I Love to Cook With Peanut Butter, Thanks to My Childhood in West Africa

Growing up in Sierra Leone, it was such a gift to be immersed in the culture, and my memories from that time still inspire my cooking, even decades after migrating to the United States. My peanut butter chicken kabobs play on flavors of West Africa — here’s how to make them, and some more ideas for cooking with peanut butter.

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I was born in Zaire and raised in Sierra Leone. My family and I lived in a small town in Sierra Leone that was heavily populated by Lebanese families, but in 1993, the civil war led us to leave Africa and migrate to the United States as refugees. Both my parents are Lebanese, and so the meals we ate were a mix of Lebanese and African, and sometimes even a fusion of the two!

Peanut butter is such an underrated ingredient in cooking. Many use it as a pantry item for making sandwiches, baking and snacking. However, adding peanut butter to beef, chicken and even fish is an African cooking technique that I love to use, especially during grilling season.

I learned about adding peanut butter to savory recipes during my childhood. Peanut butter is called "granat" in Sierra Leone, which is a broken-English slang term for "groundnut." It’s used in stews like Yabeh, soups like Granat Soup and Grilled Beef Suya. Although my Peanut Butter Chicken Kabob recipe is not an authentic African recipe, it’s inspired by the recipes and flavors that I grew up with.

When we moved to the United States, my mother still found ways for us to enjoy the dishes we grew up with such as, Cassava Leaf Stew and Granat Soup. She would find simple shortcuts to replicate the flavors. For example, we didn’t have to grind peanuts anymore to make a peanut soup, we could simply use peanut butter! The texture was more smooth and there was a subtle taste difference, but overall, it was a great way to enjoy a childhood dish in a simpler fashion. These simple modifications provided us with convenient ways to enjoy some of these popular African dishes that were part of my childhood.

Decades later, I learned these recipes from my mother and created simplified versions of them to carry on these flavors and traditions for my family. And while I often crave the nostalgic flavors of the original dishes I grew up with, I love that I can still make them without a huge time investment. It’s not the same making the recipe without grinding the peanuts fresh or making tomato sauce from scratch, for example. But it’s a practical way I found to keep these recipes alive in my current busy schedule.

These pieces of my heritage show up often on my food blog, Feel Good Foodie, through easy internationally inspired recipes using pantry staples. They inspire me to create recipes in unexpected ways like using peanut butter for dinner recipes! The ingredients and steps don’t have to be complicated. But it’s amazing when the flavors taste complex and unique.

We are in the heart of grilling season, and in place of grilling burgers or hot dogs, we like to switch things up in my family with Lebanese and African-inspired recipes like these Peanut Butter Chicken Kabobs.

Fresh chunks of onions are blended in a food processor with tomato paste, peanut butter, olive oil, cumin, crushed red pepper and ground ginger. Then this beautifully hued marinade is tossed with cubes of chicken breast and chicken thighs and allowed to rest to soak up all that flavor! Cooking this combination of simple ingredients over a grill is what makes this recipe so unique and flavorful.

Grilling the peanut butter chicken kabobs creates a rich aroma that’s so appetizing. The chicken takes on a sweet, salty and undeniably nutty flavor from the peanut butter mixed with caramelized bits of grated onions. Even though this recipe is not exactly like the one I grew up with, the smell reminds me of my childhood when we would grill peanut butter beef kabobs on an open flame outside our home.

More Peanut Butter Ideas

Peanut butter is such a rich condiment to add to your savory recipes. I love using it as a marinade for salads and stir-frys, but it also works really well to marinate seafood, like salmon and shrimp, or vegetables, like cauliflower or sweet peppers.

Instead of adding peanut butter to your smoothies, desserts and sandwiches, try just adding 1-2 tablespoons of it to stir-frys, soups, stews or salads. You’ll find peanut flavors and peanut butter in many other cuisines too, like in Chinese or Indian dishes, so it’s a really versatile and fun ingredient to play with; peanut butter pairs well with many other flavors and spices. For example, try mixing it with garlic, ginger, curry and coconut milk for an Indian-inspired recipe. Or try mixing it with turmeric, garlic and cumin for a Mediterranean-inspired recipe.

We love eating this hearty African-inspired grilled chicken as a sandwich with pita (that’s that Lebanese-African fusion I was talking about!) or serving it over rice for dinner. I love when the sum is greater than the parts in cooking, as it is with this recipe. Combining just peanut butter with onions, tomato paste and a few spices creates a destination for your taste buds that’s worth visiting every once in a while, and peanut butter is a great ingredient to work into your summer cooking routine.

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