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.