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 96: Liberia

This little slice of West Africa, internationally infamous for its brutal civil war and more recent Ebola crisis, has an unique origin story: it was founded by freed slaves who returned from the US.  (Note: A Liberian comments that this is the wrong way to portray it. To clarify I should say that the nation in its current political form was founded by those free slaves; indeed there were many people living there prior.) From what I can tell most of the cuisine is based on the locally available foods — which, unlike most of the rest of Africa but similarly to its immediate neighbors, is based on rice as a staple — but there are hints of the American legacy, particularly in the desserts.

Thanks to Jeff, Mark, and Heather, all folks who've worked in Liberia, for advice that translated directly into my choice of dishes. (Sorry none of you could make it!) And to Mama Pauline's, the African market that's a short bike ride away, for having everything I needed and plenty of friendly advice!

This was our first-ever meal where we didn't know any of the guests, and it was a great success! We met an astrophysicist, a Portland Police detective, and a caterer from Hood River, among other fascinating characters. Thanks to Jia, Daniel, Katie, Mary, Dave, Courtney, Emily, Brynden, Bonni, and Geo for coming, and for donating generously!

Kanyah | Peanut snack | Recipe

A really simple treat made from just peanuts, rice, and sugar. To avoid turning it into peanut butter, I crushed the peanuts by hand in my big mortar and pestle, which was easy enough. (You could use a Ziploc and a rolling pin to similar effect.) But crushing toasted rice grains by hand was getting mighty tedious, so I just threw them into the food processor. The resulting mix of the three ingredients is like slightly wet sand and hence quite crumbly; I used a measuring cup to create the forms. It’s reminiscent of halva or those other crumbly sweets from the heart of the Near East.

Palm butter Recipe and some advice

The rich sauce extracted from palm nuts can be found all along the coast of West Africa, and it’s typically prepared in the same way, as a stew. When we’ve cooked this dish for other countries, it has one type of meat, if any at all. But Liberians seem to revel in tossing in whatever treasures of land and sea they manage to come across, hence why the recipe calls for [[CRAB??]], shrimp, chicken, beef, and smoked turkey. (Of course if you don’t have them all on hand, just use what you’ve got!) Given that these palms are native to this part of the continent, it’s little wonder that this is considered a very important dish, one that a woman is traditionally expected to be able to make before she’s considered marriageable.

I messed up in one big way. As the name implies, this dish is supposed to be cooked down until it’s thick and rich. But I started with a bunch of water to boil the meats, and then added more to thin the palm sauce, and even after an hour and a half of boiling it was too thin. Alas, it was time to eat, so we ended up with more of a soup. It was definitely tasty (though I found the shrimp to be quite overcooked — my preference would have been to add them at the very end!), but if you’re going to make this, make sure to err on the side of less water as you can always add more. Alas, doesn’t look like I’m quite cut out to be a Liberian housewife yet.

Sweet potato greens | Recipe

Add these to the list of foods I’m surprised we don’t see more often in American markets. They’re tasty, nutritious, easy to cook, and we’re already producing them everywhere we grow sweet potatoes. (My guess is they’re being fed to pigs.) Fortunately, Mama Pauline’s had them frozen in a big lump imported from Cameroon, and they cooked up quite like frozen spinach would. As with the palm butter, it’s a stew with a jumble of meats, though with a fresher and less heavy flavor. This was the clear crowd favorite!

Check rice Recipe

I couldn’t figure out where the name comes from, does anyone know? The special ingredient is jute, which is known as molokhiya in the Arab world, an astonishingly mucilaginous green that until now I’d only encountered as a really goopy soup. Fortunately I find it goes a lot better when mixed in judicious quantities with rice.

Speaking of rice, it’s the main grain of this corner of Africa, and is typically made these days from the parboiled (aka converted) variety. Despite the bad rap that Uncle Ben gets for his converted rice, it turns out to actually be healthier than plain white rice, because the parboiling process forces vitamins from the germ into the heart of the grain.

Hot fried pepper Recipe

If the intense spice of the peppers doesn't get you, then the pungency of the smoked fish will! Be sure to open the windows and turn on the vent when preparing and frying up this intense condiment, which brings an unmistakably West African flavor to the table. I scaled down the recipe by 2/3 and still had way too much left over!

Pineapple beer Recipe

“Beer” is a misnomer, as there’s no yeast or brewing or alcohol involved. But it wouldn’t be right to call it “juice” either, since instead this is more of an extract made by boiling pineapple and leaving it to sit overnight, then straining the solids from the flavored water. I’m not quite sure why this is considered a better technique than simply juicing a pineapple and adding a weak simple syrup, it’s certainly more labor-intensive! But I guess you can do it with nothing more specialized than a knife and a strainer (or a substitute like an old, clean t-shirt), rather than something to press juice with.

Ricebread Recipe

While much of Liberian food is quite similar to that of the surrounding countries, one distinctive aspect is a tradition of baking that returned feed slaves brought back from the US. This recipe’s understated name leaves out an important part, it’s full of plantains along with broken rice. It’s rich and hearty, though not too sweet, a nice gluten-free breakfast option that we happened to eat for dessert.

Meal 69: Guinea-Bissau

If you know anything about Guinea-Bissau, chances are it's the dubious media-granted title of "the world's first narco-state" and the ensuing coup. Conveniently located just a few days' boating from South America, the small former Portuguese colony has become a waystation for drugs en route to Europe. The army not only consents but participates, increasingly so since last year's coup. Not surprisingly, the money hasn't reached the people; Guinea-Bissau is among the least-developed countries in the world. While the country is poor, it does offer some rich culinary opportunities. Not surprisingly, given its coastal location, much of the dishes are fish and seafood based. Due to scheduling confusion and illness, half our guests couldn't make it, so we had an intimate crowd of Karen, Ryan, and Sarah-Doe.

Cashew rum

Did you know that the cashew is actually the seed of a fruit? It's known as the cashew apple, and looks like this:

The Portuguese found cashews in Brazil, and as far as I can tell, wherever the Portuguese colonized, they brought cashews with them. In fact, the economy of Guinea-Bissau has become so dependent on cashew farming that a recent price dip has been wreaking havoc on an already fragile economy.

While cashews are a cash crop traded around the world, the fruit -- which is tasty and tangy and packed with vitamins -- bruises easily and doesn't transport well. But one thing that could transport, but for some reason we don't see in temperate climes, is cashew rum, the brandy made from fermenting and distilling the fruit. We found some in Goa on our trip to India in January, they call it feni there, and it has a distinctive and almost cloying tropical-fruit aroma. We brought some back, and had no clue what we'd do with it, until I read in a travel guide that cashew rum is popular in Guinea-Bissau. So I whipped up some hibiscus drink, poured in some rum, and it was a great combo, the tartness really cut through the strength of the rum to just be all around satisfying.

Bolinhos de mancarra com peixe | Fish and peanut balls | Recipe at end of post

A large portion of the recipes I found were for fried fish balls, so for the first time in months I pulled out the deep fryer. Oh boy, was it worth it. The unlikely combination of fishiness and nuttiness works so well. And the texture was an extra bonus: a dense and moist inside with a crisp outside, and just enough grease to make you want to take a sip of your drink and eat another! As you'll see from the recipe below, it's a fair amount of work, but I don't regret it a bit.

Pitche-patche de ostras | Oyster stew | Recipe

Oysters in Africa? Apparently so! If you happen to have a bunch of oysters laying around, and you don't feel like eating them raw, it's hard to think of a simpler way to prepare them in a tasty way. This is, naturally, a pretty soft and filling food: pale, mushy oyster and plump, white rice in a clear broth. But the chili and smattering of veggies give it just enough color and bite to make for a surprisingly satisfying soup.

Frango com bagique | Chicken with spinach | Recipe

A pretty simple dish, essentially chicken gently simmered in red palm oil with greens. (I did quite a bunch of sleuthing which led me to come to the not-firm conclusion that bagique is sorrel leaves, but since I couldn't find any sorrel, I just followed the recipe and went with spinach.) I marinated the chicken in the oil and onion mixture for a while, maybe it helped a bit. If you don't want to do all that pounding you could save yourself some effort and grind it in a food processor. The cooking time is an underestimate, I probably needed an extra 20 minutes, which you could probably cut out if you put a lid on the pot. A decent dish, and a fine introduction to African cooking that requires only one specialty ingredient.

Mandioca assada com xarope de cana | Grilled cassava with cane syrup | Recipe

When life gives you sugar cane and a bland, mealy root vegetable, I guess you should heat up the former and roast the latter and mix them. I dunno, this didn't do it for me, baked is so flavorless that even with the syrup on top I kinda felt like I was eating a whole lot of nothing.


As promised, here's the recipe for the deep-fried goodness!

Bolinhos de mancarra com peixe

Fish and peanut balls

Recipe adapted from Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters by Cherie Hamilton

1 cup shelled roasted peanuts (or a few cups in the shell) 2.5 pounds mackerel fillets (for me, that was three medium-small fish) Juice of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/2 onion, sliced thin 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 medium onions, grated A few sprigs parsley, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1 egg Vegetable oil for frying

Grind peanuts in a food processor and set aside. Stop a bit short of making peanut butter.

Mix lemon juice, salt, pepper, and onion in a wide dish, add the fillets, flip the fillets to coat them, and let marinate for at least 30 minutes. Heat the tablespoon of oil in a skillet or frying pan (a non-stick one would be convenient), and fry the fillets until brown on both sides; discard the marinade. Don't despair if the fillets break up. Remove the fillets to a paper-towel-lined plate; once they're cool enough to handle, flake the fish into a bowl. Start heating up your frying oil; I went for about 350 degrees in a deep fryer. (Note: this is a great article about deep frying, it focuses on how many times you can re-use oil but contains many great tips.)

Add onions, parsley, salt, and the egg to the bowl, along with the peanuts you've ground. Mix everything together with your hands. Form into ping-pong size balls, paying a bit of care to pack the mass and smooth the edges. You should get about 30. In my small home fryer I cooked four or five at a time, jostling halfway through to ensure even browning. (If the balls break up partway through, do something to help the balls stay together more: maybe another egg, or cornstarch. All is not lost, you can take the broken fried bits and re-combine them in with the rest of the mixture to start afresh and extra-crispy.) Remove to a paper towel. It's your choice whether to serve hot or cold; it's obligatory to serve with a drink!

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.

Meal 67: Ghana

When I asked for fermented cornflour at Owa Afrikan Market, the kindly shopkeeper replied, "Kenkey? Oh, that's from Ghana. We're a Nigerian store!" I didn't have much better luck at Diaby African Market, which is run by shopkeepers from Cote d'Ivoire who are equally friendly but equally devoid of kenkey. Just as I'd begun to grow a bit fatigued of what seem to be a limited range of very common African staples -- smoked fish, palm oil, cassava, yam, plantain, peanuts -- I was so happy to discover first-hand some real regional variation that I quickly overcame the disappointment of not finding what I was looking for. (Plus, as you'll see below, I got creative and found my way around it.)

Our guest of honor was Jessica, whose family is from Ghana and spent several years there. She cooked up some amazing spicy plantains! Also on hand were Anthony, Angad, Melanie, Christen, and Ignacio.

Shito | Dried shrimp pepper sauce | Recipe

In addition to being a word that makes any English speaker giggle, shito means hot pepper. It also refers, by synecdoche, to any spicy sauce, whether fresh or preserved. The fresh version, on the right, is so simple as to not require a recipe (onion, tomato, hot pepper, salt, pepper, food processor, done), while this one is both more complex and also not as spicy, as the bulk of the volume is actually pungent dried shrimp. As far as I can tell, this condiment, which can also go by the confusing name "black pepper," is like the ketchup of Ghana. It goes well with dishes made of red palm oil and other strong flavors, adding both depth and zing, but I made the mistake a few days later of adding it to a French-style braised chicken and that wasn't the beset combo.

Kenkey | Steamed fermented corn dumplings | Recipe

Since I couldn't find the pre-fermented cornflour, I had to figure out how to make it myself. The traditional method is to simply mix some cornflour and water, leave it for a few days, and let the naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria in the air land and multiply. Unfortunately, whenever I've done that in New York, whatever lands on the surface makes it smell like bad cheese and taste worse. But I had an idea! The recipe I used for injera suggested using a sourdough starter to give it the right microbes, beating the stuff in the air to the punch. So I mixed in a bit of my sourdough starter with the corn, and the next day, I had delightfully sour corn mush. After that, I followed the recipe to heat the mush and then steam it, though I might have cooked it too long because it came out rather firm. A nice, tangy starch that's different from the usual fufu!

Grilled Tilapia Recipe

Similar to what I made for the Cote d'Ivoire meal, I slashed up some tilapia, marinated it with an onion-chili-ginger mixture, and grilled it up. The flesh didn't turn out as well and kind of came off the bone as much rather than firm flesh. Maybe I didn't have the grill up high enough. But it was definitely tasty, and went well with the kenkey.

Palaver Sauce | Spinach stew | Recipe

Why this stew of greens, red palm oil and peanut butter is named for the Portuguese word for a discussion or a talk is the subject of much speculation and no conclusion. It's stranger still to me because the core ingredients show no influence of European or new world foods. In any event, I made this with spinach rather than trying to make a hard chunk of long-frostbitten greens work, and used the ubiquitous dry-smoked fish for flavoring. Happily, I also have an African basil plant growing in the back yard, which Jessica confirmed is the right seasoning for this dish. This strongly-flavored and -textured stew had a good foil in some grilled yam.

Kelewele | Spicy plantain bits

Ignore anything I said above and just concentrate on this part. I followed Jessica's instructions to get plantains with blackened skin, they were so ripe I had to keep them outside to avoid keeping the fruit flies inside! She showed up with a marinade of ginger, chili, and citrus, cut the plantains into little pieces, and marinated them. Then she fried them to within an inch of burning, so they were so amazingly sweet and caramelized yet still gingery and tangy and a bit spicy. This was by far the hit of the meal!

Jessica also brought a delicious ginger drink. Once again, thanks to her for making our meal so special and authentic!

Laura apologizes for the quality of the photos, the lens she normally uses for food photography needs repair.