Saturday, August 26, 2006

Peanut Butter Perfection

Sparkling beaches; lush rainforest; stunningly-expansive outback; fresh tropical fruits; mild climate; friendly, “no worries, mate” people; an active, outdoor culture; Tim-Tams; sidewalk cafes perfect for flat-white sipping – Mark and I loved our two years living in Australia. In fact, we believe there is only one thing that keeps the world’s largest island from attaining absolute perfection – quality peanut butter.

Real peanut butter – the smooth, natural kind, flecked with dark brown, that sticks to the roof of your mouth – is nowhere to be found in Oz. My only explanation for this unfortunate oversight is that Aussies adore Vegemite, which fills a similar gastronomical niche. Instead of bringing PB&J to school, for example, children take Vegemite and butter sandwiches. However, to my mind, and the minds of any other people who have taste buds and live outside of Australia, Vegemite is a wholly deficient peanut butter substitute.

Zimbabwe, on the other hand, may not have beaches, rainforest, outback or Tim-Tams, but it produces the best peanut butter Mark and I have ever eaten. Our peanut butter brand of preference is Lyon’s. Whenever possible, however, we buy homemade peanut butter. Amidst this country’s faltering economy, many people operate informal home businesses in order to generate income, and peanut-butter making is one of the most popular. Everyone’s peanut butter tastes slightly different, and our favorites have a warm, round, roasted flavor. Peanuts (called “groundnuts” here) are a popular crop, and peanut butter is used in many dishes, including both a relish of peanut butter and greens and the subject of this post – mupunga ne dovi (rice with peanut butter).

I first spotted mupunga ne dovi on a colleague’s lunch plate, where it was sitting beside some meat relish. “Is that brown sadza?” I asked quizzically. Mercy laughed. “No,” she said, “It’s rice with peanut butter. You should try it.” I did, and I was hooked.

Rice with peanut butter is an exceedingly easy dish, and it tastes so good you will want to make it regularly as an afternoon snack or an accompaniment to a bowl of tomato or butternut soup. Following Dorothy’s suggestion, I make this dish using Malawi Rice, but any short-grain white rice will do.

Rice with Peanut Butter (Mupunga ne Dovi)
Makes one loaf

4 cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups Malawi rice, rinsed
4 tablespoons peanut butter

Put the water and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the rice. Turn the heat down to medium, and cook at a vigorous simmer until the water is absorbed – about 20 minutes. Cover the pot, turn the heat to very low and cook for another ten minutes. The rice will be light and fluffy.

Add the peanut butter and stir for 4 minutes with a wooden spoon, mashing the rice against the side of the saucepan. If you were a Zimbabwean woman, you could probably do this stirring in half the time because of the years of practice (and strong arms) you have from making sadza. The mixture will get very thick.

Spoon the mixture onto a plate and form into a loaf. Once the loaf is cool, cut it into ¾-inch slices and serve.

After making this dish several times in a loaf shape, I realized other shapes would be possible, too. Cookie cutters would be the easiest way to make fun shapes. You also can use your hands, as I did, although your shapes will be much more rudimentary. If you have kids, give them the slightly-cooled peanut butter and rice mixture, and let them mould their own mupungu ne dovi sculptures. Rice has never been so fun. Now, if we could just introduce rice with peanut butter in Australia, perhaps peanut butter would finally win Aussies over. And the country itself? Well, it would finally attain perfection.

1 comment:

Joe Black said...

You know, you saved my life!

I'm a Harare bachelor, and I've been trying to do this right for a long time, and my results are always, well, bad.

Great blog, keep up the good work!