Is Africa’s Ancient Baobab Tree Growing the Next Superfood?

Superfood fads come and go, but the leaves and pulp of the baobab tree have sustained Africans for centuries.

Driving out of Dakar into the fine sandy dust of the Senegal countryside, people become scarce along the dirt tracks. All I see for miles are a few scattered thatch-covered homes, some patches of greens growing beside them, and lots of scrubby grass. Then, the landscape feels other-worldly as the trees become more dense. These are not your every day-looking neighborhood oaks, but rather, enormous, magical beings that appear to have been there since the beginning of time. They are baobab trees.

The baobab tree is revered in Senegal, where it is the nation’s symbol, as well as throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Its resilience and size have made it impervious to most of the effects of weather and environment, and it is steeped in mystique, story and legend. This is a tree whose elements have been providing food, water, clothing, shelter, medicine and even a burial site for West African troubadours of oral tradition for hundreds of years. Fitting for a tree also known as “the tree of life,” it appears to be upside down, with roots reaching up to the sky.

Though I came to Senegal to continue my study of West African dance, as an integrative medicine doctor and amateur ethnobotanist, my interest in medicinal food drew me towards this tree.

 

The fruits of a baobab tree in the village of Thiawe, Senegal. Photograph by Georges Gobet, AFP, Getty

The baobab fruit, also known as monkey bread, comes from the giant green pods of the tree. The six- to eight-inch-long furry oval-shaped seedpods have a pulp with six times more vitamin C than an orange, 50 percent more calcium than spinach, and plenty of flavor to ratchet up any traditional fish and rice dish.

When you crack the hard skin, inside there is a white, sweet and sour tasting fruit that you can eat just straight, or enjoy the juice by soaking the fruit in water. It’s offered as a light drink with sugar and water, which tastes like a pear-flavored lemonade. It can also be easily dried and ground into a powder, as there is very little moisture inside.

Chef Pierre Thiam of the famed New York Senegalese restaurants Yolele and Le Grand Dakar, and author of the new cookbook Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl uses this interesting fruit in several of his bespoke dishes.

Thiam says that as a child growing up in Senegal, he was fascinated by the baobab tree’s mythical nature. He remembers the bark being used to make ropes and baskets, the roots being ground down into a red powder and used as a dye and a remedy for malaria, and babies being bathed in fruit infusions to help soften their skin.


Baobab fruit, split open. Photography by Evan Sung, courtesy Pierre Thiam


And he has very specific ways he likes to prepare baobab to eat. “When fresh, I like the leaves as a substitute to spinach. I also like using the younger leaves for salads with baobab oil simply drizzled over it. The dried leaves I use as a thickener for sauces. And of course, I like to use the fruits in smoothies.”

As a physician with a strong inclination to incorporate food as medicine, I was pretty captivated by the many practical uses the baobab offers. While folk remedies from botanicals are present in every human culture, I’ve rarely seen a tree with as many uses as the baobab.

The fruit’s nutritional content is certainly impressive, but even more so is the tree’s reputation as a source of medicine, as noted in the African Journal of Food Science. Oil extracted from seeds is used for inflamed gums and to ease the pain of diseased teeth. Leaves are used as a remedy for fever. The extract of baobab fruit pulp has significant liver-protecting properties and, as a consequence, the consumption of the pulp may play an important part in preventing liver damage in hepatitis, as discussed in this article in the Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants.

The fruit pulp, known as buy bi (BWEE-bee), is often dehydrated into small sweet chunks or powder, and is traditionally used for diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, and a host of other ailments, mild and serious. I purchased a few small bags of buy bi biscuits from the corner store when the dreaded traveller’s bug affected my children on the trip. The shopkeeper looked at me sympathetically when I paid for them. “Don’t worry, this will help,” she says as she bags them, not even asking what I need them for. The biscuits were soft, lightly sweet and easy to eat with some hibiscus tea.

Of course, the power of the baobab is no longer a secret. On the shelves of upscale grocers here in the U.S., it is joining the ranks of acai, pomegranate, and papaya with the moniker of “superfruit.” And its medicinal and nutritional properties are being studied in western medicine.

The Food and Drug Administration has given it GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, so you can expect to see it in more power drinks, powders and functional foods in the future. But I tell my patients to seek out whole food first, before supplements and specialty products, when possible. There is so much to be gained by enjoying the flavor, texture and adventure of new foods that simply does not transmit through other means, let alone the nutritional strength that comes from eating all of the nutrient-packed parts of a plant as is.

A visit to an African grocer to pick up some buy bi is now in order. Ready to try some baobab? Enjoy this smoothie recipe from Chef Thiam:

Reprinted from Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit

 

Tropical Baobab Smoothie

This creamy, dairy-free smoothie will take you right to the sun-drenched beaches of Casamance.

Serves 4

2 cups frozen chopped banana

1 cup chopped fresh pineapple

2 cups full-fat or light coconut milk

4 cups Baobab Fruit Drink (recipe below)

½ cup raw cashew nuts (optional)

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth and creamy. Serve immediately.

 

Baobab Fruit Drink

Tropical and creamy, this is one of our traditional drinks made of rehydrated baobab fruit pulp. It’s very simple to make and is a great base for any number of fruit juices and smoothies.

Serves 4

2½ cups baobab fruit pulp

5 cups warm water

1 tablespoon sugar

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Stir well until the water becomes white and thick. Strain the juice into a pitcher through a fine-mesh sieve lined with damp cheesecloth. Serve chilled.

 

Geeta Maker-Clark is a board-certified family physician specializing in Integrative Medicine, practicing in the Chicago area. She is a clinical assistant professor and coordinator of Integrative Medical Education for the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and on the faculty at the University of Chicago NorthShore Family Medicine Residency program. She relies heavily on the use of food as medicine in her approach to healing, and teaches Food as Medicine classes.

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