It’s not often I taste something completely new, especially at my age. I’ve tried most things, from fried locusts and field mice in Zambia to rotten shark and sheep’s eyeballs in Iceland (not recommended). But it was here in central London, at a friend’s home, that I tried a new and pleasant food… the baobab.
It didn’t look like much, bits of broken pumice or chunks of cooked chicken breast. But once in the mouth the taste takes over, a sharp, tangy blend of melon, pineapple and starfruit oozes out of a dry-sherberty texture.
My friend, who is half Egyptian and half Sudanese, told me that baobab fruit is a common snack back in Africa, easily bought at the local market, cheap and healthy. Children in Sudan sucking the fruit instead of sweets and given it to treat diarrhoea and stomach upsets. I later learnt that it has many other healing properties too, and it is now considered a ‘superfood’ here in the UK.
Common name: Baobab, upside-down tree
Species: 6 native to Madagascar, 2 to mainland southern Africa (but grows wild across the continent), 1 to Australia
Growing conditions: Tropical savannah
Height: up to 28m
Girth of trunk: up to 11m (very old trees!)
Age: Up to 3000 years!
Adansonia grandidieri, native to Madagascar, is on the IUCN list of endangered species
I walked among mighty baobabs over 15 years ago in Zambia. I didn’t taste the fruit back then, nor did I know of their incredible health-giving properties. But I do remember their powerful presence everywhere, huge trunks rising starkly above all other plant life around them, emanating an ancient and timeless quality. And giving me the feeling of being a mere blip on the planet, here one moment and gone the next. No wonder, for they live for thousands of years!
The baobab has a uniquely primitive form and magnificently awkward beauty, with stumpy root-like branches reaching up to the sky from oversized swollen trunks. Legend has it that when the baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. It’s now an icon of the african savannah, a symbol of life in hot, dry conditions where so little survives. It doesn’t just tolerate such conditions, it can thrive there for millennia. And that’s partly because it can collect and store up to 100,000 litres of water in its trunk during the wet season, plenty for itself and any thirsty animals when the long dry season hits.
High up in the branches hang the baobab fruit. The pods are about the size of a large papaya, enclosed by a gourd covered in fine, powdery hairs. They grow from huge, waxy white flowers which only last a day each, and are pollinated nocturnally by bats and moths. Farmers either wait for them to fall or knock pegs into the trunk to climb and harvest them.
The baobab is also known as the tree of life. Africans have been making use of the baobab for centuries, and not just for health. The famous huge hollows in the trunks of older trees have been used for anything from houses to bus shelters, prisons, graveyards and bars. The seeds, leaves and fruit powder are eaten daily in some places. The fruit pulp is eaten fresh, the seeds ground for cooking oil, to thicken soups or fermented for flavouring, the leaves eaten in salads, the bark is stripped for its fibre to make nets, ropes, cloth, dye and fuel. Elephants sometimes strip the bark for water, and what’s amazing is that the thick, corky, fire-resistant bark of the baobab regenerates itself, so once stripped it is not damaged, it simply heals and rebuilds.
Why we love baobab
According to hivos.net over 29,000 small farmers live off the baobab industry in Africa. The international market for baobab seed and powdered pulp extract is currently worth around $1billion (wiki). Baobab powder launched in the UK in 2012 with the help of an important NGO working in southern Africa called Phytotrade, and you can now get it in health shops along with baobab skin products.
Type 2 diabetics are taking the drinkable powder very seriously. That’s because the fruit is bursting with antioxidants (it has six times as much Vitamin C as an orange), and more specifically polyphenols , antioxidants which help regulate blood sugar levels, among other benefits. It also offers plenty of calcium (hence it’s popular among African pregnant and breastfeeding women), protein, magnesium and more potassium than a banana! So, great for the immune system, heart, muscles, metabolism and sugar levels!
But, there’s a downside to all this frenzied western thirst for healthy exotic products. Our purchases do have an impact on local communities in far off lands where the products are grown. A recent conversation with a friend reminded me that export markets, if not regulated, can harm local access to those same products. For example, he told me that in India, you won’t find anyone drinking decent darjeeling tea in Darjeeling, as it’s all sold off to us. Similarly I know first-hand that in Guatemalan coffee-growing communities, locals don’t drink decent coffee, only cheap imported instant gunk. The fields surrounding them which are carpeted with coffee plants belong to foreign companies, and the coffee beans are too expensive for locals to purchase.
Could baobab small farmers in Africa suffer the same fate? Some NGOs think so, if the local market is not protected as demand grows. Let’s hope the trees remain bigger and stronger than us!
If you’re a keen bonsai grower, you can buy baobab seeds here.