International Cooking: Food from Mali

This is another African country that surprised me! Rather than the more simple food eaten in many parts of the continent, I found food from Mali to be full of interesting flavor combinations.


Mali is a landlocked West African country, south of Algeria, and it’s the eighth-largest country in Africa. It’s thought to have been inhabited since around 10,000 BC.

Mali used to be part of three powerful, wealthy West African empires that controlled trans-Saharan trade: the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire. In the year 1300, at its peak, the Mali Empire was the wealthiest country in Africa and one of the wealthiest on earth. Not only did it have a strong economy, but it was a center of Islam, culture, and knowledge, and its city Timbuktu became a renowned place of learning—it has one of the oldest universities in the world that is still active.

The Songhai Empire absorbed the Mali Empire in 1468, but was defeated by a Saadian army in 1591. The Saadi Sultanate ruled present-day Morocco and parts of West Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries.

France took control of Mali in the late 19th century and made it a part of French Sudan. Mali and Senegal gained independence together as a federation in 1960, but Senegal withdrew and the Republic of Mali was established.

Mali has experienced a tumultuous last few decades, with armed conflicts, a military coup, and, more recently, two military takeovers.

What Do People Eat in Mali?

Malian cuisine includes common West African staples such as rice, millet, and fufu (mashed fermented cassava). These are often served with sauces made from greens such as spinach and sweet potato leaves, or tomato and peanuts. Popular meat choices include chicken, mutton, beef, or goat.

Due to Mali’s long history as an important part of extensive trade networks, there are many foreign influences on the cuisine. This is mostly evident in the staple dishes, which use more spices than in most other West African countries.

Tea is an important drink in Mali. It is usually served in three bursts, with water and sugar added after each serving. The first is very strong and bitter, so it is said to be like death, while the second is referred to as ‘life’ since it’s getting sweeter. The final glass is ‘love’, possibly because of the large amount of sugar.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Malian dishes I didn’t make!

Djaba Dji (Onion Sauce)

Djaba Dji (Onion Sauce)

This dish was recommended to me by someone on the Malian subreddit, and I was able to find a recipe that seemed authentic since its source was a book written by someone who visited family in Mali. I do question why this is referred to as ‘onion sauce’ though because, although there is quite a lot of onion, there are also lots of other ingredients!

I started by sautéing some chunks of beef chuck, though meat is optional here. Then I added the onions, and a few minutes later I added garlic, ginger, onion powder, curry powder, salt, pepper, and tomato paste

Next, I added chicken stock and water, followed by potatoes. A few minutes after that, I added the remaining vegetables: cabbage, green beans, and carrots. The recipe also called for eggplant but I did not include it since I don’t like it. A few minutes before serving I added some Middle Eastern vermicelli; the recipe called for the ‘tiniest noodles you can find’ which would be even smaller, but since I had the vermicelli already I decided to use that.

I served this over rice. This was really pretty simple but I enjoyed it a lot!

The recipe I used can be found on the Choate Family’s blog.

Labadja (Beef and Rice)

Labadja (Beef and Rice)

This is a simple dish made from beef and rice with a few vegetables, flavored with dates.

I started by cooking some chopped chuck steak in butter, then added onion, garlic, and green chili. After a few minutes I added some ras el hanout seasoning. The recipe called for ‘fayoke spices’ but said a Moroccan spice blend would be a good substitute, and since I had ras el hanout, that was what I used.

Next, I added some chopped dates. I’d had them soaking in water, and I added the water too—just enough to cook the rice. The rice went in last, and then all I had to do was let everything cook until the rice was done.

I know this isn’t the prettiest dish, and it was very simple, but it was amazingly good. Ras el hanout and dates proved to be a winning combination!

The recipe I used is from Scoot West Africa.

Couscous Timbuktu (Lamb Stew with Couscous)

Couscous Timbuktu (Lamb Stew with Couscous)

This popular dish, consisting of stew served over couscous, can be made with just about any kind of meat, but I chose to use lamb.

First I seasoned lamb chunks with salt and pepper, then I browned them in oil. I added onion and cooked that for a few minutes, before adding garlic and carrot. Next, I added the spices: cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom, ground ginger, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg.

After a few minutes more, I added canned tomatoes and enough water to cover the meat, and let the mixture simmer for about an hour.

I added pureed dates and cinnamon, and cooked until the lamb was tender and the sauce had thickened.

I served this over couscous with a sprinkle of parsley. It tasted pretty good!

I loosely followed the recipe from Cooking Around the World in 80 Days. I used all the same ingredients but added them in a slightly different order.

Tiguadege Na (Chicken in Peanut Sauce)

Tiguadege Na (Chicken in Peanut Sauce)

For the most part, African countries seem to use peanuts a lot, and this is probably just one of Mali’s peanut dishes. It is considered Mali’s national dish. The meat varies, but it’s cooked in a tomato and peanut sauce with some vegetables and served over rice.

First I sautéed some chunks of chicken thigh, followed by onion and garlic, then canned tomatoes and tomato paste. I brought the mixture to a boil, and then simmered for a few minutes.

Next I added chicken stock, peanut butter, Herbes de Provence, carrot, and potato. After simmering for a while longer, the dish was ready!

I’ve generally been a big fan of the peanut-based dishes I’ve tried from Africa, and this was no different. The Herbes de Provence combined with the peanut butter worked pretty well; it was a combination I had been apprehensive about.

The recipe I used here is from Together Women Rise.

  • La capitaine sangha – marinated and grilled Nile perch, typically served with rice, fried bananas, and hot chili sauce.
  • Fakoye – soup made from jute leaves and spices, typically garnished with lamb or beef.
  • Meni-meniyong – sweet made primarily from honey and sesame seeds.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week. I’ll admit my expectations were low and I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food from Mali was. My favorite was the labadja.

Next week, I will be cooking food from Malta.

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