Sunday, February 11, 2007

Media, Meat, Mushrooms

Last Wednesday, The New York Times published an excellent article about Zimbabwe, written by Michael Wines. If you read this blog and wonder about the deteriorating economic and political situation in the country where I live, this balanced, perceptive and accurate article is a great place to gain an overview.

In contrast to Wines’ report, many articles written about Zimbabwe are exaggerated, inflammatory or downright deceitful. The state-run newspaper, The Herald, is well-known for serving up government propaganda, and will go to outrageous lengths to blame the country’s ills on outside forces, while discrediting the political opposition and heaping praise upon the ruling party. I once read a Herald article which claimed that the U.S. and the U.K. had created space-based technology that could change the weather, and that they were using this innovation to inflict drought upon southern Africa. I would have laughed if I had read this report in The Onion; it was not so funny to see it published as serious news in the country’s most widely read paper. (Note to The Herald: Next time, try substituting “technology” with “global warming” and I might believe you.)

The foreign media (which faces restrictions) and the independent national press (which faces persecution) has a more laudable raison d’etre – to expose the true causes of Zimbabwe’s economic and political crises and highlight the real suffering of people. But their work is also prone to an occasional bout of hyperbole. Two months ago the Institute for War and Peace Reporting published a story that said Zimbabweans had resorted to eating pet food because they could no longer afford to buy meat fit for human consumption. While I don’t doubt that some people have faced this predicament, the article portrayed pet-food eating as a widespread, national phenomenon, which it is not.

Articles that are heavy on shock value and light on analysis and perspective do a disservice to the Zimbabwean people by portraying them as hopelessly desperate rather than as people trying to live happy, peaceful lives enriched by friends and family. How much more useful would it be for an article to look at the reasons why meat and other foods have become so unaffordable, the variety of coping mechanisms people are using to deal with poverty and hunger, and the resulting implications for people’s health and nutrition? These coping mechanisms are much more diverse that simply eating pet food, and their impact can be much more tragic. Recently, for example, five family members from a Harare suburb died due to eating poisonous mushrooms. The father had picked the mushrooms, and said he was just trying to provide for his family. Other people cope by eating fewer meals. More nuanced and less obviously “shocking” articles can move the reader beyond a reaction of simply “oh, what desperate people,” to deeper reflection about how people like them, working hard to put food on the table, are living in a economic environment that gives people such limited choices that there are few good choices to be made.

Despite the recent tragedy, and although most Zimbabweans favor meat, eating mushrooms as a meat substitute is common, especially during the rainy season when wild mushrooms are relatively plentiful. There are several types of wild mushrooms that can be safety eaten. One type, called chihombiro, is a particularly substantial, chewy mushroom. Chihombiro are are most commonly sold by women and children along the road to and from Nyanga – a mountainous district that abuts Mozambique. If you are driving to Nyanga this time of year, your friends and colleagues will likely ask you to return with some mushrooms for them.

Mark and I don’t eat red meat, so we use mushrooms in place of meat as a personal choice rather than as a less preferable alterative. Last night, I used chihombiro as a substitute for meat in an Ethiopian-inspired recipe for Stir-Fried Beef Stew from Marcus Samuelsson’s The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. This dish is Samuelsson’s version of the traditional Ethiopian dish, tibs w’et, a spicy stew made from beef or lamb. He notes that calling this dish a “stew” is a bit of a misnomer. I agree. Not only is it quick-cooking, but it contains little liquid and couldn’t possibly be eaten by the bowlful – it needs a grain-based accompaniment to temper its dark, rich flavors.

Tibs w’et is quite spicy – so be wary if you are spice-averse and be sure to reduce the amount of berbere and green chili. You can substitute chili powder for the berbere if you wish, or refer to my previous recipe for Ethiopian Lentil Stew to make your own. Traditionally, this dish is made with nir’ir quibe, or spiced clarified butter. I simply used clarified butter (a.k.a. ghee), and you could also substitute unsalted butter. In Ethiopia, tibs w’et would be served with the country’s famous injera bread and awase, a condiment created by making berbere into a paste. I spooned my mushroom version of Samuelsson’s tibs w’et over a simple scoop of rice. Next time I am going to try it as a filling for crêpes.

Make sure to use a meaty sort of mushroom as your beef/lamb substitute, such as porcini, shitake or crimini. If you would like to make Samuelsson’s beef version of this recipe, exchange 1½ pounds beef tenderloin, cut into ½-inch cubes, for the mushrooms. I suspect your dish might yield more servings this way.

Ethiopian-inspired Wild Mushroom Stir-Fry
Adapted from “Stir-fried Beef Stew” in The Soul of a New Cuisine

Serves 2

60 milliliters / 4 tablespoons ghee, or unsalted butter
75 grams / ¾ cup red onions, thinly sliced
300 grams / 3 cups
meaty mushrooms, chopped
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon salt
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon berbere, or chili powder
2½ milliliters / ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
2½ milliliters /½ teaspoon ground ginger
1¼ milliliters / ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch ground cloves
1¼ milliliters / ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 400-gram / 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
2 green chilies, seeds and ribs removed, thinly sliced
125 milliliters / ½ dry red wine

Melt the ghee in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to brown around the edges – about two minutes. Add the mushrooms and salt, and fry, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 minutes until the mushrooms are cooked. Stir in the berbere and all the ground spices. Add the tomatoes, chilies and wine, and stir. Simmer for one minute. Serve immediately.


Sean said...

Wonderful -- they look like chubby chanterelles. I suppose we would have to sub in something like portobella?

Wanna hear something weird, though? I read your blog via Bloglines (that's not the weird part), and every time you mention a geographic location, it omits it and swaps in a line break. It happens for each location, and only in your blog. Weird, no?

Ruth in Zim said...

Your comments on the situation here in Zimbabwe are right-on. Thanks for helping us all put a reality check on where we live -- both in the positive and the negative. It's a delicately flavored place, for sure.

Carolyn said...

Sean, Yes, I would think portabellas would also work well!

I am not sure how to work out the error that appears in bloglines...that is very strange! I'll look into it. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know!

Ruth, Glad to hear my Zim comments resonated with you. I have to say, I was a little worried about making this post since it is more political than I usually am!

Garrett said...

Ooh! That sounds great. I love Ethiopian food.

Garrett said...

Ooh! That sounds great. I love Ethiopian food.

Alex said...

Would it taste good if i were to sautee mushrooms and put soy sauce over it? I love muchrooms so I would just eat it like that .... or do you have any other suggestions. Thanks

Max White said...

How do you keep muchrooms from turning after the package is open. Putting them in a plastic bag dose not work.?

Avid Amiri said...

Hey Max,
Mushrooms don't like closed bags - they start to get slimy and rot. They need some fresh air to keep alive so a moist covering that lets air in is the best - like a slightly damp paper towel but not touching them.

Keep in mind mushrooms don't keep very long so use them within a couple of days.