Shea may not be well known in a global sense, but it certainly is well known in West Africa. There, it constitutes the principal useful tree in a band of savanna nearly a thousand kilometers long. Traditionally, this large and treasured species, not unlike oak in general appearance, provided the primary edible vegetable fat to peoples inhabiting an estimated 1 million km2 of wooded grassland. Early travelers observed that the cultures in that vast area—which collectively extends through 13 of today’s countries, from Senegal to Sudan and Uganda—revolved around shea.1 One such traveler was Ibn Batuta, who passed through in 1348; another was Mungo Park, the first European to trace the inland flow of the Niger River, in 1796.
Although few outsiders have heard of it, shea (pronounced “shay” or “shee”) remains among West Africa’s most extensive resources. All told, an estimated 500 million specimens of fruiting age exist, which probably equals the number of almond trees worldwide. The tree’s fruits resemble large plums or very small avocados. The smooth-skinned, egg-shaped nut found at their center contains a kernel that yields the fat, which is widely used for cooking or for food. Indeed, West Africans use it much like Westerners use lard and butter.
This lipid is not liquid like a common vegetable oil. Rather, it is solid. Even in the tropical heat its texture ranges from a creamy paste to something like firm butter. A well-made sample taken from fresh nuts is white, odorless, and nearly tasteless.
It is difficult to overstate this vegetable fat’s importance to the inhabitants of the semiarid zone below the Sahara. For millions living in this harsh location, where food is difficult to produce and life hard to sustain, shea butter is vital to everyday existence. It enhances the taste, texture, and digestibility of the major regional dishes. It is, for example, added to the staple known as tô—mainly to prevent that pasty porridge’s surface from drying out but also to add flavor and consistency. Shea butter is also used when frying fritters, griddlecakes, and many other foods for use in the home or for sale in the markets.