May 202013


The constitution of the United Republic of Cameroon, was ratified on May 20, 1972, and now May 20 is a national holiday. Portuguese sailors reached the coast of Cameroon in 1472. They noted an abundance of the ghost shrimp (Lepidophthalmus turneranus) in the Wouri River and named it Rio dos Camarões (Shrimp River), which became Cameroon in English. Over the following few centuries, European interests regularized trade with the coastal peoples, and Christian missionaries steadily moved inland.

The German Empire claimed the territory as the colony of Kamerun in 1884 and began a steady push inland. They initiated projects to improve the colony’s infrastructure, relying on a harsh system of forced labor. With the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kamerun became a League of Nations mandate territory and was split into French Cameroun and British Cameroons in 1919. France integrated the economy of Cameroun with that of France. The British administered their territory from neighboring Nigeria which made the local people feel as if they were a neglected “colony of a colony.”

On 1 January 1960, French Cameroun gained independence from France under President Ahmadou Ahidjo.  On 1 October 1961, the formerly British Southern Cameroons united with French Cameroun to form the Federal Republic of Cameroon. The federal system of government was abolished in favor of a United Republic of Cameroon in 1971, and a new constitution was ratified in 1972. Since 1972 there have been many voices in politics and the arts calling for a rejection of Western assimilation, and a forging of a post-colonial national African identity, although there is a continued struggle between national unity and ethnic divisions.

Cameroon is sometimes described as “Africa in miniature” because all the major climates and ecozones of the continent are represented: coast, desert, mountains, rainforest, and savanna. Its southern border lies a mere 1° north of the equator.  It is also ethnically diverse, with Sudanese, Fulani, and a few Arabs in the north, and Bantu and related groups in the south, with a very small number of 5,000 Gyele and Baka (pygmy) still practicing traditional foraging (hunter/gathering) in the southeastern and coastal rainforests. Because of the ethnic and geographic diversity of the nation the cuisines vary widely from region to region.

Ndolé is the national dish of Cameroon: a base of bitterleaf flavored with peanuts, shrimp, and fresh ginger. Bitterleaf is a sharp green vegetable that is readily available throughout West Africa, but not easy to come by elsewhere.  There are a few online sites that sell it dried via mail order, such as this one in the U.S. I’ve also found it fresh in Brooklyn in a Nigerian market.

Kale makes an acceptable substitute although the dish is very different.  If using kale, parboil it for 30 minutes before adding it to the pot because it is much tougher than bitterleaf. Ndolé is commonly served with plantains and fufu. Fufu is the ubiquitous starch of Nigeria and Cameroon, a doughy soft concoction made with cassava or yams. If you have not been making fufu since infancy I would not recommend trying now.  However, boiled white rice is common as an accompaniment as well. Ndolé is usually eaten with the right hand, rather than utensils, as are most Cameroon dishes.



1 lb (500 g) bitterleaf (or parboiled kale)
3 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 generous tbsp finely grated ginger
6 large sweet fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
½ lb (250g) natural peanut butter
1 lb (500 g) peeled and deveined raw shrimp, cut into bit size pieces


Soak the bitterleaf overnight. Drain in the morning and press out the excess water which you should reserve in a bowl in case you need it later. (If using parboiled kale, drain it and reserve the liquid).

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and add the onions, garlic and ginger.  Sauté gently for a few minutes until the onions are translucent but not colored.

Add the chopped tomatoes, and simmer for about 3 minutes before adding the greens and then simmering again for about another 5 minutes.

Add the peanut butter, stirring well to combine everything.

Cover the pot and continue simmering until the greens are tender, (about 10 – 15 minutes, or a little longer if using kale). If the mixture is too dry, add some of the soaking water (or parboiling water), a little at a time. The dish should be moist but not soupy.

Add the shrimp and simmer until cooked (5-10 minutes).

Serve with rice or boiled plantains and fufu.

Serves 6-8

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