Meal 31: Cameroon
For our first Nosh in DC, we teamed up with WFP USA to host the biggest yet, with over 25 people — just about none of whom Laura or I had ever met! — coming to experience a Cameroonean feast meal. It was quite the affair, with a buffet line, speeches before and after, a Q&A with our guests, a slideshow of prior Noshes, and a really powerful video about the amazing work WFP does that we hope to put online soon. Perhaps the most poignant part of the experience was discussing how the foods we were eating relate to work fighting hunger and malnutrition on the ground.
The development team from WFP USA, which advocates and raises money for the UN’s World Food Program, were so friendly and accommodating: Barbara gave us free rein of her kitchen and arranged for the common area in her condo, Courtney organized the invitations and logistics, and Keri Kae drummed up interest on Twitter and then chopped and diced vegetables for hours! Speaking of kitchen help, we couldn’t have done it without the skills and humor of my friend since high school, Oliver, who put in a good eight hours of shopping and cooking. Can’t wait for his reports on the food of the UN’s newest member state, South Sudan, where he’s going soon for his first tour as a foreign service officer.
As far as the food, Cameroon is blessed with ocean and rich soils, so the food has generally more flavor and variety than many of its inland neighbors. Like most African cuisine, it’s cooked in big pots over flames, as opposed to grilling or baking, so the real limitation was stovetop space and the size of the pots we had on hand. Cooking for such a crowd, in a normal-sized kitchen, was definitely a challenge, but thanks to an African market a mere three blocks away, two sous-chefs, some creative transitions between cooking vessels, and a swarm of angels who cleaned up all the mess while the rest of us ate, it all turned out pretty darn well.
It was a pleasure to meet so many great people, and also really amazing that despite the really short notice (the invites went out eight days before the event!), we raised $635, which is enough for a whopping 2,540 meals!
In French, directeur-général or DG (pronounced “day-zhay”) is the equivalent of CEO. So this chicken, served in a richly flavored sauce of curry and vegetables, is considered a meal fit for the big boss. It took a lot of gymnastics to cook 15-pounds’ worth of chicken plus all the veggies across three pots and pans, including some non-traditional finishing-off in the oven to make space for other dishes, but in the end it turned out great, with lovely flavor and fork-tender chicken.
Fufu | Cassava and corn mush
Back for the Burkina Faso meal, we’d used a blend including fermented cornflour to great effect, and I’d read that often Cameroonean fufu is made with fermented cassava, so I went whole-hog on the fermented flour. That might have been a mistake, since the fufu was just too weirdly tangy for most people’s taste. Also, as you can see, it’s really lumpy, a presentation of which any African grandmother would be ashamed — again, Burkina Faso was better, when we blended the flour with half of the water first, and then added it to boiling water. Well, at least I’m learning about fufu-making through trial and error! By the time we get to Zambia I hope to really have it down.
Koki | Steamed pea cakes | Recipe
Definitely the most attractively exotic-looking portion of the evening! We skinned and mashed half-tender blackeyed peas, added sauteed green pepper and warm palm oil, and made bundles with banana leaves. Then we let them steam gently for a few hours, until the inside cooked to firm. It was quite tasty, with a pretty mild flavor highlighted by that distinctively nutty and rich aroma of palm oil.
Ndolé | Bitterleaf | Recipe
Happily, I was able to find plenty of this distinctive West African vegetable frozen at the store, imported from Sierra Leone in fact. And, well, you can’t blame them for false advertising with the name! Even after hours of soaking as advised, these leaves were indeed quite bitter. The peanut butter we put in was barely noticeable in the end result; surely we should have added more. And while the recipe called for both dried shrimp and smoked fish, the pot was nearly full to the brim so we had to choose one or the other, and I decided to err on the side of shrimp — after all, the name Cameroon comes from the Portuguese word camarão, so named for all the shrimp they found in the waters there.
Missole | Fried plantains
Everyone loves these, so much more when they’re made extra crispy with that super-high-in-saturated-fat palm oil. Unfortunately, stovetop frying is a slow endeavor and we were already creeping past the advertised meal start time, so unfortunately we had to curtail the frying operation. And I gotta say, after yet another challenge of this matter, I’m making a rule once and for all that I’m just not going to deep-fry things on the stovetop, from now on it’s all in a purpose-built deep fryer or picking another dish!
Pepe | Pepper sauce | Recipe
During the meal, one guest remarked, “Wow, this hot sauce makes me finally feel alive!” If pure, hot zip is what you seek, you will love this recipe with its blow-your-brains-out strength of habanero peppers. We even cut it three times with onions and carrots, and mixed in oil, and it was still quite a blast. But it all got consumed, so, success!
For the next few meals at least, I hope to keep it a bit smaller, since cooking so much is really exhausting. But it was a great experience, and I hope to do it again, in DC and beyond.
In related news, we’ve update our invite sign-up form to include cities we are likely to be noshing in outside of the New York City area in the near future. If you live in DC, Boston, the Bay Area, or the Pacific Northwest, make sure you join the list to find out when we’ll be swinging through your town.
Again, many thanks to our new friends in at WFP USA and DC for your generosity of time and money, and especially Barbara for welcoming us so generously into her home.
Photos by Laura Hadden (except for the one that she’s in), who particularly enjoyed reconnecting with old friends from FUP.