(also: Karite Butter, Galam Butter)
History, Culture and Use
Other African names: bhindi, bindi, bamia
History and legend
“From the Meroe kingdom and Ibn Batouta to Mungo Park, it seems that all of western Africa stood in the shade of the karite, or shea butter tree, for many centuries.
“From the baby welcomed to the world with a vigorous rub-down with shea butter to the bed of the dead king specially made from the noble trunk of the shea butter tree, village life moves to the rhythm of this sacred tree, as do the lives of its women. Indeed, from July to December, all of women’s activity revolves around collecting the nuts in the bush, selling them in the market and preparing the fruit from the tree to meet the family’s household and culinary needs throughout the year. The natural antioxidant qualities of the shea nut allow this wild product to be stored.” So explains the Teco Finance Export firm, which specializes in the collection and distribution of shea butter for manufacturers of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products in France.
The discovery of shea butter by Mungo Park
The scientific name Butyrospermum parkii was given to the shea tree in honour of the great Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who was the first European to travel up the Gambia River in the late 18th century.
Excerpts from the book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, by Mungo Park, Edinburgh, 1797:
“The negro slave-merchants, as I have observed in the former chapter, are called slatees, who, besides slaves, and the merchandise which they bring for sale to the whites, supply the inhabitants of the maritime districts with native iron, sweet-smelling gums and frankincense, and a commodity called shea-toulou, which, literally translated, signifies tree-butter. This butter is extracted from a nut species, in boiling water, as explained later on. It resembles ordinary butter and shares the same consistency. The locals use it quite a lot and it is consequently very sought after…
“The people were everywhere employed in collecting the fruit of shea trees, from which they prepare the vegetable butter mentioned in former parts of this work. These trees grow in great abundance all over this part of Bambarra. They are not planted by the natives, but are found growing naturally in the woods; and in clearing woodland for cultivation every tree is cut down but the shea. The tree itself very much resembles the American oak, and the fruit – from the kernel of which, being first dried in the sun, the butter is prepared by boiling the kernel in water – has somewhat the appearance of a Spanish olive. The kernel is enveloped in a sweet pulp, under a thin green rind; and the butter produced from it, besides the advantage of its keeping the whole year without salt, is whiter, firmer, and, to my palate, of a richer flavour, than the best butter I ever tasted made from cow's milk. The growth and preparation of this commodity seem to be among the first objects of African industry in this and the neighbouring states, and it constitutes a main article of their inland commerce…
“In a little time the dooty sent for me, and permitted me to sleep in a large baloon, in one corner of which was a stove used for drying shea fruit. It contained approximately half a load of this fruit under which burned a bright wood fire. I was told that after three days the fruit would be ready to be crushed and boiled, and that the butter made in this way was preferable to that made with fruit dried in the sun…”
Information collected by the Arab geographer Al-Umari about 1348
“There is a tree called the karite which bears a fruit similar to the lemon, the flavour of which is similar to the pear, with a plump pit inside. They take this pit, which is tender, crush it and extract a kind of butter which becomes dense like the fruit itself. They whitewash houses with it, burn it in lamps and make soap from it. If they wish to eat this fat they treat it with heat. The product obtained is used like butter.”
Origin and growing locations: it is found mostly in Africa in areas of tree savannah, and the zone extends from the Senegalese-Guinean border and extends into central Africa across Mali; the northern part of the Ivory Coast; Burkina Faso; northern Ghana, Togo and Benin; and Nigeria.
The shea tree grows only in the Sahelian climate which receives an annual rainfall of up to 1000 mm and has two distinct seasons, including a long dry period. The laterite soils need to be well drained.
Height: The tree can reach a height of 10 to 15 m.
The tree: The shea tree has a very long lifespan, up to 200 years. It produces fruit after its fifteenth year, but doesn’t reach full production until it is 25 years old.
The shea tree loses its leaves during the dry season and regains them during the rainy season. Five months after flowering (June to July), the ripe fruit falls to the ground.
The fruit: The fleshy fruits grow in bunches and are ovoid berries of a deep green or brown colour, shaped like an avocado. The sweet pulp is edible. Inside the fruit is a nut surrounded by a thin shell containing a hard kernel and a whitish almond-like nut that contains fat equal to about 50% of its weight, called shea butter.
The average production is 15 to 20 kg of fruit per tree, amounting to 3 to 4 kg of marketed dried “almonds.”
Transformation of the nut into shea butter
The traditional extraction takes place after blending the crushed seeds into a powder. Placed into a cauldron of boiling water, the butter floats to the top and can then be skimmed off.
In the cosmetic industry, two faster extraction processes are used: mechanical pressing and extraction using solvents.
Shea butter is often used in the chocolate industry as a substitute for cocoa butter.
In African countries, it is used as a cooking fat.
In collaboration with the D2E firm and Teco Finance Export of Paris
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