Meal 105: Mali

Mali sits squarely in the Sahel, the semi-arid band between the Sahara Desert and the more tropical West African coast. It's the original home of the peanut sauce stew found all over West Africa, while in the north you'll find influences from across the desert.

Our guests were Linda, David, Caitlin, Zoie, Amy, Nicole, David, Stephanie, and friend. Nicole and Stephanie did Peace Corps in Mali, as well as my friend Emily who was a huge help with the menu.

Salade malienne | Green salad with fried plantains and potatoes

Emily says that a salad in Mali is a basic green salad — lettuce, onion, tomato, etc. — with two notable additions. One is that the dressing is made with a salt-and-MSG-laden Maggi bouillon cube. The other is fried plantain and french fries. I left out the potato part, but did the plantains and Maggi-cube dressing, and wow that was a fun, tasty, and probably not-very-good-for-you salad.

Widjila | Beef stew with dumplings | Recipe

This dish comes from the north of Mali, the area around Timbuktu, abutting the southern edge of the Sahara. This dish clearly has a very strong influence from the other side of the desert, with rich spices like cinnamon, and a slow, gentle braise evoking North African tastes and styles. The yeasted wheat dumpling is curious, as it looks much more like something from Eastern Europe than anything I've found in African cuisine. As you'd expect, this dish was equally tasty and filling.

Mafé poisson | Fish in peanut sauce | Recipe

Peanut sauce is a classic West African preparation, and I chose to make this one with fish to reference the bounty of the Niger River. The sauce recipe is par for the course with what I've cooked from other nearby countries, however by this point I've learned my lesson, and I don't add much water to start — I've waited for an over-thin sauce to cook down too many times! You can always add more water.

We served this with fonio, a grain that's roughly the size and fluffiness of couscous, but with a nutritional value in the ballpark of quinoa. Back when we cooked the Guinea meal I estimated that it might become the next quinoa; since then, The Guardian wrote an article about a chef in New York who's trying to make it happen. It's still tough to find; our friend Anna made the effort to send it to me from a store in Brooklyn.

Dégué fonio | Milky pudding | Recipe

A dessert common to this part of the world involves various sorts of soured dairy mixed with grain. Given that I had fonio on hand, that's what I used. Whether or not you like this dish depends entirely on how much you like your dairy tangy, and whether creamy-mushy is your thing. (It is for me.)

Meal 56: Equatorial Guinea

8466392548_9ce90d5c57 Despite its name, none of the country lies on the Equator. Most of its land mass is on the African mainland, but the capital's on an island. Its colonial language is Spanish, but French and Portuguese are official languages too. It's the richest country per capita in the continent, thanks to a recent oil discovery, but most of the population lives in poverty.

That's a lot of contradiction for a very small country — its population is barely 700,000. But improbably, we know someone who spent three years living there when his father was the US ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. Stephen was an excellent guide to the culture, politics, and foodways of a country few people have even heard of. The food was pretty much reminiscent of other nearby countries — peanuts, palm products, etc. — though with a bit of Spanish flair and probably more spice.

Our guests on this decidedly un-tropical, post-snowstorm night were Rafi, Laura, Craig, Marcy, Stephen, Chrys, and Jeremy.

Vino de palma | Palm wine

This mildly alcoholic (~2%) beverage is brewed not from coconuts, but rather the same fruit that is pressed for palm oil. It's pretty sweet, almost like a cider, except with that distinctive palm-y flavor. This sort of thing is typically homemade, but Stephen managed to find a bottled version from Nigeria. Since we were out of space in the fridge, we turned to the great outdoors refrigerator to keep them cold — an incredibly incongruous technique given that the temperature never gets below the 70s there.

Pescado con dos salsas | Fish with two sauces | Recipe

All manner of fish, big and small, is thrown on the grill in Equatorial Guinea. By using small mackerel, I split the difference: the mackerel has the rich flavor of a bigger fish, but the small aspect makes for a faster, crisper grilling, reminiscent of Spanish-style sardines. I cut slits in the skin to let the chili-garlic-lime marinade seep in and also to ensure more even cooking. To prevent sticking and to add flavor, the recipe calls for painting the fish with palm oil before grilling. Barbecuing in freezing weather was a bit of an adventure, and I had to clear the snow off the porch to do it, but it was well worth the effort.

Salsa verde | Spinach sauce

Apparently it's common to serve sauces along with grilled fish. The recipe suggested three; I skipped the peanut sauce because that was accounted for with the chicken. Another sauce is a moderately spicy green sauce, traditionally made with a local vegetable for which spinach was a suggested substitute. While the flavors were fine, it was definitely too watery; if you choose to make this I'd cut down on the liquid by half or so.

Salsa de aguacate | Avocado sauce

I found the avocado sauce more interesting and tastier. Avocado is one of those foods that is treated very differently around the world. In the US and in Mexican cuisine it's treated as a vegetable, always eaten raw. In Brazil and several other tropical countries, it's thought of as more of a mild fruit, frequently mixed with sugar and maybe milk into a drink. But in Equatorial Guinea, apparently they cook it! This dish was essentially a gently simmered guacamole, and surprisingly the texture of the fragile avocado held up.

Contrichop con arroz | Chicken in peanut sauce over rice | Recipes: Chicken, rice

This is far from the first time we've had chicken-in-peanut-sauce, but this one has a bit of a twist. The chicken itself is very mildly cooked; this is the most elaborate recipe I found and even so it's little more than onions, chicken, and peanut butter. (Once again, I think it had too much water; in the end I removed the chicken and cooked down the sauce to get it to gravy thickness.)

The spice came not from the sauce, but from the rice — which is cooked in a risotto-like way, by first dry-frying the rice and then adding in water a bit at a time. As with risotto, it makes for a mushy mass. Perhaps this is a technique to have the rice absorb more water and therefore be more filling? Or maybe the cooking culture just doesn't like lids? Hm.

Kongodo | Peanut brittle | Recipe

Turns out, peanut brittle is really easy to make. Essentially you toast peanuts in a dry pan, pour in some sugar mixed into water, and stir constantly until it caramelizes. This recipe adds a tropical twist with "a few drops of lime juice," I used half of a half of a lime but couldn't taste it at all, so if you try it, use more! We enjoyed this sweet treat with a papaya, mango, and guava salad.

Next we're heading to somewhere more appropriate to the chilly weather we've been experiencing...Estonia!

Photos by Laura Hadden, whose favorite part of the meal was a post-dessert donut from the fridge.