The last time most people heard about Baobab was probably in the wonderful movie ‘The living desert’ I always wondered what could be done with the enormous fruit nobody really seems to care and feed about.
Baobab a curious-looking greenish pod from southern Africa. Crack it open, and inside is a powdery white fruit that is a powerhouse of nutrients. Fans say it offers six times more vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, more antioxidants than blueberries and more than twice the calcium level of milk.
It is also high in iron and magnesium, is stuffed with fibre and, as if that wasn’t enough, has prebiotic qualities that can stimulate your gut’s “good bacteria”.
Learn more about the health benefits.
Though its virtues have been preached for many years by health food fiends, baobab has only recently made its way into the mainstream. Waitrose now sell an apple and guava juice with baobab extract, while M&S has just launched a raspberry and redcurrant juice “booster” loaded with the fruit. At the Eden Project in Cornwall, there is even an annual baobab festival, in partnership with the non-profit association Phytotrade Africa. Phytotrade, which supports rural harvesters and producers across southern Africa, won approval from the EU in 2008 for the food to be imported (previously, non-western fruits and vegetables were hard to bring in). It now oversees the export of about 20 tonnes of baobab a year, with the growing industry crucial in bringing money to local people, who harvest and process the fruit.
The baobab tree has an iconic status in Africa, rich in myth and legend. It is often referred to as the “upside-down tree” because its branches resemble roots sticking up. Many believe that it was turned upside down by angry god, who grow tired of the tree’s arrogance. The Ngoni people believed an enemy tribe could turn themselves into baobabs, so threw spears through some of the trees, which are still there today.
Henry Johnson, the market development manager for Phytotrade, says, that unlike most fruit and vegetables, which have been altered as a result of human intervention over the millennia, the baobab is a truly ancient food. “The few mature baobab trees that have been carbon dated put their ages at over 1000 years. But it has been suggested that many reach double this age,” he says. “You may well be eating fruit from the very same tree that was alive and feeding people at the time of the Battle of Hastings. Or indeed if baobab trees do in fact live more than double that age, then perhaps fruit from a tree that was alive when Jesus was walking the earth.”
Nutritional powerhouse: baobab pulp
The Phytotrade team can talk about the health virtues of baobab till the cows come home, but are reluctant to pin the word “superfood” on it. “We’ve tried to avoid that kind of moniker, as it makes it sound like a fad item,” says Arthur Stevens, the association’s supply chain manager. “We want this to be a long-growth product because we see it as hugely beneficial for farmers in southern Africa and we don’t want them to be left high and dry.”
Rosby Mthimba, a baobab farmer from Malawi, says that in Africa the baobab has traditionally been eaten fresh from the shell as a snack – “We wake up in the morning and if we are a little hungry, we often break off a bit and chew it” – or, in periods of hardship, as an alternative to grains like maize: “During times of drought, it plays a very big role, because people add it it to porridge to make it thicker.” Interestingly, certain baobab trees yield a much sweeter fruit, even compared to the ones they grow next to. Nobody quite understands why, but local people, says Rosby with a laugh, always know the best trees to harvest from.
So how can we Brits get a little bit of baobab in our own cooking? The powder isn’t too enticing neat, but is easily stirred into porridge, yogurt and smoothies, and the Eden Project says it great for baking, imparting a zingy flavour to biscuits, cakes and flapjacks. Zambia-born chef Malcolm Riley, who now lives in Devon and goes by the moniker “The African chef”, is a fan of using the fruit in jams and chutneys – its pectin content means it is a a natural thickener.
Whether or not baobab will eventually sit in your weekly shopping basket along with bananas and bread remains to be seen. But this is a foodstuff which is certainly now out of Africa.