The history of West Africa also plays a large role in their cuisine and recipes, as interactions with different cultures (particularly the Arab world and later Europeans) over the centuries have introduced many ingredients that would go on to become key components of the various national cuisines today.
Centuries later, the Portuguese, French and British further influenced regional cuisines, but only to a limited extent. However, as far as it is known, it was European explorers and slaves ships who brought chili peppers and tomatoes from the New World, and both have become ubiquitous components of West African cuisines, along with peanuts, corn, cassava, and plantains. In turn, these slave ships carried African ingredients to the New World, including black-eyed peas and okra. Around the time of the colonial period, particularly during the Scramble for Africa, the European settlers defined colonial borders without regard to pre-existing borders, territories or cultural differences. This bisected tribes and created colonies with varying culinary styles. As a result, it is difficult to sharply define, for example, Senegalese cuisine. Although the European colonists brought many new ingredients to the African continent, they had relatively little impact on the way people cook in West Africa. Its strong culinary tradition lives on despite the influence of colonization and food migration that occurred long ago.
Though there are obvious differences among the local cuisines in West Africa, there are also many commonalities, mainly in the ingredients used. Many dishes are enriched with a base of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers. Considered an essential and even "sacred" cooking technique in the region, the combination of these three ingredients sauteed in oil is analogous to similar concepts such as the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking in the United States, sofrito used in the Spanish-speaking world, soffritto in Italy, and the mirepoix of France. The most prevalent cooking oil is palm nut oil, traditionally associated with the coastal regions and contributes a distinctive colour, flavour and texture to food, while shea butter is more commonly used in the Sahel. Called karité in French, which comes from the Arabic word ghartī, it is prized for the rich mouthfeel it imparts.
There are certain ingredients that go with certain countries as well. In Ghana, the most commonly used ingredients are hot pepper, ginger, and maize. Ghanaians use hot pepper because they believe the hot peppers will cool the body and cleanse/purify it. (Salm, 106-108). In Senegal, the main ingredients are among many others gumbo, hot pepper, rice, millet, peanut, ginger, tamarind leaves, and baobab fruit, and cooking oil (Ross, 75). Those are the few that have a slight difference of what they commonly use for their dishes. For an overall view of West Africa, according to Fran Osseo-Asare, the common ingredients for the West African region are the leaves from a baobab tree, cereal grains: sorghum, millet, and fonio, Cola nuts, egusi seeds, guinea fowl, melegueta pepper, oil palm, okra, and rice. Other ingredients used are okra (thickener) basis for soups stew, black-eyed peas, and sesame according to Harris in High on the Hog.
Spices play a relatively less prominent role in West African cooking compared to say, North African cuisine. Cooks use spices and herbs like ginger, coriander, and thyme sparingly but knowingly. Chilli peppers however are immensely loved in West Africa, both in fresh or dried and powdered form, particularly in the more hot-and-humid lands of the region. Introduced to Africa probably sometime soon after Christopher Columbus sailed to America by European sailors, it is said that the sweating induced by the spicy heat of chilli helps to air-conditions your skin. More than in other regions of Africa, West Africans utilize Scotch bonnet chile peppers with a liberal hand in many of their sauces and stews. The bite and fire of these extremely hot peppers (Scoville rating 200,000 – 300,000) add a unique flavor as well as heat. The chilli is also supposed to help preserve food, as well as adding flavour to relatively bland tropical staples like root vegetables.