Meal 104: Maldives

If you go to the Maldives, off the southwest coast of India, for a tropical beach vacation, you're more likely to find steaks and French cheese than any of the local cuisine. I'm not entirely surprised, because the intense flavor of sun-dried and smoked tuna runs that through nearly every meal is probably a bit too intense for the holiday-package crowd. This is only the second meal for which I've ordered an ingredient online, but there's simply no way to cook Maldivian food without that uniquely prepared fish. I was able to get it from a Sri Lankan market outside of LA, which wasn't a surprise, since they've imported so-called "Maldive Fish" for nearly a millennium.

Our guests: Maxwell and his mother Leslie, Bitsy, Anne, Steve, Julie, Levi, Kal, Lauren, Karen, and Andrea.

Karaa fani | Watermelon juice | Recipe

Simple as can be: watermelon pieces, water and sugar in a blender. Delicious and refreshing.

Lonumirus | Hot sauce | Recipe

A fairly thick sauce, fairly musky from the curry leaves and cumin. A good complement to the rich umami flavors from all the dried fish.

Mas huni | Dried tuna with coconut | Recipe (scroll down)

This is apparently an extremely common dish. Although the Maldives imports much of its food, this can be made with pretty much entirely local ingredients: dried fish, coconut, onion, chilies, and lime. It's also super simple to throw together. It's a unique textural mix of semi-jerky-like flaked fish, crunchy onions, and slightly chewy coconut. It was fun to eat, and pretty tasty.

Bashi hiki riha | Eggplant dry curry | Recipe

This dish shows the dried tuna in another light, as a flavoring moreso than the main event. This was a mess of eggplant and various veggies and spices. The term "dry" in the translation doesn't mean it's not moist, but rather that it isn't a saucy curry. This was a pretty intense and aromatic dish that needed some rice to balance it out.

Kaliya birinji| Spiced rice | Recipe

As there's barely space to grow things on these small islands, the traditional means of getting rice is to trade for it with that dried tuna. This dish is hardly a daily affair, with an indulgent assortment of spices as a hefty dose of coconut milk. But it's gentle and mild in the mouth, marrying well with the other dishes, especially the eggplant.

Pirini | Rice pudding | Recipe

This rice pudding would seem familiar to Western tastes — sugar, milk, vanilla, mild spices — but for one flavor unique to the tropics, pandan leaf, which imparts a gentle yet haunting nutty flavor. Compared with the intense flavors of the rest of the meal, this made for a nice wind-down.

Meal 93: Lebanon

As I caught myself grumbling about having to clean my two food processors and the mixer with a meat-grinder attachment, I realized how it’s unlikely I’d take on this project without the aid of electric appliances. I shudder to think of how long it would have taken to mash the hummus, emulsify the garlic sauce, and grind or chop the meat with only the power of my arms. I wouldn’t have cooked nearly as many dishes if I’d had to do that!

Lebanese food is an incredibly popular cuisine. In fact, many of these dishes are extremely common throughout the Middle East, and it’s taken a lot of restraint not to make hummus and tabbouli for just about every Arab country’s meal. I was eager to throw in some variety, to explore Lebanese dishes that aren’t as familiar to our palate, but in talking with our dear friend Kate and our new friend Melia about what their Lebanese families would cook, it kept coming back to the classics. Authenticity isn't just what you make, but how much and how it's served, so we had a whole messload of mezze, sharable platters, to create a sense of abundance and a variety of flavors. (One might argue that authenticity also involves the cooking techniques, which my Cuisinart and I acknowledge but, frankly, often ignore.)

In addition to Melia, who was very generous with her time both in helping to plan the meal and also in cooking, we had her boyfriend Zef, as well as Laura, Laura (pronounced the Italian way!), Andrew, John, Alicia, Iris, Alley, Ana, Miguel, and Will.

Note: for dishes where recipes aren't linked, they were taken from a cookbook called Alice's Kitchen

Kabees | Pickles | Recipes: turnip, mixed

From what I read on multiple sites, the annual process of preserving the summertime abundance of fruits and vegetables in Lebanon, mouneh, is a cherished tradition. Naturally, then, pickled foods are commonplace on the Lebanese table, and I tried out two different recipes.

The one I was most eager to make was for turnips, stained pink by beets in the bottom of the jar, and kept crisp because rather than boiling to sterilize, I simply moved them to the fridge once they’d sat out for about a week in their vinegar brine. Sour, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, and with a dazzling color, I’d call these a big success, a great burst of flavor and crunch to accompany just about anything except dessert.

The other was a mixed quick pickle, featuring everything from cauliflower to green beans to carrots. I thought this one turned out okay, though to my taste there was too much sugar. Maybe I should have also left it on the counter to age for a few days rather than throwing it straight into the fridge.

Moutabal | Mashed eggplant dip | Recipe

Sometimes I find connections between faraway cuisines in the funniest way. While I was planning this eggplant dip, the chunkier and less creamy cousin of baba ghannoush, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I did an eggplant dip for the previous meal, Laos. But when I looked around the kitchen for a suitable vessel for mashing up the dish and logically arrived at my oversized African mortar and pestle, I realized that I’d used the exact same vessel for making an eggplant dip a few weeks prior.

Anyway, if you can get over the fact that the scraped-out innards of roasted eggplant have the appearance and texture of alien brains, you might enjoy this one as a more rustic alternative. It’s pretty simple ingredient-wise, though it does take some time to let the juice drain out of the roasted vegetable. Skip the food processor for this one, both because you don’t want a purée, and also because if you’re cooking other Lebanese dishes, that appliance is probably being put into service for another dish too.

Hummus | Chickpea-yogurt dip | Recipe

I like the Lebanese version of hummus: lower on the garlic, higher on the tahini, and a hefty dollop of yogurt to make things nice and creamy. I cooked the chickpeas from scratch, which is really very little work and just requires some advanced planning, and tastes so much better and makes an incomparably better texture, both smoother and fluffier, than if using canned. The one tweak I made to the recipe was one I learned for the Israel meal, using a bit of reserved cooking water instead of the plain warm water.


I was thinking of skipping this dish, as it’s really well known and I was trying to make a point of getting in some variety, but then I read that Lebanon takes its National Tabbouli Day really seriously, and Melia shared her family’s handwritten recipe.


A true Lebanese tabbouli should be mostly parsley, with just enough fine fine burghul wheat to hold things together, flecks of tomato for color and contrast, and oil and lemon to make it sing. A lovely, fresh contrast to all that dairy. Thanks to John for all that chopping!

Lebneh | Thickened yogurt | Recipe 

Lebneh, the simple yet incredibly addictive strained yogurt, came so close to taking off in the US. For a good while, Trader Joe’s stocked it, but unfortunately they gave it the unromantic name of “yogurt cheese.” With a name that makes it sound more like a health food than an the exotic, versatile food-with-a-story that it is, TJ’s dropped it a few years back in favor of the Greek yogurt craze that swept the nation like a very thick, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth wave.

Fortunately, lebneh is easy to make, but yet again takes some foresight: just take some thicker yogurt (Nancy’s works great, a pourable Bulgarian won’t) and strain it in cheesecloth. How long to strain is a matter of how you plan to use it: 2-8 hours to make a dip of varying thickness, or 24+ hours if you’re going to make intense, oil-preserved balls with a distinctive cheesy heft. I made both!

The dip, anointed with a pool of olive oil and a generous shower of za’atar spice blend, is just heavenly, simply scooped up with pita. Or use it as a spread in your sandwich. The balls were really thick, dry and dense enough that you could pick it up with your fingers — and remember, it’s nothing more than strained yogurt! — and hence would make for a great piece on a finger-food platter.

Toum | Garlic sauce | Recipe

If you’ve gotten kebab at a Middle Eastern restaurant, chances are it was accompanied by a pungent, unctuous snow-white sauce. It’s toum, a very close relative of mayonnaise, except instead of eggs, it’s garlic that holds oil and garlic in spreadable, well-blended suspension. So long as you’ve got a food processor, the hardest part of making this versatile, long-storing condiment is peeling all those cloves of garlic! I ended up making this with about 2/3 less oil than called for, so it was extremely strong, but still had the right texture.

Man’oushe | Za'atar flatbread | Recipe

Most spices you use a little pinch here, a dab there. Za’atar is best as a healthy dousing. This blend of thyme, sumac (a tart dried berry, apparently) and sesame seeds has a musty flavor and a fun little grit in the mouth that’s somehow excellent in large doses. There’s so many uses for it, but the most reverent presentation is mixed with olive oil as the sole topping for a flatbread.

I thought this recipe turned out great. It was quite sticky as warned, but as I kneaded and rolled, little dustings of flour helped keep everything from gluing to my work surface. I got a pizza stone and my big cast iron griddle really hot in the oven, and by gum, these things turned out just beautifully: a lightly browned crust, and a soft, dry, mild, toothsome interior providing just the right contrast to the oily, gritty, and bold topping.


I’m glad this wasn't the only bread I made, because I wasn’t too happy with these. Despite the evident care that went into a technique for using foil to get the right puffiness and avoid crisping, in the end my pita were, well, crispy and flat. It probably has something to do with the fact that a home oven just can’t achieve the blistering heat and correct humidity to make a bread that cooks almost instantly and puffs up before it can brown to make that lusciously soft, big pita like you get at a Lebanese restaurant. What I made wasn’t bad, it was just more cracker-like than a pita ought to be.

Kibbeh bil sanieh | Bulgur meat casserole | Recipe

The classic kibbeh is a torpedo-shaped ball of bulgur wheat stuffed with meat and typically fried, though many variations abound. For our Iraq meal we make a kibbeh with a shell of rice; you can also stuff it with squash, or serve it raw similar to a tartare, or, as we did, make a casserole. I chose this variation for two reasons: I’ve never had it before, and it’s way easier to bake and keep warm than batches of fried balls.

Good thing I have a meat grinder attachment for my Kitchenaid, because the beef needed to be ground several times to be super fine. Some of that beef was then ground up further in the Cuisinart, with the soaked bulgur. That’s right, both the filling and the “crust” have meat in them! If you don’t have a grinder, make sure to go to a butcher who can do the extra grinding for you. It makes an important difference in the texture.

I thought this was really tasty, though if I do this dish again I’ll be a little more generous with the spices — this one was light and delicate, but if there’s spices in my meat, I prefer them to be bold!

Warak inab | Stuffed chard leaves

Surely you’ve heard of stuffed grape leaves, a bundle of green filled with rice, herbs, etc. But what do you do when it’s winter and the vines are bare? Well, you can either use leaves that you pickled or froze, but like an idiot, I didn’t do that even though we have a great grape vine in our new back yard. (Yes, I could buy them, but what’s the fun in that?) Or, you can substitute with a more seasonable vegetable, like chard.

What a pleasant surprise! Earthy, bitter chard, slightly toothy even after a long simmer, balances the soft, bright, lemony filling so well. Give it a shot, just prepare for it to take longer than the recipe suggests.

Shourbat adas | Lentil soup

This was nice enough, and easy to make, but didn’t quite have the sort of rich, satisfying flavor I’ve enjoyed in some lentil soups I’ve had before. Maybe it’s that it’s a vegetarian recipe, or maybe it doesn’t have enough spice (definitely could have used more cumin). Not bad, but you can probably find a better recipe somewhere. Note the dollop of garlic sauce in the foreground — that sure helped!

Sfouf | Turmeric-anise yellow cake | Recipe

How exotic and beautiful, right? Spices we rarely encounter in dessert, with rich ingredients. and a fanciful name to boot. Well, sorry to say, this was a dense, bland disappointment. More sugar and spices would have helped, but I’d also look for a recipe with a bit more leavening. Unless this is just how it’s supposed to be, and I just wasn’t in the right mainframe or something.

Muhallabieh | Rosewater pudding

Now this was a winner in my book. I love the exotic fragrance of orange blossom and rose waters, and just a little goes a long way on a bright-white canvas of milk simply thickened with cornstarch. It’s super easy to make, so long as you do it enough ahead of time to let it cool, and you don’t need much per person since just a little dish is quite satisfying.

Arak | Anise liqueur

If you like ouzo, sambuca, raki, pastis, or any of those other anise liqueurs, you might like arak. If not, you won't. Incidentally, we've got about 3/4 of a bottle of arak on hand in case anyone wants some.

Meal 86: Jordan

When you think of Middle Eastern food, you probably imagine hummus, tabbouli, falafel. While those foods are indeed popular throughout the region, they come from the Levant, essentially the region between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates which contains modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, plus pieces of Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. (Incidentally, confusion about how to translate the Arabic word for this region, ash-Sham, is why the terrorist organization based in Syria is sometimes translated ISIS (where the second S is "Syria") or ISIL (for "Levant"). One of the goals for this project is to highlight what's distinctive about a country, meaning in part what you can find there that's nowhere else. In this case, some of the core parts of the Levantine diet are so pervasive I couldn't avoid them, but rather integrated them in a distinctive way — with hummus as a part of a bigger dip, for instance, and particular local variations of regional favorites like baba ghannoush and mujaddara.

Fortunately, this type of meal scales well. For our very last meal as New Yorkers, we returned to the fantastic Hostelling International on the Upper West Side for two reasons: we wanted to host many more folks than could fit in our apartment, and even if we'd wanted to host there, almost everything was packed up or given away! It was a pleasure to host several dozen people on a beautiful night, and cook with friends old and new in the very ample basement kitchen.

Tremendous thanks to Najeeb, a colleague of mine from Jordan living in Dubai, who summoned the famous Jordanian hospitality I'd read so much about in an amazing and unexpected way — he insisted on paying for the tickets for some people to come and enjoy his country's food! Thanks to Najeeb, everyone who volunteered to cook was able to enjoy the meal at no cost. (And, of course, hundreds of people received meals from the World Food Program.)

Fattet hummus | Hummus dip | Recipe

You know that random mixed-up mess you have left on your plate after trying a bunch of dishes at a Middle Eastern restaurant? This dish is kinda like that, just pre-mushed-up for you, with chickpeas two ways — plain and as hummus — plus yogurt, tahini, pita, olive oil, pine nuts, and parsley. It's like for Levantine food what seven-layer dip is for Tex-Mex, and a tasty way to feed a crowd. Big thanks to Jason for whipping up the hummus and then compiling the dish.

Moutabal | Roasted eggplant dip | Recipe

If this dish of roasted eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice looks a whole lot like baba ghannoush, well, you're sort of right. That's what it's called in Egypt, as well as much of the Western world. But if you order baba ghannoush in several other Arab countries, including Jordan, you'll get something also based on roasted eggplant, but more like a mashed-up salad with tomatoes and onions rather than this creamy dip. Anyway, what the Jordanians call moutabal is the more common one there, so that's what we made. Really not very hard to make, and very easy to tweak the levels of pretty much all ingredients to your liking. Don't forget ample pita.

Mukhalal | Pickled turnips | Recipe

The same mustiness with a hint of sweetness that makes roasted turnip an mild yet intriguing flavor makes for a bigger punch when pickled. The deep, earthy tones play off the bright crisp of the vinegar, all of which is made cartoonishly pink thanks to a few beet pieces that have been thrown into the mix for show. With nothing more than a bay leaf and a bit of chili, and of course a week of sitting on the counter, these few elements interact to create a condiment that is, rightly, hugely popular, a nice palate-cleanser after a bite of lamb, or a texture-enhancer to an otherwise mushy bite of hummus.

Mansaf | Lamb and rice over flatbread with sauce of reconstituted buttermilk | Recipe

Sometimes it's excruciating to choose what to feature for a given country from among so many options, and sometimes you see a certain dish declared in every travel article and recipe collection as the undisputed National Dish. Jordan is the latter type of country, as this bountiful dish of meat over two types of starch bathed in a rich sauce is the sine qua non of that famed Jordanian hospitality.

Mansaf means "explosion" in Arabic, and this dish does indeed look like a bunch of settled debris. But it's all layered for maximum deliciousness and texture sensation, with lamb-infused buttermilk sauce layered amongst the flatbread, rice, and lamb for full tastiness.

The most important, and most challenging, part of the dish is the jameed, which is dried buttermilk. I couldn't find the proper hard balls that the recipe calls for, the best I had was the Lebanese version called kishk, which is similar but ground and mixed with wheat. The advantage is that the powder allowed us to skip the soaking part, but the flavor and texture both felt a little too thin and mealy. I probably put in too much water and didn't stir it enough. It definitely showed promise, with a sort of smoky-tart flavor and, in parts, a lovely creamy texture. It was definitely good enough to eat, thankfully, because I bought over 30 pounds of lamb!

Mudardara | Rice and lentils with caramelized onions | Recipe

I included this to make the meal vegetarian-friendly, but found it quite tasty all the same. As far as I can tell, it's the better-known mujaddara, except explicitly made with brown lentils and rice, whereas other versions of the dish can use green lentils, or even wheat in place of rice. Anyway, it's a hearty comfort food, and while it takes time and care to prepare, it's very inexpensive.

Knafeh | Cheese and shredded filo pastry | Recipe

Take a feta-like cheese out of its salty brine, soak in several changes of water, then simmer to make darn sure all the salt's gone. Tear open a package of shredded filo and fry in ghee until it's crispy. Layer a pan with filo, then that weird cheese, then more filo. Wait, this is dessert? Yup! Because after baking on one side, flipping over, and baking again to ensure even caramelization, you douse the whole thing in a ton of sweet syrup.

You know what? This thing was pretty darn awesome, the runaway success of the night. And congrats to Elly, pastry chef for the night, who followed the spirit of the recipe by "summoning the courage of her convictions" when flipping the trays, beautifully executed.

It was a lovely evening, mild by late-July New York standards, and many of us transitioned out to the hostel's lawn, enjoying last nibbles of sweets, including a whole box of dates I'd forgotten about in the rush. After lots of hugs goodbye and a team effort to clean up, we rushed home to pack — and a week later hit the road to move across the country!

Meal 82: Iraq

Look beyond the horrible news coming out of the country these days, or the past few decades — way, way beyond, because agriculture and civilization in the lands that now comprise Iraq goes back at least ten thousand years. The soils along the Tigris and Euphrates river are fertile and relatively moist, and the surrounding lands held forth wild grasses that became such staple grains as wheat and barley, and soon after domesticated animals, and writing, and even beer.

The cuisine of Iraq has transformed a whole lot over the millennia. While wheat and barley are still to be found, rice is the grain of choice — so beloved that it goes by the word timman, from the now-extinct Akkadian language, rather than the standard Arabic ruz. Beer can be found, but indications are that it's not so great. And other crops have emerged too, with Iraq now the world's largest producer of dates.

While many of the classics of Middle Eastern cuisine are very common on the Iraqi table, such as hummus, baba ghannoush, and kebab, I narrowed the focus to what is, as far as I can tell, most distinctive to the country. In particular, I found abundant reference and a huge variety of recipes for kibbeh, a general term for grain stuffed with meat, and there was no doubt that the "national dish" is a fish split open, rubbed with spices, and slowly grilled, or that I should make a cookie with a nearly savory dough but a very sweet filling for dessert.

Our guests for the evening were Molly, Stephen, Steve, Yali, Sarah and Shana.

Loomi | Dried lime tea | Recipe

Most things when dried are seen as a fairly equivalently flavored, if sometimes inferior, substitute for the fresh version, like spices or mushrooms or stone fruits. But a very few foods transform into something altogether different after spending some time in the sun: sundried tomatoes have a concentrated richness, it's hard to believe a raisin was once a grape. Limes go through perhaps an even greater metamorphosis: they shrink, turn nearly black, the insides crumble into almost nothing, and they take on a haunting aroma that's smoky, tart, bitter, and perfumey, all in one.

While they can also be used whole in a stew, or ground up into a powder and added to a spice blend, you'll enjoy them in their purest form as an exquisitely refreshing tea. The hardest part of making loomi, as it's known, is finding them, but any Middle Eastern store or a good-enough spice shop will carry them. (Kalustyan's in Manhattan has several varieties of different darkness and size, shades of subtlety I have yet to explore.) Once acquired, it's as simple as poking a few holes in them with a fork, steeping them in water with sugar added, straining, and chilling.

Mutabbal | Eggplant salad | Recipe

Pretty straightforward: roast an eggplant, dice it up and put over chopped veggies, drizzle with olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Really quite tasty.

Kubba halab | Lamb-stuffed rice croquette | Recipe

Iraq offers an astonishing variety of meat-stuffed grain. With a few exceptions, such as the Mosul variety which is two thin layers of bulgur with a meat layer in the middle, they are shaped somewhere between a torpedo and an American football, a coating of starch enveloping a meaty core. I chose this one, with a shell of rice and potatoes, in homage to the predominance of rice in the Iraqi cuisine and psyche. (Though, oddly, its name refers to the Syrian city of Aleppo.)

This was a labor-intensive dish. The meat isn't so hard to make but for all the breaking-up of the ground lamb in the frying pan. The outer shell requires cooking both rice and potato, then passing through a meat grinder, before forming into balls that you poke a hole into and smush in just enough lamb but not so much that it bursts. Then you have to freeze the balls to get them firm enough so they don't break apart when being fried in the pan, but even then they sometimes break and a fair amount of the crispy bits stick to the pan rather than the food. It's tasty enough, but maybe I'd recommend the easier Mosul variety!

Masgouf | Grilled butterflied fish | Recipe

Masgouf is a freshly-killed carp from the Euphrates river, butterflied, rubbed with turmeric and tamarind, and splayed out vertically, its insides exposed to the nearby flames of slowly burning apricot wood. The memory of this dish, languid in the cooking, inspires such wistfulness for better days that it's been the topic of dozens of articles and even a widely distributed fictional book. But now the Euphrates is so polluted that it's a serious risk to eat a carp pulled from it, and the hours of leisure the live-fish-to-smoky-flesh preparation require are too far a luxury to Baghdadis of recent times.

My reasons for not making a true masgouf are purely logistical: I don't have the space or equipment to build such a fire, and none of the shops I went to in Chinatown had carp, so I used tilapia instead. Thankfully they took care of the butterflying for me, and I did my best to replicate a slow smoky fire by using hickory chips on the gas grill and very slowly and indirectly cooking the fish. You know what? It turned out super tasty. The smoke definitely came through, and the odd combination of spices paired nicely with the sweet flesh.

Timin shreya | Vermicelli rice | Recipe

Just like their Eastern neighbors, Iraqis love a crispy crust on their rice. Unlike the Persians, though, Iraqis don't go through an elaborate process of soaking and parboiling the rice and then exaggerating the crust with a layer on the bottom — they just use a bit of fat and a very long, slow cook to get a crispy crust the straightforward way. While putting vermicelli, little strands of pasta, in with the rice isn't necessarily the absolutely most typical presentation, it sure looks nice and adds variety to the presentation. If making this dish, it's really important to make sure the heat is well-diffused. I use a cast iron heat diffuser, but in a pinch you could just place your pot on top of a (not-non-stick) frying pan to make sure the heat really spreads, otherwise you'll get a burnt spot where the heat hits.

Kleicha | Date cookies | Recipe

Back when Iraq was a place of diverse religions, Jews and Christians as well as Muslims all would make this dish as a symbol of celebrations both religious and personal. It's not exactly what passes for a cookie in the West — the yeasted dough is decidedly unsweet and it's the filling that makes it dessert, and the whole thing is haunted with spices like generally un-sweet flavors like fennel and nigella — but the crispness and finger-food nature make for a sufficiently apt comparison. While they can be many shapes and filled with many things, the classic filling is dates and the roll-up cookie seems the most common.

These were actually really fun to make. The dates come together nicely, and the dough is so buttery that it's actually a pleasure to work with. And oh, the eating experience! A haunting combo of spices, a delightfully flaky cookie that gives way to a firmly chewy interior, and the perfect size for eating in two nibbles. Goes great with cardamom tea!

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.