The West African Mother Sauces: Obe Ata and Ata Din Din

Obe Ata and Ata Din Din are so much more in West African Cuisine than dishes in their own right. You might know Obe Ata as West African tomato soup, African red pepper stew, buka stew, red stew, or even another name. Along with Ata Din Din, also known as Red Pepper sauce, they’re flavor powerhouses on their own, and they also serve as the foundation for a variety of other soups, stews, sauces and dishes, forming one of the backbones of our culinary traditions. They’re common points of connection, and, in some ways, they stand as our own versions of a mother sauce.

What is a Mother Sauce?

The concept of the mother sauce was created in the 1800s by a French chef named Auguste Escoffier. These sauces are basic concoctions that, while they are sauces in their own right, also serve as the foundation for a number of other more complex variations.

Each of these mother sauces is defined by two crucial components: its base, and its thickener.

Escoffier originally outlined 4 primary mother sauces, but he also discussed mayonnaise (the “cold” mother sauce) and Hollandaise (the “daughter” sauce). When his book was translated into English, however, mayonnaise was nowhere to be found, and Hollandaise had joined the ranks as a true mother sauce.

The 5 mother sauces are the following:

  • Béchamel
  • Velouté
  • Espagnole
  • Hollandaise
  • Tomato

Béchamel is a white sauce made from a milk base as well as butter and flour. Velouté is made similarly to béchamel, but the liquid used as the base is light stock rather than milk. Espagnole uses a dark stock rather than a light one in addition to pureed tomatoes and mirepoix (a mix of carrots, onion, and celery). Hollandaise is a mixture of butter, lemon juice, and egg yolks, while tomato sauce is the classic you know and love.

All of these sauces can be changed, dressed up, or added to in order to create an entirely new sauce. They form the basis of a lot of classic cuisines as well as their offshoots.

Obe Ata and Ata Din Din: The West African Mother Sauces

Obe Ata and Ata Din Din are similar, but they’re not the same. Following the concept of the French mother sauce, Obe Ata and Ata Din Din are defined by their textures and their ingredient base. They use the same ingredient base (Elo Obe in Yoruba), which consists of tomatoes, tatashe (romano chili) and/or red bell peppers, habanero or scotch bonnet peppers, and onions. The oils traditionally used include palm oil, Egunsi seed oil, or peanut oil. 

Nowadays, vegetable oil has become more popular, as well as stock cubes for seasoning. Salt and protein stock (beef, chicken, seafood, etc.), called Omi Eran in Yoruba are traditional additions also used for seasoning. The ingredient base can vary, mostly in ratio of the tomato or tatashe/red bell pepper used. In Obe Ata, there’s usually more tomato, and in Ata Din Din, there’s usually more tatashe or red bell pepper. In some cases, other ingredients are even added. In Ghana, for example, they add ginger and garlic to this base to cook red stew.

Since the ratios of each of the ingredients is different for Obe Ata and Ata Din Din, balancing the tomatoes and the red peppers is especially important. Adding too much tomato can make the base too acidic, while too much red pepper can make it too sweet. The habanero pepper can be added to your level of spice tolerance, and we like to use generous amounts of onion in West African cooking. Both of these ingredients help balance and round out all the flavors.

While these sauces start from the same set of ingredients, their textures are another critical component that sets them apart.

Obe Ata is a soup or stew. It has a much thinner consistency and smoother texture. It’s sometimes called Omi Obe, which translates to “soup or stew liquid.” In Obe Ata, the Elo Obe is blended until smooth to make a base, serving as the foundation of this soup. It’s a perfect dish to serve with swallows such as, fufu, amala, pounded yam, etc. You can also pair it with or use it as a base for rice dishes, or kickstart a whole other meal. It’s also a starting point for a variety of “daughter” sauces, just like its French counterparts. 

Ata Din Din, on the other hand, is intensely concentrated. It has a chutney-like consistency. The name itself, Ata Din Din, translates to “fried pepper” and denotes a deeply flavored, thick sauce. Because it’s been so heavily concentrated, Ata Din Din tends to have more nuanced flavor notes of each of the ingredient components.

The habanero pepper, for example, becomes intensified in the cooking process. Not only do you get a little bit more heat, but the floral, sweet notes are also emphasized. By stewing these ingredients on the stovetop or roasting them in the oven, these simple ingredients – onion, red pepper, and tomato – are transformed into a syrupy, almost sticky relish that is deeply flavored and subtly sweet.

Ata Din Din is perfect for dipping or slathering over your protein of choice, like salmon or roasted chicken. I also love to use it as a little cooking shortcut, like for the base of my Jollof rice. Much like Obe Ata, Ata Din Din can also be used as the base for a number of “daughter” sauces, which we’ll discuss further below.

The Derivatives of the West African Mother Sauces

In West African cuisine, there are a number of other soups, stews, sauces, and dishes that derive from both Obe Ata and Ata Din Din.

Obe Ata derivatives, the “daughter” soups/stews:

  • Egunsi soup: thickened with blended Egunsi seed batter 
  • Ila Alasepo: okra stew, thickened with fresh minced or sliced okra or dried okra powder (Orunla)
  • Nigerian egg stew: Obe Ata with eggs scrambled into the stew
  • Peanut/groundnut stew: thickened with ground peanuts or smooth peanut butter
  • Miyan taushe: Nigerian pumpkin stew, thickened with ground peanuts and pureed pumpkin

And Ata Din Din serves as the base of the following “daughter” sauces:

  • Efo Riro: Nigerian sauteed spinach
  • Ewa Riro: Nigerian stewed black-eyed beans
  • Ila Alasepo: okra stew
  • Red Ofada: crayfish and iru (locust beans) added to create a more nuance and umami flavor profile in the Ata Din Din sauce

And so many more! 

We usually pair these soups, stews, and sauces with something else to create a whole, balanced meal. We often pair Obe Ata with the following dishes, swallows, or other soups (some being “daughter” sauces, and others not):

  • Rice
  • Boiled yam
  • Bread
  • Okele (swallows): pounded yam, amala, fufu, lafun, tuwo, etc.
  • Ewedu (jute leaf)
  • Okra
  • Gbegiri soup
  • Egunsi soup

White Rice is the most popular pairing for Ata Din Din. Yorubas call this “Iresi ati Ata Din Din.” This sauce, though, is also often paired with:

  • Plantains
  • Meat
  • Snails
  • Boiled Yam
  • Moi Moi

But these sauces are not just superstars in West African cooking. They can be shortcuts to West African classics as well as versions of a lot of your favorite dishes from other culinary traditions. Just like the foundational versatility of the French mother sauce, the possibilities with Obe Ata and Ata Din Din are endless. Some ways we love to use these sauces to kickstart our meals:

Obe Ata, Ata Din Din, and their many derivatives can be used to make various dishes. Learning how to make these sauces, or keeping them stocked from Egunsifoods, means that you’ll always have one of the building blocks of West African cooking in your back pocket. You can use them to make traditional dishes, or you can adapt them however you need to when you want to get creative in the kitchen.

Try out some of the ways I’ve pushed my sauces to the limits, like my Obe Ata Tortellini Soup, Obe Ata Chili, and more!

Experience Classic West African Flavors with Egunsifoods

Whether you choose our Obe Ata soup or our Ata Din Din sauce to get your taste of this powerful West African mother sauces, you won’t be disappointed. Both pack a powerful punch and can instantly bring your weeknight dinner to the next level. Browse through some of our recipes to see how our soups and sauces can become your new home kitchen heroes.

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