Saturday, July 29, 2006

Make Mine Mawuyu

Perhaps you read Le Petit Prince as a high-school French student, or its English translation, The Little Prince, as a child. If so, then you are already familiar with the unmistakable "upside-down" shape of the baobab tree. Far, far from Saint-Exupéry's make-believe asteroid, the tree's broad, thick trunk and comparatively spindly branches can also be seen dotting the hot, dry savannas of Africa and Australia. Unlike its literary incarnation as a promulgating pest, the real-life baobab is one of the most useful trees on the planet. Its leaves, seeds, fruit, bark and trunk can all serve human purposes, from food to clothing to medicine to shelter. Just been shot by a poisonous arrow? Neutralize the toxins with baobab extract. Pantry out of cream of tartar? Try the pulp of the baobab fruit as a substitute. This fruit pulp can also make a tasty, lemon-scented porridge, which is how, today, I ate my very first baobab by-product.

A month ago, Sampson, our basket-weaving friend, brought us two baobab fruits from his rural home. They were the color of pâté and shaped like ostrich eggs. The skin was hard and coated with a velvety fuzz. Mark and I could pick up the fruits and give them a very satisfying, maraca-like shake. Beyond that, we had no idea what to do with them. So, they sat on our countertop. And sat and sat and sat.

This morning, Dorothy suggested that baobab pulp would make an excellent addition to our cream-of-wheat. After chuckling at my proposal to cut the baobab open with a knife, she picked one fruit up and smashed it several times against the brick wall. Inside the thick, fibrous shell was some pale-yellow powder, most of it encrusted around pellet-sized black seeds. With Dorothy’s encouragement, we popped the seeds in our mouths – the taste reminded us of a mild lemon sourball. We scooped out about half a cup of the pulp and seeds from the fruit, and added it to 3 cups of just-about-to-boil milk, along with a pinch of salt and a generous 2/3 cup of cream-of-wheat. After a few minutes of stirring, we had a creamy porridge, ready to serve with a dollop of honey.

If, to your mind, seeds suck all the joy out of a plump, juicy grape, then I'll have an uphill battle convincing you of the benefit of tossing baobab seeds in your porridge. And if cream-of-wheat is a dish you only plan to resort to when your teeth fall out, then I probably should have warned you to avoid reading this entry in the first place. Otherwise, trust me – the baobab seeds act as a thickener and the pulp adds a ton of Vitamin C to your breakfast meal, along with a light lemon flavor. Baobab fruit will no longer sit and sit and sit on our counter.

This post is an entry in Weekend Breakfast Blogging, excellently hosted by Saffron Trail.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

When Chocolate-Chili Sauce Finds Amore

It was a bottle of homemade chocolate-chili sauce, purchased at a neighborhood craft fair, which made finding genuine ice cream less of a “keep-your-eye-out” search and more of a “we-must-find-it” expedition. No way were we going to eat this sauce with the cotton-like substance that passes as ice cream in Zimbabwe. And no way were we going to let it lay idle on our shelves.

Our quest took us to the nearby shopping center, where, between Nando’s fast food chicken and a clothing store, there sat a long-ignored ice cream shop named Scoop. The rainbow-colored neon sign was uninviting, the peppermint-pink patio furniture chipped and cracked. From the outside you could only glimpse the funhouse mirrors lining the walls – and that glimpse was more than enough for me, a woman who ate a bowl of ice cream every day of her childhood, to give Scoop a wide berth.

But, with the arrival of the homemade chocolate-chili sauce, all preconceived notions were cast aside. As Mark and I stepped through the store’s threshold, not even the realization that, “yes, that is a fake sky painted on the ceiling, complete with ice-cream eating cherubs,” was enough to deter us.

As you have probably guessed, the ice cream was fantastic. In fact, it wasn’t even ice cream – it was gelato, hand-crafted on the premises by Ethiopian-Italians who had studied the art of gelato-making in Italy, no less. Who knew you could find homemade gelato in a shopping center in Harare? Call me crazy, but I was not in the know.

Gelato at Scoop has now joined the ranks of Beirut hummus at The Phoenician and haloumi pitas at Greek Sizzler as reasons why I’m happy that immigrants bring with them the food of their homelands, and that some of these immigrants have chosen to live in Zimbabwe.

With the help of Scoop’s vanilla gelato, the chocolate-chili sauce quickly disappeared. Luckily, however, my mother e-mailed me a recipe for Brigham’s hot fudge (and if you don’t know Brigham’s, you’re not originally from Massachusetts). With this reputable source as a starting point, I adapted the recipe to meet our chili requirements as well as the not insignificant constraints of this city’s ingredient availability (e.g., no baking chocolate!). It took much more spice than I thought for the sauce to pack the proper punch. The resulting mixture woos you with sweetness on the tip of your tongue, then surprises you with a nice, slow burn on the roof of your mouth.

Chocolate-Chili Sauce

1/3 cup butter
1 bar (100 grams) Cadbury Bournville dark chocolate
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
¼ cup cocoa
3 tablespoons sugar (or, to taste)
½ cup cream
Pinch of salt

Melt the butter and chocolate in a double boiler. Add the cayenne pepper, chili powder, cocoa and sugar, and stir until smooth. Pour in the cream and add a pinch of salt. Serve over ice cream, or, if you’re lucky, Scoop’s gelato.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Of Sautéed Greens and Sugar Beans

The hardest people to cook for are the people you have never eaten with. You have no idea if they shy away from spice or savor it; no clue if they eagerly try new dishes or stick to old stand-bys; nary a hint as to whether they push vegetables around their plate or start each meal with a salad. Want to make your menu-crafting conundrum even more challenging? Try entertaining acquaintances born and bred in a country other than your own.

For more than a year, I was overcome with anxiety every time I considered inviting Zimbabweans over our house to eat. What on earth would I serve? I recently decided that in order to overcome the impasse, I needed to start with small steps. So, I began by reflecting upon what my past experiences told me about what I should, and should not, prepare.

Lesson One
Over the past few years, Mark and I have been invited to share meals with people from many different countries. That’s why we know that Swedes squeeze fish paste out of a tube and dot it on their hard-boiled eggs; that if you want to consume anything other than meat or beer at a South African braai or an Australian barbie, you’d better BYO; that beets, eggs and fish form a merry, rose-colored troika in Russian fare; and that homemade Spanish tortilla is the most miraculous four-ingredient dish in the world. Sure, we don’t currently stock fish paste in our pantry, but each of these meals was an interesting cultural experience. On the other hand, there have been times when our foreign hosts have tried – very sweetly, I might add – to prepare their idea of American food. The results have been uniformly disastrous. Lesson learned – don’t try to imitate your guests’ native cuisine.

Lesson Two
I’ve mentioned before that Zimbabweans’ staple dish is sadza, and that it accompanies almost every meal. One characteristic of sadza is that it gives you a feeling of fullness difficult to attain with other foods. Thus, a Zimbabwean colleague – we’ll call her Rumbi – once told me of her experience dining at the home of a British friend, where she was served a lovely salad followed by a tasty stew. Rumbi then sat, patiently awaiting the main meal. Not until her host began serving tea and coffee did Rumbi venture to ask – “Can I help you with the main course?” Lesson learned – cook lots of food.

Lesson Three
My husband and I don’t eat meat, and, like many people around the world, Zimbabweans don’t think a meal is a meal without meat. I once ate a huge plate of sadza and beans in front of a colleague who looked at me, shook her head in disbelief and said, “I can’t believe that’s all you are eating.” Lesson learned – cook even more food.

With these lessons firmly in mind, I finally gathered the courage to invite six new Zimbabwean acquaintances over to our house for Sunday lunch. Of course, I still didn’t know exactly what I was making – simply that it wouldn’t be sadza and that, whatever it was, I would be making copious amounts. After an hour of aimlessly flipping through cookbooks, I had a eureka moment. What if I cooked with ingredients familiar to Zimbabweans, but prepared the food in ways familiar to me? I’ve been on a 2-year-long curry kick, so the main course menu was as follows:

Potato and Pea Curry (Mattar Batata)
Sri Lankan Greens (Mallum)
Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry
(All accompanied by cardamom-scented basmati rice, veggie samosas and assorted chutneys.)

Recent comments from the President of the Republic notwithstanding, potatoes are an occasional addition to Zimbabwean meals. Meanwhile, cooked greens and sugar beans are both frequent sadza accompaniments. The Potato and Pea Curry and Sri Lankan Greens recipes I used are courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey (From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail and World Vegetarian, respectively). Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry is a newly-discovered concoction gleaned from members of the Indian community here in Harare. If you don’t have sugar beans on hand, I’d use black-eyed peas or butter beans as a substitute.

Sugar Bean and Tomato Curry

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups cooked sugar beans
1 teaspoon ajmo (optional; also called
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon grated ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder (or more, to taste)
8 small tomatoes, grated OR 2-14 oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 curry leaves (optional)
Chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the amjo seeds, cumin seeds and grated ginger. Let sizzle for 10 seconds, taking care not to burn the seeds. Add the ground turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin and chili powder, and stir to mix. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with your spoon if you are using the canned variety. Stir in the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, and stir in the curry leaves. Turn the heat down to medium/medium-low and let the mixture simmer for 45 minutes. The beans will be very soft. Depending on the texture you prefer, you can smush some of the beans against the side of the saucepan. Serve with the garnish of your choice – I was out of cilantro, so I used sliced tomato and a twig of curry leaves instead.

How did our guests enjoy the meal? Suffice to say – plates were cleaned.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Elusive Orchid

This year I read The Orchid Thief. I know, I know, I’m a little behind the pop culture curve – the book was a bestseller in 1999 and the inspiration for Adaptation’s wacky tale in 2002. It follows author Susan Orlean’s real-life foray through Floridian swamplands to understand the intangible mystique of orchids, a mystique that has inspired lifelong hobbies, unhealthy obsessions and even criminal activities. Her descriptions of orchid flowers are evocative and lush. Says Orlean of the ghost orchid, the passion of her protagonist, John Laroche:

“The flower is a lovely papery white. It has the intricate lip that is characteristic of all orchids, but its lip is especially pronounced and pouty, and each corner tapers into a long fluttery tail. … These tails are so delicate that they tremble in a light breeze. … Because the plant has no foliage and its roots are almost invisible against tree bark, the flower looks magically suspended in midair.”

This stunning flower blooms, briefly, only once a year.

After reading The Orchid Thief, I could certainly understand how the flower’s unparalleled variety and unconventional beauty, combined with the rarity of certain species, collude to keep people enthralled. But when I flipped to “The Orchid Eaters” in the June 2006 issue of Africa Geographic, I quickly realised the magnetism of these plants goes far beyond what the eye can see. Like Orlean’s book, Aisling Irwin’s article portrays orchids as an “obsession” that is “entrancing all layers of society.” This time, however, orchid tubers, not orchid flowers, are the objects of desire. And, far from Laroche and his beloved Fakahatchee Strand, the people with a passion for orchids are the people of Zambia in southern Africa.

Irwin reports that Zambians have recently acquired an insatiable appetite for chikandaa dish made from pulverized orchid tubers, ground peanuts, salt, red chillies and soda ash. (Another author – who must actually enjoy sandwich meat – calls the dish both a “veggie delight” and “Zambian bologna.”) What seven years ago was the speciality of one Zambian tribe has become a countrywide staple – stirred, stewed and spiced by village women, shared by families, and sold at markets, restaurants and barrooms across the country. The trade in orchid tubers and chikanda is an important source of income for many Zambians.

Zambians are not the first people to eat orchid tubers. According to Irwin, people in 16th-century England used salep (powdered orchid tubers) to make an eponymous tea-like drink. Salep is also the key ingredient in salepi dondurma, or orchid ice cream – a Turkish speciality. The problem, however, is that many orchids are protected species. There are un-surmounted challenges to cultivating orchid tubers for harvest, which means tubers are currently unearthed only in the wild, where they are fast disappearing. In fact, Zambians now turn to neighbouring Tanzania to supply their orchid-tuber fix because tubers have become so difficult to find in their own country.

Unlike orchid flowers, orchid tubers’ potato-like appearance is in no way eye-catching. But, it seems the flowers and tubers share one common font of allure – their fragile, breath-taking elusiveness. Orlean writes that some exceptionally rare orchid plants have sold for more than US$25,000. If the rapid depletion of orchid tubers continues in Zambia and Tanzania, who knows how much a cake of chikanda might one day cost. It goes without saying, however, that the cost to biodiversity will be even greater.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Dorothy's Mufushwa

The worthy subject of this, my first proper entry, is sadza ne mufushwa wemunyemba. Sadza is Zimbabwe’s staple food, made from cooked “mealie-meal”. Mealie-meal is finely milled dried corn – and not just any corn. Zimbabweans grow African white corn in their tropical climate, and it has an earthy flavor quite distinct from the sweet corn to which Americans and Europeans are accustomed. So distinct, in fact, that on July 14 the BBC reported on a Zimbabwean living in London who, longing for the corn of his homeland, labored seven years to develop a type of African white corn that would grow in the very un-tropical U.K. He now has a lush field of corn beside the M25, and, I suppose, a plate of properly-made sadza on his plate every night.

Sadza is similar to polenta, but more pliable, such that people can mould it into their hand and use it to pick up meat and/or relish. Ne means “with” in Shona, and, in the case of sadza ne mufushwa wemunyemba, sadza is served with a relish called mufushwa wemunyemba – the dried leaves of a particular bean plant.

We ended up with some mufushwa by accident. My husband, Mark, frequents a market near our house, and the fruit and veg seller always throws something extra into his bag of purchases – a banana, say, or perhaps a pepper. Last week, however, the seller spotted Mark looking quizzically at the bag of mufushwa, and that was all it took to make it his free gift. We discovered more details about mufushwa from our housekeeper, Dorothy, who taught us this recipe:

Dorothy’s Mufushwa

1 bag mufushwa (about 3 cups)
4 cups of water
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 onion, sliced thinly
3-4 tablespoons natural peanut butter
Salt, to taste

Bring the mufushwa and water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 2½ hours, or until the mufushwa is mushy and there is no water left in the pot. If the water is gone and the mufushwa still needs softening, add some more water and continue boiling.

Meanwhile, sauté the tomatoes and onion in the peanut butter until soft. (You may need to add a little oil, depending on the oiliness of your peanut butter.) Add this mixture to the cooked mufushwa, and season with salt. Serve hot with sadza.

The final product would be bitter if not for the peanut butter, which softens the flavor while making the texture smooth. It would be tasty served with rice, or perhaps tossed with some wide egg noodles. Zimbabweans tend to rely on salt for seasoning a dish, but I’d suggest intensifying the flavor of this recipe by sautéing a green chili in the peanut butter along with the tomato and onion.

Here is where most food blogs would show a mouth-watering picture of the artfully-arranged final dish. However, although sadza ne mufushwa wemunyemba is a dish I would eat again, it is a dish I would not hurry to look at again. Even Mark’s vaunted photographic skills could not find a way to flatteringly capture a lump of dark grey stuff sitting beside a lump of white stuff. My attempt at using the food blog lexicon also falls short. Would you feel inclined to eat “a silky grey mixture, spotted with tomato flecks and nestled beside some smooth, white polenta?” Probably not. Which goes to show I have much to learn from the food blog superstars about the type of recipes that belong in a blog entry on food, and those should that sit quietly in your recipe box, where only you can find them.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Introducing Field to Feast: An African Food Blog

Until recently, the stable of Web sites I checked regularly was small and select – the New York Times, Alternet and Duke Basketball Report. Some of you may network through Friendster or LinkedIn, others may troll music Web sites or monitor Ebay auctions. But me? All I needed was to read the news, read the news that wasn’t being reported and then get my sports fix. That is, until I discovered food blogs.

If you stood in front of a spice rack of food blogs, here is what you would see. First in line, beside the sea salt and tellicherry peppercorns are the blogs written by people addicted to cookbooks. They gamely test recipe after recipe, chronicling their results and offering recommended adaptations. Moving towards the peri peri are the blogs composed by travelers with intrepid taste buds who divulge their food discoveries in lands near and far. Their entries feature interesting ingredients, fantastic restaurants, traditional recipes, and fascinating insights into the nexus between food and culture. Finally, abutting the homemade curry powder, are those blogs cooked up by amateur chefs who create and share their own recipes. Most food blogs contain a pinch from each genre, are embellished with excellent photos, and fold together a personal anecdote along with the sweet and the savory. My favorites – which I, fittingly, peruse daily over lunch – are Chocolate and Zucchini, Orangette and Traveler’s Lunchbox. However, these sites are just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. Let’s just say that I did more research before voting in the 2005 Food Blog Awards than I did before voting in the last U.S. Presidential election.

So, why I am telling you all this? First, all obsessed people want the validation of hooking other people to their drug. Second, I have decided, with Field to Feast, to craft what hopefully will be more than just a pale imitation of the work of my blogging idols. Field to Feast will be mostly peri peri, with a pinch of sea salt and a grind of tellicherry peppercorns. One entry might extol the virtues of the baobab fruit, while another tests recipes with rooibos tea, investigates the properties of the moringa tree, or ponders exactly how African women balance 10-kilo bags of sugar on their heads. Living, as I do, in southern Africa, this blog also will recognize the less appetizing reality of food – the fact that, for many people, accessing the quantity of nutritious food they need to thrive is never a given. Field to Feast will talk about food as a celebration, a discovery and a struggle. No food-related topic, from field to feast, will be off-limits.