of cooking of greens came with the arrival of African slaves to the southern colonies. Though greens did not originate in Africa, the habit of eating greens that have been cooked down into a low gravy, and drinking the juices from the greens (known as “pot likker”) is of African origin.


Sesame seeds

Bantu’s of West Africa call sesame seeds “benne.” They are still sometimes known by that name in South Carolina, especially when referring to popular cookies made with sesame seeds called benne seed wafers. The seeds first arrived in South Carolina from Africa in the 1730s and were eaten as food or pressed for oil. An American merchant introduced sesame oil to England in 1730, and the product became a profitable New World substitute for the imported olive oil used for cooking.



Unblock notifications in browser settings.

Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or: