Writers throw out the words “African cooking” all the time. I know. I have written same words, to my great embarrassment. But stop and think about something for a moment.
The term “African cooking” is just as ridiculous as calling the cooking of Europe “European cooking,” lumping together the cuisine of France with that of Portugal and Germany; seriously, you might as well just say “Africa is a country.”
What an enormous continent it is, comprising more than 50 countries, all different from each other in some way, all with their own culinary specialties. Yet, the cuisines of these countries share a lot of commonalities, principally because, in most cases, their political boundaries reflect colonial demarcations determined in part at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, not tribal or cultural lines.
West Africa – considered to be 18 countries* – is a special place when it comes to food. It’s a region with a harsh, unforgiving climate, where street markets bloom anywhere the fickle climate will support them. Perhaps here, more than any other place on Earth, seasonality dictates what food appears on the plate, a natural and uncontrived model of the concept of local foods.
Cooks there create vibrant, savory meals with an often limited repertoire of ingredients. Several West African dishes and techniques can still be savored in some recipes of the American South that are not really mainstream anywhere else (benne wafers, Hoppin’ John, gumbo, shrimp & grits), but more so in Brazil and the Caribbean: all places where Africans endured the pain and horrifying indignities of slavery.
Walk into the central market in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso or stroll down a busy street in Dakar in Senegal, and you’ll see how people make do, creating a vibrant cuisine from what is available. The aromas make your mouth water, and your eyes cannot get enough of the pulsating scene, as market women set out their small mounds of produce on the ground, covered with scraps of the colorful tie-dyed cloth that often tells stories of the dyer and the weaver.
Vegetables also poke out of the tops of baskets, like so many baby birds peering cautiously from their nest. Meat sits on counter tops, the various cuts nothing at all like the standard fare found in Western butcher shops and supermarkets. You might be puzzled by some of the spices and herbs, yes. But overall, the cuisine of West Africa is highly accessible to the Western cook.
Take, for example, the following recipe for meat cooked in a peanut sauce with fresh spinach, a dish that’s really universal, not just peculiar to Africa. Peanuts also flavor a number of dishes from Asia, too.
Resembling a native African bean known as the Bambara groundnut, the American peanut ironically rose to esteem under humble circumstances. African slaves stored Bambara groundnut stew recipes in their minds and likely dreamed of bubbling stew pots as they crossed the tossing Atlantic, confined in the holds of slave ships. Imagine their joy in finding the peanut, which reminded them of home. Again, ironically, memories of peanut-infused dishes were lost during the years of slavery, as witness the outrage that ensued when Whole Foods produced a recipe for collard greens with whole peanuts. These outraged folks simply didn’t know their own history. Greens cooked with a peanut sauce have been quite common in West Africa for a very, very long time.
At the same time, but a world away, the Portuguese introduced the peanut to West Africa and Asia. African cooks developed peanut brittle and kulikuli (or fried peanut balls).
One of the best cookbooks around about West African cooking is Elizabeth Jackson’s South of the Sahara (Fantail, 1999). I use it constantly because, for one thing, it brings back memories of my years in Burkina Faso.
You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy the cooking of Africa. Just a basic pantry, a few pots and your kitchen.
Meat in Peanut Sauce With Spinach
Prep time: 25 to 30 minutes
Cook time: 2½ hours
Total time: 3 hours
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
You may use beef, goat or lamb, if you prefer. And if you really like mutton, that, too.
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat, rinsed, cut into 2-inch chunks, and patted dry
1 1/2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, sliced, and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 piece of fresh ginger the size of a large walnut, peeled and lightly crushed with the side of a cleaver or large knife
1 small hot green pepper, seeded and minced, or more to taste
8 large plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt or, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or, to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or, to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 cups water
1 cup natural peanut butter
16 ounces fresh spinach leaves (or frozen, in a pinch)
Fresh cilantro leaves and roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
2. Place salted meat chunks in pot and cook until well; flip pieces over and brown the other sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside on a large plate.
3. Add onions to the pan and fry until slightly translucent and golden in color; toss in the garlic, ginger and hot green pepper. Cook for another minute or so, until garlic turns slightly golden.
4. Stir in tomatoes and cook for about 3 minutes. Mash tomatoes with a potato masher or other implement.
5. Mix in the salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, curry powder and thyme leaves. Stir well. Pour in 2 cups of water.
6. Add the meat, making sure to cover pieces with the liquid. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
7. Using some of the broth from the pot, thin the peanut butter and stir well. Add half of the peanut butter mixture to the stew. (Reserve the other half of the mixture for the spinach.) Cook, covered, until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add more water if stew looks too thick.
8. While the meat cooks, rinse the spinach, and immediately add it to a large skillet over high heat. Stirring constantly, cook the spinach until all the leaves wilt. Remove from heat instantly and drain the spinach in a colander with cold water. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess water from the spinach and set aside.
9. Just before the meat is done, place the spinach in a heavy-bottomed pot, gently stir in the reserved peanut sauce, and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, uncovered, making sure that the mixture stays moist. Add a few tablespoons of water if mixture gets too dry.
10. Ladle sauce over white rice, placing pieces of meat on the side. Garnish the meat and the rice with chopped cilantro leaves and peanuts. Spoon the spinach near the meat. Or, serve the meat and sauce with cornmeal mush or fufu (pounded yam or plantains).
11. Pass Fiery West African Tomato Condiment (recipe below) around the table and dribble some on the meat, if desired.
Fiery West-African Tomato Condiment
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 2½ to 3 cups
3 tablespoons peanut oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
2 to 3 red habanero peppers, seeded, and finely chopped (leave seeds in for an even hotter taste)
8 large plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in heavy-bottomed skillet.
2. Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until garlic turns slightly golden in color. Add peppers and fry for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
3. Slip tomatoes carefully into the oil to avoid splattering; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
4. Cook for 2 minutes and then lower the heat. Simmer, uncovered, until oil separates from the tomatoes.
5. Store in a covered container for up to a week. Use as a condiment with any Africa-inspired main dish.
*Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea,Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali,Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Saint Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe and Togo.
Main photo: Peanuts closely resemble the Bambara groundnut, a vital ingredient in many West African dishes. Credit: Cynthia D. Bertelsen
© 2016 C. Bertelsen