Walking the streets of Freetown, you will be bombarded with sights and smells of different kinds of food. Roast meat on barbecue barrels, mountains of peanuts in colourful bowls carried around on heads, or kids selling the sweet-sweet plantain chips in tiny plastic bags; Sierra Leoneans have perfected the art of creating the best pick-me-ups for small prices. You have probably read that everything not prepared in a hotel or high quality restaurant gives you a funny tummy (or runbele as they say here), but street snacks are surprisingly safe to eat if you take the right precautions. Make sure you disinfect your hands with hand-sanitizer before you eat and look carefully if the food looks off somehow. My top 5 will present snacks for every kind of palette; from the sweettooths to the hard crunchers to the nutty lovers. So have a go and eat these tasty, often very healthy, street snacks.
5. Cashew nuts
Freshly roasted (not fried) without any salt- these cashew nuts are not just tasty but also super healthy as they pack some essential vitamins and minerals. They are always pre-packed in tiny plastic bags and sold at turntables or, if you’re stuck in traffic, the seller will pass by and sell through your window. If you’re worried about packaging and hygiene, then buy the processed Sierra Leonean cashews at supermarkets. More expensive, but guaranteed high quality.
Price: 2000le, 5000le or 10.000le (depending on size)
Risk factor: 3/10 (watch out for odd tasting nuts with speckles)
4. Coconut cakes
Sweet but not too sweet, coconut ‘cakes’ are crunchy cookies that are sold everywhere. They come in two forms: one is a long, hard biscuit with little sugar and more flour. The other is the size of a quarter and is brittle and sweeter. Both have a mild coconut flavour and are just the right packaging size to kickstart your energy without crashing an hour later. This is because they contain way less sugar than conventional biscuits and coconut flour has a lower glycemic index than white flour. For those who care; it is also gluten free.
The longer ones can become so hard they are impossible too chew when they are not fresh, so make sure that you test the crunchiness of the cake before delving in and buying five packets (as I am often guilty of).
Price- 500le per cake or 1000le per pre-packed bag
Risk factor- 1/10
3. Peanuts and kanya
This snack is not just tasty; it comes with a picturesque selling method that can serve as your postcard of Sierra Leone. The sellers are mostly women in colourful lappa and sell the groundnuts on big trays they carry around on their heads. They use empty tomato paste cups as a measuring tool and give you the peanuts in an old newspaper page that originated somewhere totally random (I’ve seen Korean, Swedish and Danish). You can buy the peanuts boiled, roasted and shelled or transformed into kanya, where they are ground and mixed with sugar and rice or gari flour. Kind of like solid, crumbly peanut butter, but way better.
Price: 500le- 5000le (0.07-0.70$), depending on your willpower.
Risk factor: 3/10 (watch out for mouldy groundnuts in rainy season)
Swit swit Salone has sweet sweet fruits. Mangoes, banana’s, prickly plums, oranges, and papaya’s (paw paw) are sold ripe and ready by many sellers. They are cheap, delicious and fresh and a safe and healthy option to curb your cravings. Not all fruits are available all year round, and you will see that prices plummet during the height of their harvest. Here’s a little calendar to help you find out what to expect.
November- February: oranges, grapefruit, banana, sour plum
March-May: mangoes, bananas, pineapples
June- August: bananas, pineapples, prickly plums
September- October: bananas, prickly plums
Price: from 2000le for three bananas to 15.000le per pineapple (0.20- 2.00$)
Risk factor: 1/10
1. Plantain chips
The queen of Sierra Leonean snacks is plantain chips. Always available, always good; plantain chips are a must try for everyone that has teeth. The crisps are made by slicing either ripe or unripe plantains (cooking banana’s) and then frying it shortly in oil. They are then sprinkled with a dash of salt and sold in small plastics all over town. The dark brown variety have more natural sugars than the yellow ones and are perfect for satisfying both a sugar and salt craving.
Price: 1000le (0,15$)
Risk factor: 1/10
Runbele: a running stomach, diarrhoea
Lappa: multifunctional traditional cloth
Swit swit: extra nice, enjoyable, sweet
Salone: Sierra Leone
Gari: dried and powdered cassava
Esther Kamara is a Dutch-Sierra Leonean that was born and raised in Amsterdam. After finishing her bachelor Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam she moved to Freetown, where she now works as a freelance writer and artist manager. Her brainchildren are otherworldly short stories and peculiar drawings of non-existing characters.