Meal 124: Nigeria

For our first ever Nosh in LA, a very Portland thing happened: it started raining while we were barbecuing. It wasn't too hard, and it actually made standing near the glowing coals really pleasant. And who knows, maybe that extra bit of moisture helped the beef suya skewers turn out as well as they did. Nigeria is by far Africa's most populous country, ranked #7 in the world at 192 million — with a median age of eighteen and the highest growth rate of the top 15 countries. There's enormous diversity of language, culture and religion, and accordingly there's a lot of variety in the food, though fortunately for the sake of Noshing, there are themes that run throughout most if not all of the food traditions, as well as foods associated with a particular ethnic group that are popular all over.

Huge thanks to Kirsten and Alex for not only hosting, but also helping so much with the cooking. Joining us were Sarah-Doe, Zoe, Jess, Jessie, and our guest of honor Ben, who taught us a lot about the foods he grew up eating with his Nigerian family.

Egusi pepper soup | Melon-seed spicy stew | Recipe

Soup is the core unit of most Nigerian meals. The term is applied more broadly than I'm used to; from what I can gather — and please, if you're more familiar with the cuisine, correct me if I'm wrong — any sort of food that's been cooked in liquid until soft will qualify.

The two soups I kept coming across were pepper soup and egusi soup. The former isn't a reference to chilis, but rather various spices named for a passing similarity to black pepper. The latter is a melon seed that's ground up and lends thickness, texture, and flavor. Having the time and kitchen space to make only one, I was glad to find that there's at least one group, the Urhobos, who combine them.

If you don't have a West African market near you there's no sense in trying to make it, as you almost certainly won't find the core ingredients elsewhere. If you do, well, maybe try finding another recipe. Despite the several steps and promising ingredients, the soup ended up as a confused and underwhelming jumble, both visually and flavor-wise. Or maybe I just messed it up. Either way, maybe better to stick with one soup or the other.

Garri | Cassava balls

Frequent readers of the blog, all five or so of you, will know that I've struggled with African porridge/mush, and so often ended up with something lumpy and runny. Well, this time I think I nailed it, with something thick enough to roll into balls. I think it's something about how the prepared cassava flour doesn't require any cooking, so you can keep adding either water or flour as needed until the consistency is right.

In Nigeria, a mass of starch like this is called a "swallow." You pinch a piece of it, form it into a scoop, pick up some of the soup or other thing you're eating, and swallow it all.

Suya | Spicy beef kebabs | Recipe

Lots of cultures grill meat on skewers, and some of them season the meat with a dry spice rub. But I've never seen ground peanuts mixed into the spices, the way the Hausas do it. This addition was awesome, adding just a bit of crunchy texture and just barely toning down a moderately fiery rub. A keeper!

Ewa | Honey beans in sauce | Recipe

This dish resembles the more straightforward ingredients and technique that I've encountered in many other African countries' meals. What's notable is the beans, a relative of the black-eyed pea that has a less prominent "eye," is more brown, and has a mildly sweet flavor, hence "honey beans." It was fine, maybe even good if you particularly like the flavor of palm oil.

Boli | Roasted plantains | Recipe

Many Nigerian sweets are fried, but making them would have violated my "no deep frying in other people's kitchens" rule. And fortunately, the market had packages of chin-chin, little semi-sweet fried nuggets. But we had to do something more, and the grill was already hot, so we made the simple yet very satisfying treat of sweet plantains cooked with nothing more than charcoal. There's something exotic about grill marks on fruit, and the end-of-the-coals low heat made for some very nice caramelization. While grilled plantains are most often eaten alongside fish and sauce, in this case they made for a very nice gently sweet finish to the meal.

Meal 118: Namibia

Namibia is a dry place. Most of it is desert, the best-known of which being the Kalahari, with a little strip classified as "semi-arid." In such an environment, few vegetables grow, so for thousands of years people living in this part of the world have relied on animals to turn meager grasses and shrubs into edible food. Accordingly, everyone, including the poor, makes meat a large portion of their diet, so naturally this meal featured meat in several forms.  It was hard to find any recipes that were truly Namibian, so I mostly went with South African recipes that seemed most in line with what I could gather is eaten in Namibia. (Perhaps we can blame the fact that the land was administered by South Africa as "South-West Africa" from 1915 through 1990.) Since Laura and I went to South Africa the previous winter, we had a decent frame of reference for the food.

While Namibia is a sparsely populated country, our backyard was packed for this meal, since 25 of our neighbors showed up to a block-wide Nosh invite! It was a grand time, with old-timers and newcomers alike, and many neighbors who'd never gotten beyond "Hi" finally getting to know each other. We'll surely do it again.

Biltong | Air-dried beef strips | Recipe

Biltong is like jerky, except with vinegar in place of salt, and deeply intertwined into the culture and soul of a whole region rather than a mere convenience-store snack. While it's better-known globally as being a South African food, many South Africans will tell you that the best biltong comes from Namibian meat. While it can be made from many kinds of animal, particularly game, in this case I used beef.

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With the right setup and a good butcher, making biltong is really simple. From your butcher, you'll want meat from the back of the hind legs, something low in fat and rather tough, that either you or they slice into fairly thin steaks. All it takes is an overnight marinade in vinegar, coriander, and salt, dry it off, and — here's where the right setup comes in — hang it to cure in a dry, ventilated environment. You could use a dehydrator at a low temperature or even use a purpose-built biltong dryer, but I went with the traditional method: hanging in the basement. (Not pictured: a mosquito net I used to keep flies away, and a table lined with paper towel to catch the dripping.) After about a week, the meat had shrunk a fair deal and was quite firm.

Against all odds and expectations, it was a huge success. The biltong had a great texture, firm enough to resist but not a chore to chew. And the flavor! Truly beefy, highlighted by the vinegar's tang and the nutty mustiness of the coriander. It's good snacking on its own, and just perfect with a beer.

Braai | Barbecue

I did a lot of research to see if there was anything specific to a braai that made it substantially different from, say, an American backyard barbecue; as far as I could tell, there isn't, but it was imperative to do one given how important it is to the food culture. I'd brought back a bag of opaquely labeled "Braai Spice" from our trip to South Africa, so I just rubbed that on some pieces of steak and threw it all over the coals. It was delicious.

Potjiekos | Spiced stew | Recipe: Lamb, Chicken (minus the couscous)

This "little pot food," as it literally translates, reminds me somewhat of the Southwestern chili con carne. It's a meal in a pot that you can cook over an outdoor fire, applying spices from afar — in this case, curry powder — to modest homegrown ingredients. One big difference, though, is that while chili is a true stew, a potjie isn't as liquid. It's also worth noting that it's stirred very infrequently, the idea is that although everything cooks in the same pot, the ingredients retain their individual flavors.

A few hours of slow cooking, combined with restrained seasoning, led to dishes that were on the mild, "comfort food" side. Despite how lamb is a more strongly flavored meat, the chicken one had a more developed flavor, perhaps due to the sly "Coke cola" lending sugar and some more spice.

Chakalaka | Tomato and bean relish |Recipe

Certainly one of the most fun dish names to say! It's also a tangy, (optionally) spicy, warm and stew-y complement to grilled meat. If you're missing one ingredient or want to adjust the proportions, by all means; this is definitely the sort of dish that's more of a throw-it-all-together rather than a strict recipe.

Mealie pap | Corn mush

Indulge me in a bit of etymological sleuthing: looking into why corn is called "mealie," it turns out it comes from the Portuguese word for corn, milho, which itself comes from the Latin milium, for millet. (For what it's worth, the term "maize" comes directly from a native Caribbean word.)

Anyway, pap is like fufu or ugali or any of those other mushes: a bland, dense starch to accompany the meal. After having cooked probably two dozen meals of this kind of food, I think I'm finally grasping that it has to be thick enough to hold, something with no runniness to it. The tough part is that you start with a pot of water and then add the grain to it, so the only way to deal with a too-thin pap is to add more grain. We probably got the texture right, but my goodness we had a lot of leftover pap.

Amarula ice cream

Just about the only liqueur from southern Africa that's internationally distributed is Amarula, a sweet, creamy drink made with marula fruit. (You may have seen the video of elephants getting drunk off the fruit; turns out it's a fake using footage from tranquilizations.) It's a bit similar to an Irish cream, but with a subtle tropical-fruit vibe. So I got it in my head to make an ice cream of it, adapting a recipe for Irish cream and simply substituting Amarula (any decent recipe, such as this one, will do). It turned out great: a lovely light brown color, a fantastic texture thanks to the alcohol, and a lovely smooth flavor that's far from overpowering. The perfect conclusion to a summer braai!

Meal 114: Mozambique

Wherever the Portuguese colonized, the exchange of ingredients and dishes was intense. Mozambique's spicy grilled chicken spread throughout the empire, becoming beloved from Lisbon to Goa, while bread is still baked everywhere throughout the Southern African country. I was also struck by how, even though the country is halfway around the world, this was one of the easiest meals to shop for, as every ingredient is available at a standard American supermarket. This was our second Nosh at Laura's parents' place on Anderson Island in Washington's South Puget Sound. Friends from around the island joined the table.

Pão | Rolls | Recipe

A fairly simple, moderately crusty, hamburger-bun-sized roll with a generous dusting of flour. If I'd had access to a wood-burning oven I imagine there'd have been a nice faintly smoky flavor, but as it was these were nice enough. There were many varieties of the recipe, and on a whim I went with the one that has you make a sponge with a bit of molasses before building up the bulk of the dough. We enjoyed them, but frankly I probably could have let them rise a tad longer (perhaps an extra 20 minutes after shaping), and the insides were a tad bit gummy so I should have baked them an extra few minutes.

Salada de abacate e pêssago | Avocado and peach salad

It surprised me to learn that stone fruit from deciduous trees, like peaches, can grow in tropical climates. What's more, it turns out that peaches pair quite nicely with avocados. Especially with the help of a little lemon juice, there's a nice blend of flavors and textures. I don't have a recipe to link to since I threw this together at the last minute based on what I kind of remembered from other recipes, and then right before serving I decided to toss on top some cooked shrimp left over from the matapa.

Molho de piri-piri | Hot sauce

Piri-piri is the name of a particularly fiery small chili pepper also known as the African bird's eye chili. It's best known as the core ingredient of a hot sauce of the same name. While there are as many recipes as people who make it, I followed the basic instructions at the bottom of the matapa recipe: chili, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and salt. It's an infinitely flexible sauce, just add more or less of any ingredient as you like.

I was kicking myself because I bought powdered piri-piri pepper in South Africa with the express purpose of using it for this meal, but left it right by the front door at home. But I used plain ol' cayenne pepper, and it worked great, which bodes well for everyday home cooks.

Galinha á cafreal | Spicy grilled chicken | Recipe

The recipe's simple enough to write in a tweet: break apart a chicken; marinate with oil, salt, pepper, and piri-piri sauce; grill; baste every so often; eat. You can spatchcock the chicken, which looks super impressive but takes a good while to cook (keep your thermometer handy and check that thigh joint); for faster grilling, use pieces.

My friends, this was just delicious. Thanks to a few hours of marinating, plus being cooked just about whole, it was so succulent. The hot sauce contributed a fantastic medley of flavors, and the long cooking led it to caramelize a bit and just wow.

Matapa | Greens and ground peanuts with prawns | Recipe

I've made a lot of African green sauce. Until now, it's been tolerable at best. This time it was so good people were taking home leftovers.

The most notable difference was that instead of using frozen cassava leaves, I used fresh kale. The cassava leaves from the African market come in a solid block, and are bitter and dry. Having never seen or tasted the fresh version, I don't know how much of that is the nature of the leaves and how much was the consequence of being shipped frozen from another continent.

Anyway, this preparation, with fresh greens, was really pretty good. The most clever part is making a broth from the shrimp shells, which you then use to cook the blended kale before adding the ground peanuts. Make sure to have a food processor on hand, doing the pureeing and grinding with a blender is really tedious as I discovered.

Bolo polana | Cashew and potato cake | Recipe

This is the first potato-based dessert I've ever seen! It works, and is rich and tasty, but man, is it dense. And between the cashew, butter, and all those egg yolks, it's quite a fatty marvel. This would work plenty well as a gluten-free cake, the flour in the recipe is an almost insignificant amount and could surely be replaced by any GF flour. Note that it took way longer than the specified 30–45 minutes for the middle of this cake to cook through for me.

Vinho | Wine

If you're a Mozambican wealthy enough to afford it, you might have a taste for Portuguese wine. So that's what we drank. Otherwise, (decent light) beer and (apparently low-quality) rum are the preferred alcoholic drinks.

Meal 98: Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein is one of two doubly-landlocked countries, meaning that every country it borders is also landlocked. So it was entirely unfitting, then, that we held this meal at a party house on the Oregon coast, as part of the celebrations of Laura's 30th birthday.

Sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland, the cuisine is emphatically Alpine Germanic, with dairy products dominating. While this meal wasn't as grand or as eagerly anticipated as Laura's previous birthday feasts of Canada, France, and Italy, it was surprisingly tasty and satisfying. Then again, maybe it's hard to go wrong with so much cheese, cream, and butter!

What a fun crowd for celebrating this birthday: Molly, Ellen, Bryce, Laura, Craig, Kristine, Tim, Sebastian, Chelsea, Haley, Derek, and Alondra!

Spargel vom grill | Grilled asparagus | Recipe

Asparagus is a classic spring vegetable, though I didn't manage to find the fat, white asparagus that's much more common in Europe. So we doctored up plain ol' skinny green asparagus with "spring herbs" (in this case, dandelion greens I plucked from the yardm green onions I grew over the winter, and parsley from the store), plus a smear of butter, and wrapped them in foil and grilled them. (Have you ever seen an indoor grill on a kitchen range? It was kinda weird and uneven, but it worked!) I'm a fan of asparagus, but I really liked this version: the herbs, butter, and grill-steaming all really worked nicely.

Kaninchengeschnetzeltes | Rabbit in cream sauce | Recipe

I should have realized it'd be hard to find a rabbit on Easter weekend! After calling around to a half dozen butcher shops, I found what may have been the last bunny in Portland in a Whole Foods freezer.

I'm glad I didn't have to revert to the backup plan of just using chicken, because this dish really brings out the subtly rich flavor of rabbit, especially with the tweak I made in preparation. See, the recipe calls for cooked rabbit but doesn't say how to cook it, so I browned and braised it in champagne (left over from the previous night's party!), and subsequently boiled down the braising liquid to contribute to the cream sauce.

The dish is rich, soft, creamy and meaty, so the accompaniment of a poached pear half filled with tart jam is a cleverly tart and toothsome contrast. I couldn't find cranberry preserves (other than the stuff in a can, that is), so I went with lingonberry, which was awesome. All in all, a pretty time-consuming and decadent dish, but tasty!

Käsknöpfle | Cheesy mini-dumplings | Recipe

What a crowd-pleaser! Better known by the common German word spätzle, these little squirts are halfway between dumplings and noodles, and you use a special apparatus to form little strands from a mass of dough which then fall into boiling water. It's a fair amount of work to make, but fortunately we had an enthusiastic expert on hand who'd learned to make them when living in Germany. Thanks, Ellen!

I couldn't find the traditional sura kees anywhere, nor was I successful finding advice on a substitute, partly because its English translation, "sour cheese," happens to be a marijuana strain so the search results weren't helpful. I ended up with a grab bag of Alpine cheeses: Emmental, Gruyère, and Fontina. It probably wasn't as sour as it should have been, and we may have put on too much cheese because the recipe didn't specify...nope, no such thing as too much cheese, it was fantastic. We also made one little variation on the recipe by throwing the whole mess under the broiler to brown the top a bit, and then returned to the recipe to shower the top with crispy-fried onion slices. So tasty!

Ribel | Milky cornmeal gruel | Recipe

This was supposed to be a milky, crumbly version of polenta. To keep it vegan we made it with almond milk, and in the chaos of getting ready for dinner, forgot the part about baking it. It wasn't bad, but it was just kinda like regular polenta.

Öpfelküechli | Apple fritters | Recipe

"Don't worry, everyone, I'm about to flambé." Famous last words before a splash of cognac turned into an eight-foot column of flame!

These batter-dipped apple slices were tasty enough, but frankly not worth the effort. Especially since we had no way of coring an apple that would keep it intact as rings, it was just really tedious to batter and fry every little piece — like, making a whole apple pie would have been less work. But without the righteous two-second fireball.

Meal 88: Kenya

We've already enjoyed three meals from the Horn of Africa, but it's taken us until the K's to start into East Africa proper. It looks a whole lot more like Central African, though I'm happy and relieved to report that we found it quite a bit tastier.

As with so many former colonial countries, the borders of Kenya arbitrarily threw a bunch of tribes together. Accordingly, there's not exactly a national cuisine as such, but there are a few dishes that are extremely common throughout the country. So we made those collards and corn mush dishes, and rounded out the meal with dishes chosen from around the counties that stretch from the sea to Africa's highest mountain.

After our small trial run for Kazakhstan, we went big for this meal, taking advantage of our new, large dining room to seat twelve around two tables. Our guests were Hannah, Emily, Frank, Don, Chelsea, Sebastian, Craig, Laura, Kaely, and Brett. The first four arrived a half hour early, due to an error in my email, but they proved super helpful in the kitchen, as I'd once again misestimated the prep time in the dishes and was relieved to have a small army of choppers, stirrers, and washers appear! Thanks, folks!

And extra-special thanks to my buddy Walter, who lived in Kenya for several years, and gave me some excellent and very useful advice on what to serve. I love it when someone can distill the essence of a country's foodways and the culture around it — I still do plenty of research to support and understand, but the guidance and structure is invaluable.

Dawa | Vodka and lime with honey swizzle | Recipe

Dawa is the Swahili word for medicine. In this case, it's got the spoonful of sugar built right in, as this drink is essentially a caipiroska (vodka-lime-sugar) taken to the next level with a swizzle-stick dipped in honey. It's tart, it's sweet, it's boozy. And it's in my hand in the above photo!

Ugali | Cornmeal porridge | Recipe

Just about all of sub-Saharan Africa has some sort of mush as the bedrock of a meal. Kenya's no different. I read in a few places that a meal is considered incomplete without this simple mix of cornmeal and water, mixed so thick that you can stand a spoon in it, and then tear off clumps with your hand to use as a vessel for scooping whatever else is on the plate.

Sukuma wiki | Collard greens | Recipe

If you're the average Kenyan on an average day, that other thing on your plate is probably the humble, tasty, nutritious collard greens, simmered for a long time with maybe some onions, tomato, and a bouillon cube. The name means "to stretch the week," as in, it's the food you can afford to eat when your money's running out before you're next paid.

I was afraid I'd find it pretty bland, given that it wouldn't have the benefit of ham or bacon as done in Southern cooking. Maybe it's because this was some super fresh (and enormous! the leaves were like two feet long!) farmers-market collards, or maybe it's really that easy to bring good flavor with a few hours of simmering, or maybe the MSG in the bouillon saved the day. Whatever the reason, the greens were tasty and popular.

Nyama choma | Grilled goat

Some cultures, such as Chinese, bring romance and storytelling to the names of their dishes. So too with parts of Africa: Cameroon has a dish Poulet D-G, standing for directeur général, since the dish is considered so fancy and tasty it's fit for the boss. Not so much with nyama choma, which literally means "burn the meat." To be fair, that's pretty much all you do: once the meat's on the skewers, all you do is slather it with warm salted water every few minutes while letting the flames sear the outside and seal the tasty juices on the inside.

The meat in question here is goat. Several months ago, someone who I wish I could remember so I could give them the credit said, "Goat is like soccer: popular in most of the world, but not the U.S." Fortunately, it's not too hard to find in Portland. I biked in the rain to a Somali market up on Killingsworth, which offered me a choice of leg or shoulder — and we agreed that the latter is the better choice for kabobs. $5/pound including cutting into kabob size. In Kenya, the sale price would have also included free grilling with a place to sit in the back!

But who cares about what it's called or where I got it. The suckers were scrumptious, embarrassingly so given how little I had to do in terms of cheffing to get them on the table. I'm certainly doing this one again on a warm weeknight.

Kachumbari | Tomato "salsa" | Recipe

Mexican pico de gallo is a great foil for the rich meat on a taco. The East Africans pair their grilled meats with almost exactly the same condiment — fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime, chili — but it came to them via a completely independent and unlikely source: the English! Just as, in the Egypt nosh, we saw how they introduced a rice-and-lentil dish from India that transformed into the national food, they also brought an onion-and-tomato salad that became ubiquitous on the other side of the Indian Ocean. No point in reviewing: this really was exactly the same as how I'd make a pico de gallo.

Mchuzi wa samaki | Swahili fish curryRecipe

Whereas the grilled goat was the essence of simplicity, likely borne of the necessity of a nomadic lifestyle, this coastal curry shows off what you can do when you're in a tropical setting on the sea, with both the fish and the trading it entails. It gets its name from the coastal Swahili people, whose Kiswahili language has become the common language of much of East Africa. The dish was quite tasty, with a double-dose of turmeric imparting a pleasing color and a haunting flavor that brought zing to an otherwise simply flavored meal.

Muthokoi | Cracked corn and pigeon pea stew | Recipe

This dish of cracked corn and pigeon peas takes us back inland to the Akamba tribe of Eastern Kenya, and we're back to simple, earthy foods. I wasn't planning on making it, but at Mama Pauline's African Market, I got the two ingredients on a hunch that I'd find something to make with them. As you'd guess, this was a hearty and filling dish, with the flavor again coming from store-bought seasoning, a specific brand name called Royco. It's not even listed in the ingredients, and it's even written in lower-case in the recipe, that's how common the spice blend is. (Should you want to make this dish, you could use a bouillon cube, or look up "homemade royco" to find several variants. I can't remember which I used!)

Tea and cake

Walter, my buddy who'd lived several years in Kenya, gave me all sorts of specific and useful advice on the other dishes. But what he said about dessert cracked me up: "You MUST serve Bad Cake. It's effectively the national dish and national pastime. Kenyans love cake more than any people I've ever known, and they make cake worse than any people I've ever known also." This proved quite a challenge: how to make a cake that'd be intentionally bad? And bad in what way? Well, since I had a few gluten-free folks coming, I took advantage of the opportunity, and simply made a gluten-free yellow cake. Maybe it wasn't bad-to-Walter's-taste in the way Kenyans do it, but it definitely was, well, a gluten-free cake. To make the cake more Kenyan, I decorated it like the flag, which was easier and more fun than I expected.

A surprisingly nice start to East Africa, let's see how things go as we explore farther down the coast.