Ancestral Foods: Eating Like Our Ancestors

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“The path to longevity and good health may lie in eating like your grandparents—or better yet, your great-great-great-great grandparents.” (Subramanian, 2016)

I am in awe of the baobab fruit, I am honored to eat from a tree planted several generations before me that has nourished my mother, grandmother, and great grandparents. It is dry season in the Upper East Region of Ghana, baobab fruit is in full harvest, the millet season is ending, and harmattan is a few short months away. During the dry season, Baobab fruit will be added to Tuo Zaafi, Kooko, and other traditional foods for its dense nutritional benefits.

Baobab tree is an ancestral food from the African continent that has lived thousands of years. This natural food is unrefined, unprocessed, and preservative free. In the early days, prior to farming, hunters and gatherers in Africa mainly ate fruits, and depending on where they lived, some ate fish and seafood, while others consumed grains, nuts, palm oil, and honey.

In northern Africa, for instance, communities which raised cattle ate cheese, yogurt, and drank milk. In the Sahara region, the desert gradually took over the grasslands, and communities began farming when it became harder to gather foods.

The advent of farming led to domesticating Teff in East Africa, used to make injera; in Sudan, millet and sorghum were grown; and in other parts of West Africa, communities domesticated local millet, in addition to growing root vegetables such as yams.

Ancestral eating is consuming foods grown locally within an individual’s environment, which is accessible, sustainable, and free from harmful chemicals. Eating traditional foods connected our ancestors with nature; they knew the seasons, whether the farming season would start early or late, when it would rain depending on the smell in the air, or change in wind direction.   

In modern society, eating ancestral foods means eating local to where you live as well as within the growing season. This starts with foods that are whole, unprocessed, and sustainable. To take this one step further, eating like your ancestors means eating according to your family’s place of origin.

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Many of us have moved away from eating foods that are healthiest for us. These foods are tied to our cultural and genetic history. For some cultures, it means eating kale and potatoes; for others, it means eating cassava leaves for stew and green plantain; or sea vegetables and rice. Eating ancestral foods is not just about our overall health but also about the narratives we pass down to the next generation about our culture, history, and food.

Abena Offeh-Gyimah