Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Gift of Water (Christmas in a Time of Cholera)

Poor, overlooked water. It is a vital for cooking pasta, rice, grains and soups, yet most recipes don't even include it in their ingredient list, instead casually mentioning the need to add water in the instructions. (This lovingly-written recipe is a notable exception.) Water is so available, so commonplace, so seemingly endless a resource. After all, what other ingredient flows directly from the kitchen tap, my dream of installing a hot fudge spigot notwithstanding?

In Zimbabwe, however, water is no longer taken for granted. Water cuts have been a feature of city life for years, most often caused not by a lack of water in the reservoirs, but by government's lack of foreign currency (or unwillingness to use the currency they have) to purchase treatment chemicals and repair broken pipes. So I was not surprised when, two weeks ago, I returned from a short holiday to find that my house had no water. Problem number 2: while I was away, the motor on my water tank had broken. Usually the tank fills with municipal water and then, when the water cuts off, I turn on the tank's motor and water begins pumping throughout the house. Problem number 3: I quickly learned it wasn't just my neighborhood without water, but the entire metropolitan area of two million people. It was unknown when water would return.

One night of no water is not too bad. You can't take a shower, but a little water is left in the toilets. There are a few emergency water bottles on hand and cold drinks in the fridge. Stir-fries or egg dishes are both possible. You can even look on the bright side - no water means that you can slack off on doing dishes and laundry.

The next day, I got my water tank fixed, but the repairman also, in a brazen maneuver, removed all of the water - this is how valuable a commodity that water has become. When I got home from work and saw what had happened, I understood why some people believe that conflict over water may spawn the
wars of the future. I was furious. And suddenly very, very thirsty. Water was scarce all over town, a town already reeling from a cholera outbreak - where would I get more? It is not ironic that the Spanish word for cholera, cólera, also means rage and anger?

Two days of no water is inconvenient. Three days of no water becomes a crisis.

I went next door to beg for a few buckets of water from a kind neighbor whose boyfriend owns a water delivery service. Near my office, I saw women with colorful plastic pails jostling for position in a queue outside a property lucky enough to have a functioning borehole (a.k.a. well). During my evening neighborhood walk, a group of professionally-dressed women, fresh from work, dashed across a busy road with cooking pots on their heads, water sloshing over the sides. Women ferrying water is a common sight in rural parts of Zimbabwe, but is something I had never seen in the part of the city where I live. Water is, of course, critical to making sadza, Zimbabwe's staple food.

The water did come back after three days, at least in some parts of the city. But many residents didn't notice - they haven't had municipal water for months and months and have come to rely on hand-dug shallow wells.

It is not a surprise that cholera has spread through the country, although no less a tragedy. The entirely preventable and treatable disease has already killed more than 1,000 people. The highly contagious bacteria is taking advantage of ideal circumstances - a perfect storm of crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure and a health system that has collapsed due to the lack of medicines and striking nurses and doctors. (I would strike, too, if my monthly salary was $5 as a result of hyperinflation.) Cholera is considered a disease of destitution because it flourishes when there is a complete breakdown of public services.

What is it like to live in a city with a cholera epidemic? The first thing you notice is that no one wants to shake hands because it is one of the ways the disease can be spread. The first few days, I noticed aborted handshakes. A colleague would start moving his hand forward and then, suddenly remembering the outbreak, retract his hand, lowering his eyes with embarrassment at having to skip this common courtesy. The new trend is to ball your hand into a fist and touch wrists, or to touch elbows.

Next, you hear people talking about cooking their food thoroughly - eating fresh fruits and veggies has become a leap of faith. How many people may have touched this carrot and what if one of them had the cholera bacteria on his or her hands? And, as the number of deaths increases, almost everyone in town now knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who has died from the disease.

As Christmas approaches, Zimbabweans will begin heading to their rural homes to celebrate with extended family. Others will make the trek to neighboring countries to shop in the well-stocked, reasonably priced supermarkets of South Africa and Botswana. All this movement could further spread the disease. Nevertheless, if there are any people in the world who can still find joy in the holidays, despite the mounting problems facing their country and its people, it is Zimbabweans. They will share food and drink, and somehow find reasons to laugh. Me, I'll be here in Harare and, water permitting, busy cooking and baking. Happy holidays to all!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Peas and Patience

On Saturday I made akara, a Ghanaian black-eyed pea fritter. Though this may seem like an unremarkable event, I was amazed for two reasons:

1) Carolyn's cooking bylaw number 134 -- which states that the longer than expected a dish takes to prepare, the more likely it is to be a complete disaster -- received its most serious challenge to date.
2) I discovered that dried beans do not have to cook in a pot in order to be edible.

I was so taken back that the following day I bored at least two people at a brunch by reviewing these discoveries in detail. Now it is your turn.

Akara are a snack food from Ghana. You begin by soaking black-eyed peas for a few hours until the skins loosen and, theoretically, can be rubbed off. I soaked and soaked, but some of the beans really required more of a peeling than a rubbing to shed their skin. In my head, I could imagine a group of Ghanaian women sitting in a convivial circle under a shady tree, each with her bowl of black-eyed peas, gossiping about the neighbors and conferring about this year's crops. In this setting, rubbing the skins off of black-eyed peas might be quite a sociable, enjoyable affair. Standing under a naked florescent light bulb for an hour by yourself with a swarm of mosquitoes biting at your ankles is less fun. And every minute that passed, I was thinking to myself, there is no WAY these darn fritters are going to be worth it.

The skinned black-eyed peas looked as funny as leopards without their spots. I put the snowy-white beans in the food processor and added a bit of water until I had a paste. I added spices and minced onions and peppers, and began heating oil in a fry pan. It was at this point that I realized -- these beans are only going to cook for a few minutes! Can it be possible? I was convinced, more than ever, that the dish would end in calamity.

But, somehow, it worked. The fritters fried up nicely. They were a bit bland -- I'll be more generous with the spices next time -- but it was nothing a little hot sauce couldn't fix. The fitters would be great served in a pita like falafel, or with a side salad. Although the beans themselves aren't very flavorful, they could absorb many interesting flavor combos. Next time, I'll try some curried fritters, or maybe a fresh herb version. That is, once I find someone to sit with me and chat as I skin those beans!

There are
numerous akara recipes on the Web, all fairly similar. I worked from this one.

Akara (Black-eyed Pea Fritters)
Makes 24-30 fritters

2 cups / 270 grams dried black-eyed peas
1 onion, minced
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters salt
1 chili pepper, minced
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying

Rinse peas under running water and then soak them in a bowl of water for a few hours or overnight. After they are soaked, rub them together between your hands to remove their skins. Rinse again to wash the skins away. Drain.

Put the beans in a food processor and slowly add water until they turn into a thick paste that will just stick to the back of a spoon. Add onion, salt, chili pepper, and cayenne. Mix well. Ensure the bottom of the pan is covered with oil and set over medium to medium-high heat. Fry spoonfuls of the batter, turning over after a few minutes until each side is golden brown.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Dip, Blended and Bright Green

Is there a mundane life task that, for reasons known only to your subconscious, gives you immense satisfaction? For example, some people are pleased as punch when they can tick items off their to-do list. I know because I am one of them. I also get a strange pleasure from putting leftovers in just the right size Tupperware container. Seriously. And, I love, love, LOVE blending. Something about taking a few flavors that complement each other, giving them a little whizz with the food processor or immersion blender, adding a bit of this or a dash of that, and, of course, consuming the final product…it just fills me with glee. If I ever right a book about food, it will be called Soups, Smoothies, Dips and Other Things You Blend.

That’s why, on a Saturday afternoon, I found myself blending together the ingredients for an Ethiopian dish called atar allecha. Usually served with injera, I made the mixture a little thicker than the recipe called for, added a squeeze of lemon to brighten the flavors, and served it as a dip. The color is bright green due to the combination of green split peas and turmeric, and the taste is earthly and wholesome, with a spicy kick.

What a combo: a blended dip and – tick that to-do list! – a post, too. Now, I just need to find a Tupperware to store these leftovers….

Atar Allecha (Ethiopian Spiced Green Spilt Pea Purée)
Adapted from a
widely available Internet recipe

1 cup / 200 grams split green peas
1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters vegetable oil
1/3 cup / 50 grams onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters turmeric
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters salt
1 small hot green pepper, seeds removed and minced
Juice of ½ lemon
Chili powder, for garnish

Soak the peas for one hour. Put them in a pot with plenty of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook until the peas are soft – about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the water. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for five minutes. Add the peas, turmeric, salt, and chili. Mix well. Add ¾ cup of the reserved water, stir and cook for 3-4 minutes. Take off the heat and blend with an immersion blender. Add more reserved water as needed to obtain the dip consistency that you prefer. Add the lemon juice and stir. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with a light dusting of chili powder.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Field Trip to Cambodia

Serve me fresh fish, and I am a happy girl. Serve me fresh fish topped with crispy, stir-friend threads of ginger, squid sautéed with green peppercorns, banana flower salad, and coconut milk and lime smoothies, and, well, I might never leave your country.

I did leave Cambodia, after one week of work, and one week of holiday. But it was hard.

Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - the two cities we visited - are bustling. Motos (motorbikes) and tuk-tuks (motos that pull four-seater, covered carriages) zip about, with scarce regard to traffic rules, traffic lights, or pedestrians' toes. Although
trials of Khmer Rouge leaders are ongoing, the Cambodians I met were focused more on the future than their country's past. Property prices are skyrocketing; tourism is beginning to flourish. And, of particular importance to me and you - good food is everywhere. Every third storefront seems to be a family restaurant. These home-restaurants often lack English menus - you'll just need to be brave, visit one that is crowded, and order by pointing at what someone else is eating. At night, when the restaurants close, family members fold up the chairs and tables and use the space as both their garage and living room, faces lit by the blue glow of the TV.

The local markets are crowded and chaotic, with motos struggling to weave amongst the people and the ground muddy from rain. Squatting women scale and chop fish using a cleaver and a short, circular butcher block. Enormous fish display their guts; slippery black fish squirm around in baskets; skinned frogs attract flies; marinated baby chickens turn on spits. Fruit stalls showcase homely-looking longan, flashy rambutan, the imposing durian, cutely dimpled lychees, smooth-skinned green oranges, and the miraculous mangosteen, which tastes like a concentration of every fruit in one bite.

Bicycles and motos trundle street food throughout town - Vietnamese spring rolls; French bread spread with fish paste; tiny snails, boiled and tossed with chili, salt and garlic (very tasty!); stir-friend noodles; sugar cane juice; and thin pancakes brushed with egg and dusted with Milo.

In Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, "bouquets" of matte-green lotus flowers are sold by the side of the road. Like, in my opinion, the world's best snacks, lotus flowers take a bit of effort to eat - their edible seeds need to be individually popped out of the flower. These seeds have the texture of slightly under-boiled peanuts and a fresh, lightly-sweet taste reminiscent of edamame. They can also be boiled and roasted. Lotus roots are consumed, too - they add a distinctive crunch to salads.

On the road to Banteay Srei, one of the many temple complexes, almost every front yard boasts a little stand/shop/kiosk selling something - usually fabric, handbags, Johnnie Walker Black bottles filled with gasoline, and neat pyramids of boxes made from palm tree leaves and filled with discs of palm sugar. Women tend the stalls while simultaneously watching over a large, wide pot of boiling palm fruit, concocting palm sugar. Some stands also sell palm fruit fresh from the nut - it is squishy and opaque (like a jelly-fish, really) and the size of an egg, with a lychee-like texture, but a disappointingly bland taste.

We toured the Psar Salam (Big Market) in Siem Reap, a bit outside the main part of town, as part of a "Cooks in Tuk-Tuks" cooking class offer by the gorgeous
River Garden Hotel. I must have asked the chef who accompanied us 150 questions about the mystery foods on display. Cambodia has an amazing variety of eggplants - cream-colored, baby eggplants the size of blueberries (bitter-tasting, they eaten boiled or fresh with fish paste), green and white globe eggplants (grilled and eaten with pork), "bird" eggplants the shape and size of - you guessed it - bird's eggs. We saw caraway leaves, which grow amidst rice fields (they smell just like the seeds), green tomatoes and tamarind flour (used for making sour soup), hot basil and saw mint, cultivated and wild morning glory (also called water spinach), and tiembi (I'm unsure of spelling), which resembles a potato, but can be eaten fresh and tastes like a cross between a potato and an apple.

Yellow curry paste, sold from shallow plastic bowls, is made from kaffir lime, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and garlic, all pounded together. Pickled beans and radishes can be bought in scoops from glass jars, and are used to top morning porridge. Shredded, dried fish is another porridge mix-in - it tastes strangely sweet, like fishy cotton candy. A woman with a pole over her shoulder, hung with two baskets, sold us a fried rice flour cake, powdered in sugar; from another vender we bought a dessert of boiled coconut milk and sticky rice flour, served wrapped in a banana leaf and topped with shredded coconut.

If markets aren't your style, there is a fantastic array of restaurants to choose from. In Phnom Penh, one of our favorites was Romdeng, a new restaurant set in a beautifully-restored colonial house garlanded with a green-and-white-striped awning, feeds both your social conscience and your stomach. Romdeng is a project of
Friends International, and serves as a training center for former street children. Its dishes are artfully presented, and include such stunners as green mango and smoked fish salad with sun-dried shrimps, fresh river fish with green tamarind and a salsa of green mango and red onion, lime-marinated Mekong fish salad with galangal and saw mint, and red sticky rice porridge with coconut milk and longan. This is also the place to try crispy tarantulas - a Cambodian delicacy - here served with lime and black pepper dip. Nyemo, a restaurant run by an organization that supports women who have been abused, abandoned, trafficked or affected by HIV, serves a fantastic fish amok - one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes. Tender cubes of fish are steamed in a lemony, spicy coconut sauce, and served in a banana leaf basket. Don't go to Nyemo in a rush, however - service is slow!

Another yummy choice is Boat Noodle - the one at 8B Street 294 is located in a fantastic old wooden house. The dishes are served in narrow, ceramic "boats", with spicy sauces in the fore and aft. We made two trips to Sakrawa Café restaurant (#12 Street 118, near riverfront), where all the dishes 2.5-6 dollars. Its squid dishes are excellent - try the squid in black pepper sauce, served with julienned green pepper and red chili. Just beware of the bad lite jazz pumping through the loudspeakers.... If you need to duck in from the afternoon rain, like we did, the Tamarind on 31 Street 240 offers half-price drinks from 3-7 and excellent Mediterranean-inspired tapas. We enjoyed two Moroccan dishes –
zalouk and chakchouka (without the egg).

It would be impossible to mention Cambodian food without talking about prahok - the ubiquitous fish paste. Different varieties of prahok accompany meat, chicken or fish dishes; they can also be used as dips or stirred into soups. By outsiders, prahok is almost universally described as an acquired taste - I echo these sentiments! My husband, who is the only person outside of Australia and the U.K. who actually likes Vegemite and Marmite, was a quick fan, however - prahok shares the same concentrated, powerful, salty, fermented flavor of these spreads.

In case you are feeling particularly daring one day, here is a recipe for prahok from the cooking school at The River Garden. The chef said this version of prahok is most commonly eaten with chicken dishes. We ate it as a dip for veggie crudités - long green beans, cucumber and baby eggplant.

Don't forget the red ants! And don't let the prospect of eating prahok scare you off from a visit to Cambodia....

Cambodian Prahok
1½ tbsp fermented fish, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 slices galangal
Small handful lemongrass, chopped
1 small red chili
1 tablespoon red ants (or the juice of 1 lime)
1 tablespoon liquid palm sugar

Chop together all ingredients until it forms a smooth paste.

More photos!

Banana flower salad at The River Garden

And maybe a few fried cockroaches?

Prahok for sale

To market, to market

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Muryohe Rwe! A Short Field Trip to Rwanda

Field to Feast has never wrote and posted in situ, but here goes - I am writing to you from the shores of Lake Kivu, in western Rwanda, a 10-minute drive from the border with the DRC. Lake Kivu has the unenviable privilege of being considered one of Africa’s “killer lakes” because of the amount of dissolved methane gas and carbon dioxide at the bottom of the lake – gases that could one day burst to the surface, releasing toxic fumes. On the bright side, the methane is being explored as a source of energy – it has even been used to power the nearby Bralirwa brewery.

Today is a little overcast, so the lake and the sky are an almost indistinguishable grey. But, small waves are lapping on the sandy beach and the air is mild, so I am not complaining about the bland view. I had enough spectacular views this morning on the 20-minute drive to some nearby hot springs. The bumpy road wound through hills and valleys of banana grooves, with slices of the lake visible around each bend. Tiny shops lined part of the route – buildings of painted clay, some labeled “café-resto,” others selling phone cards or a small selection of groceries. Homes were scattered on the hillside, some on precarious perches, with tiny dirt paths snaking up to their doorsteps. Men pushed rickety bicycles uphill, loaded down with sugarcane stalks or bananas, and women made steep climbs, carrying huge, gravity-defying baskets of bananas and avocadoes on their heads.

Although I’ve been in Rwanda almost a week, I have not been doing as much food research as I should. Yes, I did eat brochettes (kebabs) and chips, with potent chili sauce. And, yes, I have consumed more bananas this week than I’ve had in the past year – fried plantains, bananas boiled with green split peas (amashaza mu gitoke), bananas as breakfast, and bananas as dessert. Beyond brochettes and bananas, I really liked isombe, a cooked mixture of greens, peanut butter, and chopped, baseball-size white eggplants. I’ve also eaten sambaza (sardines) from Lake Kivu (the same ones that are dried and called kapenta in Zimbabwe), and paid homage to the aforementioned brewery, which makes Mitzig and Primus, the most popular local brews. I’m sure there is much more to Rwandan cooking and drinking, however! To be explored in a future trip…hopefully one I which I see the gorillas and drink homemade banana wine.

Despite the brevity of my trip, I did want to share with you some Kigali restaurant tips. As a complete coincidence, while searching the internet in the hopes of double-checking some spellings, I discovered that I went to all four restaurants listed in this May 2008 article on Kigali’s best-loved restaurants. Clearly, I was getting good dining-out advice from my colleagues! Chez Lando is an open-air, beer garden-esque place, where I had high hopes of ordering the whole grilled tilapia. They were all out, unfortunately, and it was painful watching the last two orders go to a nearby table; the dish looked stunning, and plenty for two people. I ate the fish brochettes instead – they were a little bland for me and needed a good dose of pili-pili hot sauce! Goat brochettes are supposed to be the restaurant's specialty. Khazana’s ambiance may be over-the-top Bollywood, but the food was, without exaggeration, among the best Indian meals I’ve had at any restaurant. The hearty, deeply-spiced chickpea dhal was my favorite. And I’d never taken a liking to injera – this is, until I ate the injera at Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant near the stadium. The shiro wot was fabulous. Even me, who has a mushy bread phobia (one reason I have never been too keen on French toast) was devouring the mushy spots of injera where the shiro had soaked right through.

The sun is setting, so I’ll close my post. I’ll be back in Zimbabwe on Monday, learning to cope with the new currency!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Babula Cooking

A few months ago, my friend Ruth (yes, the Ruth of rooibos chocolate cake and buamba fame), handed me a small, square, well-worn booklet, stored in a protective Ziploc bag. “The cookbook I was telling you about – the one compiled by missionaries where I grew up in central Zaire. I think you will like it.”

Like it I do. The recipes in Babula Cooking III (named after the
Tshiluba word for a small charcoal stove) come from the kitchens of about two dozen women, and bear cozy, homespun names such as “My Best Gingerbread,” “Crazy Cake”, “Company Pudding,” “2-Minute Mayonnaise,” “Eggplant Supreme,” and “Mother Merle’s Corn Soup.” But Babula Cooking is more than an Africanized Garden Club cookbook – it is also a survival guide for wives and mothers far from supermarkets and reliable refrigeration. It contains handy tips for improving the taste of powdered milk (add vanilla and a pinch of salt), keeping (or getting) bugs out of dry goods like flour, rice and beans, and preserving meat through canning and corning. And the recipes themselves speak to these women’s amazing flexibility to devise substitutions and re-create the smells and tastes of home.

Lack ketchup? Try puréed tomatoes with sugar and vinegar. Don’t have garlic? “From the forest come leaves and bark with a very pungent odor quite like garlic. [The locals] mix crushed leaves or powdered bark with red pepper and salt.” Here, in the jungle of Zaire, missionary women prepare gravy with palm oil, employ dioshe, a common squash, in “pumpkin” bread, and use papayas to make jam “almost like peach jam.” Meri-meri (a local berry) are the sweetly tart secret in muffins, cobblers and jelly, while mangoes fill in for apples in cobbler, pie, sauce and butter. In a display of thrift, leftover oatmeal and rice get transformed into muffins, and eggplant is grated, browed and mixed with ground meat as a “meat stretcher.” “Philadelphia cream cheese” is concocted with drained yogurt.

Babula Cooking is not all Mid-West-cum-central-Africa. The women also incorporate local recipes into their personal repertoires. Aurie Miller, one of the editors, provides this introduction to her recipe for bidia, a stiff porridge made from cornmeal and manioc (cassava) flour:

African women do not measure but know how many handfuls to put in from long practice. They laugh hilariously when they hear there is a recipe! It would be well for you to watch someone whose bidia you like to figure out your own proportions….” Marcia Murray adds that bidia can then be cubed and fried: “Eaten with salt and catsup,” she notes, “They are like hush puppies.”

This, the third edition of Babula Cooking, was published in 1985. In the foreword, the editors write: “Our hope is that we become less dependent on the expensive imported foods and simplify our lives as we live among those who have so much less than we.” In the era of food miles and food riots, it is a message for us all.

So, instead of having my mom send me a care package of graham crackers, I tried out Janette Fulton’s homemade version. I found it hard to roll the dough thin enough, so they didn’t have the right crunch, and the texture was a bit too crumbly…but the taste? Well, I’ll be darned if they didn’t taste like the real deal.

Honey Graham Crackers
From Babula Cooking III
Makes 24 crackers

2 cups / 240 grams flour
½ cup / 60 grams whole wheat flour
1/3 cup / 57 grams brown sugar
½ cup / 113 grams shortening (I used butter)
¼ cup / 60 milliliters honey
¼ cup / 60 milliliters oil
3 tablespoons / 45 milliliters cold water
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters salt
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters baking soda

Preheat oven to 425°F / 220°C. Stir all ingredients together until well-blended. Roll out on two lightly oiled cookie sheets. Score, prick, and bake for 8-10 minutes. Cut apart while hot. Cool and store in tin with tight top.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back, with a Bean

I ended my last post with a wish that the flicker of hope I saw in the days after the 29 March election would reignite. I was wrong, however, to assume the flame had disappeared. It remained a smolder low to the ground, tended by brave people, despite the boots and sticks and metal rods trying to snuff it out.

Yes, blogging about food still seems trivial to me. But, it also seems like something I need to do to take a mental break from thinking about the situation here. So, after two months, with this post, I am back! I’ll be consciously avoiding any discussion about the political or humanitarian situation here (which you can read about
here, here and here), mostly for my own sanity. So today, I will tell you only one thing about Zimbabwe – a story about the country’s indigenous nyimo bean.

Nyimo bean is the local name for the Bambara groundnut, a legume considered an
underutilized, “lost crop of Africa,” because it is little known outside of the continent. Even in Africa, the Bambara groundnut is often thought of as a “poor person’s” crop and is eclipsed in popularity by its botanical cousin, the peanut, who arrived 400 years ago from Brazil and is now an important source of nutrition in more than 30 African countries, including Zimbabwe. Interestingly, both Bambara groundnuts and peanuts were brought to North America from Africa during the slave trade – there are references to both beans in the diaries of the colonialists. But, once again, the peanut outshone its kin. I bet, though, if you live in the U.S. state of Georgia, you might just be able to find someone still growing the Bambara groundnut. Let me know if you do!

Despite being repeatedly overshadowed, the humble nyimo bean still has its staunch admirers – those who respect its nutritional might (this bean is 20 percent protein!), its ability to thrive under harsh conditions, and its addictively earthy flavor. Zimbabwe itself gave birth to
BamNet,” the International Bambara Groundnut Network, in 1995.

Here, Tulimara cans nyimo beans for sale in some supermarkets. These work well in soups, or for making “African” hummus. Near the end of the rainy season, you can buy dried nyimo beans by the side of the road in rural areas, or from the vendors who ply busy downtown intersections. They are easy to mistake for peanuts, which have the same brown, fibrous shell. The main difference is that the nyimo bean’s shell is rounder – it was not blessed with the peanut’s hourglass curves.

You can prepare dried nyimo beans in several ways. What I do is boil them in their shell in heavily salted water under tender (about 30-40 minutes), drain, salt again, and serve. A bowl of beans with a nice cold pilsner are a perfect game-time snack. Just don’t get too scared when you crack open the shell – boiled nyimos do eerily resemble eyeballs! Like peanuts, nyimo beans will absorb flavor through their shell while boiling, so you could add soy sauce and star anise to the water, for example, if you want more complex tastes.

Boiled nyimo beans can also be roasted. And, they can be pounded into flour, either after boiling or after both boiling and roasting. This flour can be stirred into maize meal porridge. I’ve read that in Nigeria, women use the flour to make pancakes.

Now, I realize most of you readers are a long way away from the nearest Bambara groundnut! What learning about this little legume made me think about, however, are the many fruits and vegetables in our midst that might have been shoved aside by history – maybe because they didn’t keep as well during transport, looked ugly canned, had a unappealing name, or got a reputation as second-class food. They all might be worth a second look.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

And on the Eighth Day…

We waited.

A week ago today, the citizens of Zimbabwe went to the polls. They emerged proudly displaying their pinkie fingers, stained pink from the ink used to mark their votes. Excited whispers of change wafted on the air like errant plastic bags, shreds of new information were panned like gold, and I saw – for the first time in my three years here – a flicker of hope on the faces of people in the street.

Now, a week has past. The ink has disappeared. And so has the flicker of hope. As the delay in the release of Presidential results continues and the political posturing takes a hard-line turn, a veil of resignation has again descended and I can almost tangibly feel people looking inside themselves, trying to determine how they are possibly going to dig a deeper well of patience.

What is going to happen?

The election has been on the front few pages of international newspapers this past week. At first, articles could follow a simple narrative – the possibility of a dramatic opposition party victory despite reports of vote-rigging, followed by mounting concern over delays in announcing the results, rising tensions, and the specter of Kenya-style violence. But, I fear, the story is no longer fitting the sound-bite style of the American press. It is dragging on too long, becoming too convoluted. How do you explain the point we are at today? STILL no Presidential results announced, when it is clear they must be known? The new possibility of a run-off in 90 days instead of the three weeks stated in electoral law? The ruling party accusing the opposition of bribing electoral officials; the opposition party going to court to demand that Presidential election results be released? We are used to craziness here (case in point: the Reserve Bank introduced a 50 million dollar note yesterday). But how do you continue to explain all this to someone outside the country?

Is there a strategy at play? Delaying, stalling, confounding until the short attention span of the West loses interest? And what will happen then, when fewer eyes are watching?

I’ve got three new posts half-written – one about a relative of the peanut native to Africa called the Bambara groundnut; another on a recipe for homemade graham crackers, culled from a circa-1980s African missionary cookbook; a third on Ethiopian-style cabbage and lentil salad. This all seems so silly. The posts will wait. For now, my mind is elsewhere, trapped in the maze of this saga’s twists and turns, and dreaming for that flicker of hope to reignite.

In addition to the coverage on BBC and Sky News, you can keep up-to-date on election news by checking these sites:

Sokwanele, and its related blog – This is Zimbabwe
Kubatana’s blog
SWRadio Africa

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Make-a-Plan Millet

One expression you learn quickly in Zimbabwe – right up there among “shame” (said, while shaking one’s head, instead of “too bad”) and “howzit?” (“how are things?”) – is “make a plan.” Need to adapt to a new situation or create a Plan “D”? You are making a plan.

But “make a plan” is more than simply an expression; it is also a way of life in a country where every day brings change – new prices, new shortages, new government policies. Making a plan can be time-consuming and can test your patience. It can also force you to be creative and encourage you to try new things. Like millet.

Zimbabwe is primarily a cash economy, which meant that the cash shortage in December caused havoc. The low supply and high demand for cash drove down the exchange rate for cash, while prices at the store continued to rise. As a result, basic items became expensive (think: $10 for a package of spaghetti, $8 for a container of yogurt on the verge of spoiling). At the same time, there was very little cash around to make purchases. So, when I spotted a kilo of millet on the shelves for the equivalent of 50 cents, I snapped it up. I had never cooked with millet before, but thought this was as good a time as any to learn. Lacking pasta, dairy products, and flour, it was time to make a plan.

I toasted the millet grains in a bit of oil, and then set them to simmer in water. My family from Boston called in the midst of my preparations. “What are you cooking?” my brother asked. “Millet,” I said. “Isn’t that bird food?” I suddenly remembered the big bags of millet my dad kept in the garage to feed the birds. “Well, um, I guess so. We couldn’t buy much at the shops and I had to make a plan.”

Millet comes in different types, with different colors (yellow, reddish, and grey-brown, like the kind I bought). Birds like it, but so do humans. In Zimbabwe, millet grains are typically pounded to make flour, which is then cooked with water to make sadza. Instead, I used the cooked whole grains to make a salad. My husband brought the salad to work for lunch. His Zimbabwean co-workers looked at his meal skeptically and asked, only half-jokingly, “What, your wife doesn’t pound your millet for you?”

It might not be typical to eat whole millet in Zimbabwe, but I’d recommend it. The grains are nutty-tasting and a tad chewy, with a distinctive earthy aroma. A kilo goes a long way, so I’ve been trying out a number of different recipes. I prefer millet served at room temperature tossed with sautéed or roasted vegetables, a bit of crumbly soft cheese, and a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. When a recipe calls for bulgur, quinoa, or couscous, you can always prepare millet as a substitute.

Millet is very nutritious (a good source of fiber, B vitamins, protein, iron…) and is gluten-free.

The recipe below combines Madhur Jaffrey’s basic method of cooking millet with the vegetables and spices from a recipe in a South African cookbook called “Quiet Food.” In the “Quiet Food” recipe, the millet mixture is made into patties and used to create a vegetarian version of frikkadels (South African
meatballs). I had trouble getting the patties to stick together, but liked the flavor of the mixture. So I made another plan, changing our meal from frikkadels to a well-textured, brightly-colored millet salad, with some fresh corn and fresh ricotta added in.

Next time you need to make a plan, make this millet!

Millet Salad with Carrot and Spinach
Serves 4-5

2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil, separated
1 cup / 200 grams millet (picked over, rinsed, drained and patted dry)
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters dried oregano
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters dried thyme
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters salt
1 tablespoon / 15 grams butter
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced or shredded
Kernels from a cob of fresh corn (optional)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1½ cups / 45 grams fresh spinach, chopped
¾ cup crumbled fresh ricotta (you could use feta)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh thyme, for garnish

Have 2 cups / 500 milliliters of boiling water ready. Put 1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters of the oil in a medium saucepan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the millet. Fry, stirring frequently, for three minutes. Pour in the boiling water, cover, and set aside for 1 hour.

Uncover and add the oregano, thyme and salt. Stir. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer gently for 40 minutes. Check to make sure the grains are now tender, but with some bite. (If not, cook until they are like this.) Turn off the heat and leave covered for 15 minutes. Almost all of the water should be absorbed. If not, you can drain it off.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil and the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, carrot and optional corn and sauté until they are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until it has wilted. Remove from heat.

Combine the cooked millet, carrot mixture and cheese in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss. Serve at room temperature, garnished with thyme.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Samp and Beans, Enlivened with Lime

Corn has been getting a lot of publicity lately. But even before industrial agriculture dug its claws into this versatile cereal and invented high-fructose corn syrup, cultures around the world had devised myriad techniques for consuming every edible part of the plant. In Zimbabwe, you can buy roasted maize by the side of the road, or bags of popped maize, called maputi. Finely ground white maize (mealie-meal) is used to make the staple dish, sadza, as well as a thin porridge commonly eaten for breakfast. A Zimbabwean could easily eat corn three times a day.

Another corn permutation, common in southern Africa as well as the southern U.S. and Mexico – not to mention a food that kept the colonists alive in New England – is samp. Much has been written in an attempt to explain the difference between samp, hominy and grits, a task complicated by regional usages of these terms within the U.S. Here is how I distinguish between them:

- Hominy is dried, whole kernels of corn whose skins (or hulls) and germs (the little bit inside the kernel) have been removed.
- Samp is the same thing, except the kernels are cracked into a few pieces.
- Grits are ground hominy. Mealie-meal and polenta (typically made from yellow corn, instead of white) both differ from grits in that the hull and germ are not removed before grinding the dried kernels.

Got it?

Samp is typically paired with dried beans in southern Africa. In fact, you can often buy the soulmates packaged together in one bag. In South Africa, samp and beans (umngqusho) is a traditional dish of the Xhosa people, and was supposedly one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite meals growing up. You can serve cooked samp and beans with sautéed or fried onions, with butter, or with any sauce of your choosing.

This refreshing recipe employs lime, honey and mustard to create a light, punchy take on samp and beans that makes a refreshing side for shellfish or a lively addition to a summer salad buffet.

Honey-Lime Samp and Beans Salad
Adapted from Food and Home Entertaining, May 2005
Serves 4 as a side dish

1¼ cups / 200 grams samp (you can substitute hominy)
½ cup / 100 grams sugar beans (you can substitute pinto beans)
2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters salt
¼ cup / 60 milliliters olive oil
1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters honey
Zest of one lime
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters fresh basil leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Fresh basil leaves, for garnish

Rinse the samp and beans and soak overnight. Drain, put in a medium saucepan, cover generously with water and add the salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until tender, about 1½-2 hours. Drain and set aside.

Whisk together the olive oil, mustard, honey, lime zest and basil leaves and season to taste. Pour over the still-warm samp and beans and leave to cool. Serve at room temperature, or refrigerate and serve cool, garnished with the remaining basil leaves.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Tiny Potatoes, Spicy Salad

The number of vendors has increased over the past few months in Harare – shop-side vendors dangling plastic sleeves of tomatoes, potatoes, onions and okra from sticks like veggie mobiles; street-side vendors displaying their greens, mangoes, avocadoes and maputi (popped maize) on upturned boxes; and, my favorite, the men who defy death itself, standing smack dab in the middle of busy roads (even when the lights aren’t working) hawking the most delicate of commodities – crates of eggs.

Given Zimbabwe’s ever-more-astronomical currency denominations, bargaining for these items sounds absolutely ridiculous. “Tomatoes, imari?” I ask. “Five million.” “And the potatoes?” “Seven point five.” "I’ll give you 10 million for both." “11.” Sold. And so I count out a small pile of bills – one 5 million note and 30 200,000s.

I am picky about my produce. The tomatoes can’t be too ripe or too firm; the mangoes and avocados must be string-less. And the potatoes I seek out from venders are the tiny, spherical ones that you barely need to chop. A quick slice or two and they become bite-size.

These potatoes are ideal for tourchi batata, a spicy potato salad from Tunisia that can be served hot, cold or anywhere in between. This salad is quick to prepare and easy to double – after making it the first time and seeing my husband gobble it up I have vowed never to make a single recipe again. You could peel the potatoes, but I like to keep them on. I served tourchi batata last week as a tapas-like dish with afternoon drinks – beer cuts the spice best. I’ll let my friends make their own comments, but I think the salad was a hit.

Tunisian Potato Salad (Tourchi Batata)
Adapted from Sephardic Cooking: 600 Recipes Created in Exotic Sephardic Kitchens from Morocco to India
Serves 4 as a side dish

1 pound / 450 grams small boiling potatoes
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil
1 teaspoon harissa (more, or less, to taste)
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters salt
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground cumin
1 lemon, freshly squeezed

Cook potatoes in boiling water for 15 minutes, or until tender. Cool and cut into cubes (or, with tiny potatoes, just in half). Heat the oil in a skillet, and add the harissa, salt, ground cumin and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and boil for a few seconds. Pour over the potatoes and toss. Let marinate for twenty minutes or so and serve warm, or serve at room temperature, or refrigerate for at least one hour and serve cool.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Curried Kidney Beans, and the Mobile Food Chain

I didn’t study science in school and do not work in a scientific field – maybe that’s why I so admire books that make science accessible to us commoners. Jared Diamond can work this magic, as can Natalie Angier. I am currently reading Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones, a bio-archaeologist. Jones’ prose isn’t as approachable as Diamond’s or Angier’s, but his topic – the history of the meal – is so fascinating that I am willing to read, and then re-read, as many paragraphs as necessary.

In each chapter of Feast, Jones describes a particular archaeological dig and, drawing upon the dig’s findings, envisions and narrates a typical meal-time scene. I just finished reading his exploration of a meal near a lake in Israel 23,000 years ago and a feast 11,000 years ago in the Euphrates Valley of Syria.

There are signs of weaving at the site in Israel – a new invention that allowed us humans to capture fish, small mammals and birds and to gather seeds, grains, legumes and nuts more effectively. As a result, we became much less dependent on men hunting large animals for our survival. By the time the scene in Syria happened, there were basically no men left whose main occupation was hunter.

(I promise all of this background will get to a recipe, eventually!)

Many things struck me about the meal Jones describes in Syria – the huge variety of grains, legumes and nuts consumed, including a cake flavored with ground mustard seeds, and the fact that the seeds had been cracked and soaked – similar to the preparation of tabouleh in the Middle East today. The meal takes place in a permanent settlement, something novel for us humans at this point in our history.

The climate was changing like crazy 11,000 years ago at the time of the meal in Syria, forcing plants and animals to continually chase their preferred habitats. In the past, people would have moved with them. But now, after constructing their permanent settlements, they didn’t want to move. Nor did they want to give up eating their favorite things. So, humans began modifying the environment around their favorite plants in order to mimic the places where these plants thrived – an early step towards agriculture.

(Really – a recipe is on its way….)

Another interesting feature of that meal 11,000 years ago is that it was prepared in a new physical human space – the kitchen. Instead of food being cooked and eaten around a fire, the meal in Syria was prepared in an area separate from the dining location. And there is evidence that all of this cooking – grinding, pounding, soaking, washing – was done by women.

Says Jones: “The meticulous study of the bones…indicates that in the ancient Euphrates at least, a very significant role in food preparation was played by women. All this evidence of back-breaking women’s work raises the question of what the men were up to.”

So, what were the men up to, especially since their hunting skills were not being called into action? Jones argues that the “surplus” men in the community became travelers, visiting settlements near and far. There emerged a tradition of welcoming these visitors into settlements with food and shelter, and of the visitor himself offering gifts of thanks, which included cultural artifacts, plants and animals. Soon, the number of migrants, and the number of new permanent settlements, began to grow.

(I know you don’t believe me, but a recipe is coming!)

Jones describes this movement of people as creating a “mobile food chain.” “It [the mobile food chain] did not spread by bulldozing flat the competition, but by leapfrogging from favored site to favored site…each new settlement taking with it many elements of the food chain, the styles and the beliefs of its parent communities.”

It would seem, then, that for many thousands of years we have had a tendency to prefer the foods and preparations we are accustomed to, and to take these customs with us wherever we go. I know I do this. Every time I travel to the States, I bring back with me black beans, pine nuts, granola bars, and walnuts. I can live without these items, of course, but I don’t want to. On the weekend before Christmas, I made minestrone soup, just like my mom does, even though I had to make a couple substitutions. With these actions, I am mimicking a human tendency that has spanned millennia – migrants bringing their favorite foods with them, and modifying their cooking to fit their new environments.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many people of Indian descent in South Africa, and they’ve brought with them styles and ingredients of cooking that have, over time, become just as South African as they are Indian. It is this combination of people developing cuisines in their “permanent” settlements and migrants sharing their favorite foods with new neighbors that has contributed to the amazing variety of dishes we humans have created.

One of these dishes is Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry. The red kidney bean comes from South America, but is now quite common in South African cuisine. Take this traveling bean, combine it with Indian migrants, and you have a curry prepared in a Gujarati style, with a South America bean, in a southern African country.

Do like your ancestors would and share this meal with friends and family. Feast!

(And, finally, the recipe!)

Natal Red Kidney Bean Curry
From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail
Serves 6

1½ cups / 300 grams dried red kidney beans
3 tablespoons / 45 milliliters vegetable oil
3 whole dried hot red chilies
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters whole cumin seeds
Generous pinch of ground asafetida
10-15 fresh curry leaves, if available
3 medium tomatoes, grated
¼ teaspoon / 1.25 milliliters turmeric
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground coriander
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground cumin
1-2 fresh hot green chilies, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters sugar
1½ teaspoons / 7.5 milliliters salt

Cover the beans generously in water and leave to soak overnight. Drain the next day, put in a medium-size pan, add 6 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Partially cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for 2-2 ½ hours, or until the beans are tender.

Meanwhile, pour the oil into a medium pan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the red chilies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and asafetida. As soon as the mustard seeds begin to pop, add the curry leaves and tomatoes. Stir once, and then add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, green chilies, garlic, ginger, sugar, and salt. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 5 minutes.

When the beans are tender, pour the spiced tomato mixture into the pan with the beans. Bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, on a very low heat, for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Red and Green Gimmick

When my husband and I first moved into our furnished rental house in Harare, we discovered a heart-shaped plaque on the wall that featured two kissing mice and the slogan "mouse-to-mouse resuscitation." We took it down. Immediately. And hid it in the farthest corner of the closet. I am not a fan of the tacky or the twee.

I do, however, take pleasure in the occasional gimmick. Gimmicky is at the seedier end of the tacky-classy spectrum, I’ll admit; although I hope you’ll agree that it doesn’t quite approach the excess of plastic mice attempting to cutely feign a life-saving procedure. Predictably, my gimmicks typically enlist the assistance of food and drink. I’ve dyed cookies all colors of the rainbow to match holiday hues. In college, my roommate and I turned our apartment’s thermometer up to 80 and held a July in Winter party, complete with umbrella-ed margaritas. A year-and-a-half ago, when the Zimbabwean government dropped three zeros from the currency, my husband and I hosted a “zeroes” fiesta featuring zero-shaped food, including bagel pizzas. And, over the past two weeks, I have been obsessed with preparing red and green food. Roasted red pepper soup with a dollop of avocado cream for garnish? Made it. Spinach lasagna? Check. Watermelon and feta salad with mint? Yep. And, for breakfast on Christmas morning, testira (sometimes written tastira) – a Tunisian egg and pepper dish. Red and green peppers, of course.

Although some recipes call for the egg in testira to be poached, the egg is scrambled in the recipe I use from Kitty Morse’s The Vegetarian Table: North Africa. In any case, the egg is really beside the point because what makes this dish a standout are the peppers – roasted until sweet and spiked with harissa (also spelled harisa), a traditional Tunisian condiment of chilies, garlic, spices and olive oil that makes you breathe like a dragon.

Testira is typically served as an accompaniment to fish. My taste buds have a difficult time imagining how this combination works, although I certainly don’t doubt the flavor amalgamation skills of the people who brought us tabil and chakchouka. Fish and testira might be one of those things I’ll just need to try someday in Tunisia. In the meantime (and this could be a very long meantime), I think testira stands up for itself quite well as a breakfast centerpiece.

Hmm….maybe I could have a party where the gimmick is that everyone brings a food combination that they like, but that other people think is strange; or maybe the gimmick could be egg dishes from around the world, or maybe…

Adapted from The Vegetarian Table: North Africa
Serves 3 as a main dish

2 red bell peppers
2 green bell peppers
1 red or green chili pepper
4 large tomatoes
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil
2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters ground coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters harissa (See note below)

Roast the peppers and the tomatoes, using the roasting method you prefer. Here’s what I do: I preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and put the vegetables on one tray, with the tomatoes on a piece of aluminum foil with the edges rolled up so that the juices they emit during roasting don’t spread. Place the tray on an oven rack near the top. Turn the peppers every 5-10 minutes. The chili pepper will only take about 20-25 minutes to roast. The tomatoes and peppers will take about 35-40 minutes. The peppers are done when their skins have blackened and separated from their flesh.

Set aside the tomatoes to cool. Place the peppers in a glass or ceramic bowl and cover with a plate. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel and seed them, and cut them into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) pieces. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel, seed and chop them.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and thicken a bit – about 5-6 minutes. Add the peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-12 minutes. Stir in the coriander, salt, pepper and harissa. Add the eggs and stir gently until they are cooked. Serve immediately with toast and some extra harissa on the side for those who like spice!

Note: I’ll write about harissa in a future post. In the meantime, in some countries you can find prepared harissa in a jar at the store. These two recipes also look quite good, and are similar to the Madhur Jaffrey recipe that I use. If you don’t have harissa, you can add a teaspoon of chili powder when you add the ground coriander, although it won’t pack the same punch.

P.S. Happy 2008!