About the Food of Burkina Faso

Photo courtesy of the CIA World Factbook

Burkina Faso is a dizzying landscape of dusty red plains and grassy savannas, broken up by stunning rock formations that tower above the ground.

The culinary landscape of Burkina Faso is similar – plain, sparse even – with the occasional burst of unexpected flavor.

Let me explain.

Most meals are centered around pieces of Tô, a firm ball of white starch made with millet, sorghum, or corn. These bland balls are wonderfully adaptive because they take on the flavor the broths, soups, and stews that they are dipped into, often tomato or peanut based. This is every day fare – the turkey sandwich of Burkina Faso.

And, just like our sandwiches, Tô is eaten by hand.

This simple meal routine is broken up with rice, cous cous, or even maize.

Here’s where the burst of unexpected flavor comes in.

A blend of bitter greens, such as spinach, kale, or even mild cabbage, can be cooked with the grains to make a complete dish called Babenda (recipe). What makes Babenda interesting are the fermented locust beans (called soumbala or dawadawa) which add a sharp, blue cheese-like flavor and odor to the dish. To make things even more intense, the soumbala is mashed together with dried or smoked fish to add lingering …  fishiness …, as well as some protein, to the meal.

Meat is a luxury in Burkina Faso. Most commonly, lamb or poultry is grilled over open fires (either the whole animal or broasheht- kabobs). Marinades might include chili pepper and cinnamon (spiced lamb kabob recipe). To bring out the flavor of the meat, some families use Kan Kan Kan (recipe), a spice blend made with peanut powder, hot chili peppers, allspice, and salty maggi cubes (bouillon cubes).  Other families use hot pepper sauce or fruit chutney to spice things up, depending on availability and the season.

Riz Gras, literally “fat rice” is another staple. Chicken pieces are stewed with tomato, onion, and chili pepper until it falls off the bone.  The name comes from the amount of oil which gets added. A lot. A ton. A truckload.

Hey now, that’s calories and flavor we’re talking about. And I’m okay with that.

If it’s too much oil, wash it down with some bissap – fresh hibiscus tea on ice, with pineapple slices thrown in for sweet, tantalizing fun (recipe).



  1. I had such wonderful times in Burkina Faso and I’m amazed and ashamed by how little I remember about the food. Someone once asked me about the food in nearby Ghana and here’s what I wrote back:

    Yes, I spent six years traveling the back roads and forgotten places of Africa and Asia. I hitchhiked from Cairo through the Sudan, across the Congo, around every region of West Africa and up into the Sahara. But about the food, I remember little…. I traveled through a bright and gaudy world, a deluge and cornucopia of visual, aural and emotional sensation. Food was just a part, and a small one. Besides, I was poor then, and the people I stayed with were poorer. Lately, my travels have been restricted to New York and Tulsa, but I’ve discovered a universe of food to voyage in. In part, food has become my Proustian madeleine, but in it I have discovered a symphony of infinite subtlety and wonder to replace the ever-changing kaleidoscope of travel lost.

    Two food memories do stand out, though. When I lived with nomads in the southern Sahara, a calabash brimming with camel’s milk still warm from the camel. In a village deep in the rain forest of the northeast Congo, a spicy patty made with big fire ants.

    Ghana is a tapestry of culture and tradition as fine and beautiful as Kente cloth. I stayed in an Ashanti village not far from Kumasi. Complex yet unspoken rules governed every social interaction; people often spoke in proverb and metaphor; gods, spirits and ancestors watched everything. One day a week, the roads were closed for the use of ghosts and spirits. The people shared their food with me and it bound us together. I remember that. But I don’t remember what we ate.

  2. globaltable says

    The calabash made with warm camel’s milk and ant patty sound unbelievable! Wow! Good for you for trying them 🙂

    What is the texture of the ant patty like? Soft, crispy…?

  3. Michael Bennett says

    Trying to track down a fish served for a meal in Burkina Faso; its nickname was “el capitan”. I am having no luck. Does anyone have any knowledge about this that they would care to share? Thanks!!

    • wilfrid says

      The fish called “capitaine” is usually perch, specifically nile perch. You can look it up in french “poisson capitaine”. Most likely more than one kind of fish is called capitaine.

      You might be able find nile perch or similar at home.

      Bon appetit!


  4. Claire G says

    Great to read. I have been trying to work out a fruit that I ate in Burkina whilst I was there for 3 months. It was around the size of a Peach but inside was really sour flesh around multiple stones? Any ideas?

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