Meal 68: Guinea

Teeny dried shrimp. Pre-cooked fonio grain. Okra powder. Unlike shopping for Ghana, this time Diaby had everything I needed. As I got to talking with the man behind the counter -- finally, for the first time in a half-dozen trips, we broke the ice! -- it turns out he's from Guinea. (I was startled to hear the name of his city, Mamou. That's pronounced the same as the family name for my grandmother who passed away last month. I suspect she had no idea she had something in common with a West African trading town!)

This meal owes a big debt of gratitude to the really wonderful Guinée Gourmande, which helpfully divides recipes regionally and also has some handy commentary and articles giving color about ingredients that bare recipes normally don't. If only every country had at least one site with such thoughtfully organized and lovingly produced content!

So, between the Guinean shopkeeper and the blog, here's hoping this meal turned out authentically! (And apologies for the sparse photos, the camera wasn't working so these are from a phone.)

Djindjan | Ginger drink | Recipe

Another source I've been increasingly cross-referencing for local recipes is the Peace Corps. Many (most? all?) volunteers get a cookbook as part of their training, which tend to be adapted for each country. While many of the recipes tend to be creative adaptations of local ingredients and cooking methods to create comfort foods, there's usually some for cooking what most people tend to eat around there. And hence, this recipe for a ginger drink. This recipe had me at "this tastes just like the stuff you get in little bags" -- I know that it's common in Africa to sell drinks in plastic bags, so I was sold. I'm no judge of whether it really did taste like a bagged beverage, but it was sure tasty! The spices and the citrus round out the sharpness of the ginger very well. Oh, and this stuff mixes up great with rum.

Kansiyé 'Mafe' | Smoked chicken and beef stewed in peanut sauce | Recipe

I couldn't find a smoked chicken, nor a recipe for how they smoke chicken in West Africa, so I winged it (haha) a few days before with a bundle of hickory chips. Turns out it's not too hard to do on a gas grill, though it took four hours and ended up a bit less smoky than I'd hoped. I'll keep working on my technique. Though the title of the recipe doesn't mention it, it's as much beef as chicken, and the shank meat I picked up at the farmers market was so flavorful. For the vegetables, I threw in cassava and a big eggplant, and it was a substantial and tasty stew, one of my favorites of all the African cooking thus far. You could easily make this with a plain, unsmoked chicken (just increase the cooking time for the stew), and if you don't have the ground dried shrimp it's not a huge deal (maybe use some Thai fish sauce to substitute?).

Gouiki | Mashed plantains

The same recipe explains how to make this side, which is pretty easy. Just make sure to buy green plantains and not the ripe ones. The texture and technique is a lot like mashed potatoes, but the taste is entirely different.

Mangoé rafalari | Susu-style mango stew | Recipe

I've never seen a mango stew before, so I had to try this one. It's got many of the familiar elements of West African cooking, like the dry-smoked carp (so many bones to pick out when flaking it!) and red palm oil (which I now buy by the half-gallon), but throwing the mangoes, whole, into the pot was a new one for me. I probably overcooked the mangoes, because I followed the French version of the recipe, which doesn't have the note on the bottom of the English one saying that the types of mangoes that are exported tend to be the softer ones that don't need as much cooking. Hm. Anyway, it packs a pretty pungent flavor-punch, between the tang of the fruit, the salt of the fish, and the richness of the oil.

Fonio | Info (in French)

It tolerates poor soil and erratic rain, has high nutritional value, and tastes pretty good. So why hasn't fonio become the next quinoa? Turns out that this member of the millet family has tiny grains with husks that are really hard to remove -- the traditional method involves mixing with sand for grit, beating in a mortar and pestle repeatedly, and then washing with a lot of water (which kinda eliminates the whole "good where there's little water" thing). But fortunately, a Senegalese engineer developed a machine that successfully hulls the little seeds. It's still cost-prohibitive for farmers to buy directly, but inexpensive enough that a relatively small amount of outside funding could make a big difference in people's lives and nutrition.

At least in Guinea, fonio is eaten like couscous. It's a bit labor-intensive to cook; even the "pre-cooked" version first is plumped up with boiling water, steamed twice in cheesecloth, blended with a bit of okra powder to make it malleable (when you're eating with your hands it sure helps if it sticks together), and steamed once more. The texture was like couscous with a little more tooth, and it had a nice and mild nuttiness. If you happen to see fonio somewhere, give it a shot, before everyone discovers it in like ten years.

Tarte caramélisée aux mangues et bananes | Caramel tarte with mangos and bananas | Recipe (in French)

I know that dessert really isn't a thing throughout much of Africa, but sometimes I just gotta make something. This inventive recipe exhibits the legacy of the French by making what's essentially a tarte tatin, but instead of apples, it's tropical fruits. I used demerara sugar for a rich and tasty caramel, and the crust recipe is easy and forgiving. Note that if you feel weird about putting your pan (I even used a springform) directly on the stovetop for the caramel-making, you could just as easily do that in a pot and pour it into the pan before baking.

The next meal takes us to the adjacent, and very similarly named, Guinea-Bissau.