Week 20: Benin

Benin, on the West African coast next to Nigeria, was formerly known as Dahomey, after a fearsome warrior kingdom that for a few centuries would sell captives to European slave traders. The countless souls passing through on their way to the Americas brought many foods with them, such as yams, okra, and peanuts, and many people from the Caribbean islands where they landed now live in Brooklyn. Thus, due to a long, strange path of history, I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood to buy all the food I needed to cook Beninese.

Our guide through the foodways of this sliver of a country was Anna, who did Peace Corps up in the inland north. Also on hand were her husband and Laura’s coworker David, along with Russell, Rachel, Christen, Sophie, Cole, and Mila. Happily, we managed to squeeze ten around the table without too much trouble.

All recipes, except for the chicken, came from the Friends of Benin site, especially the Peace Corps Volunteer Cookbook hosted there. Everything was served on a plate together, and eating with hands was heartily encouraged.

Pâte rouge | Cornflour mush with tomato sauce

Compared to the funje of Angola and the cou-cou of Barbados, this mush was really tasty! It’s made with corn flour (the same stuff that tortillas are made from, rather than grainier corn meal), but instead of just water, there’s a red sauce of tomatoes, onions, chilies, and bouillon. It had a texture somewhere between bread and polenta.

Igname pilé | Smashed yam

Wondering the difference between yam and sweet potato, or where the word came from? Some fascinating facts on this little page. Anyway, I bought a huge freakin’ mitten-shaped six-pound yam at the store, and set to chopping and peeling it, and after a while, my left hand which was holding the yam started itching. Turns out that this is a known phenomenon! Anyway, boiled it up, and then Anna went to work on it, using a wine bottle to smash it up, an effort that required a lot more work than mashed potatoes.

Sauce gumbo | Simmered okra with tomatoes

The Peace Corps Volunteer Cookbook nicknames this “snot sauce,” and it’s pretty clear why. Slow stewing of okra makes for a gooey mess, and this one was pretty tasty with tomatoes, garlic, chilies, and more of that bouillon. (According to Anna, bouillon has been really good for health in Africa, since it provides iodine which otherwise would be absent from the diet.) Goes great with that pâte rouge, with a pinch of the fingers grabbing a few okra rings.

Poulet béninois | Stewed chicken | Recipe

An interesting process to make this one: boil the whole chicken at high heat until it’s about half-done, remove the chicken and cook some veggies in that broth, then pick the meat off the bones and put it back in the pot. Requires no butchering, and makes for a flavorful sauce.

Sauce d’arachide | Peanut sauce

This definitely was the highlight of the meal. Pureed tomatoes lend freshness, peppers give it zing, and peanut butter makes it rich, thick, and tasty. Was awesome slathered over everything.

I tried making a dessert of fried peanut butter, but it totally failed — I really should have started with whole peanuts and blended them myself to separate out the oil, and instead just made burned mushy junk. Fortunately we had some chocolate around to satisfy.

We really dug the music of the béninoise Angélique Kidjo, if you’re not familiar do yourself a favor and check her out. She has a shockingly diverse range of musical styles, sings in several languages, and everything is great to listen to.

We’re off to New Orleans next weekend (suggestions for where/what to eat welcome!), and when we’re back it’s an Andean feast from the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

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