Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fufusi: Tomato Sauce

2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cubed
1/2 medium sized onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh, grated ginger
1 Maggi cube
3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced
1 eggplant, cut into 8 pieces lengthwise
3 hot peppers
1 green bell pepper, quartered

  • In a medium-sized pot, brown the chicken with the onions, garlic, bay leaves, salt, pepper, thyme, and ginger.
  • Add about 1/2 cup of water to the chicken and crumble in the Maggi cube. Cover and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes and boil 2 minutes more.
  • Add 2 to 3 cups more water to make a thick soup.
  • Add eggplant, hot peppers, and bell pepper. Boil until the eggplant is cooked through (a fork should be able to easily pierce the eggplant).
  • Serve with rice or socoro.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Is that a....baobab fruit?

A couple of months ago, my friend and I were walking our dogs off leash. Modigi, my mutt, is a superb scavenger who always seems to find some stinky carcass to snack on, which in Niger includes snake heads, lizard jerky, and flattened toads. This time, she came bounding up to me with what I thought was a very stiff dead rat. She had her mouth around the fuzzy, faun colored body while the thin, scaly tail protruded stiffly from the corner of her mouth. "Great," I thought, "this is the last thing I want to extract from her jaws." Upon closer inspection, and to my great relief, I found that my Sahelien canine had some kind of strange fruit in her mouth. And so, I was introduced for the first time to baobab fruit.

Baobab trees are a common sight in the Niamey region and can be found throughout the African continent in hot, dry areas with low rainfall. They are classified, along with balsa, durian, and kapok trees, as a member of the Malvaceae family.

These tall trees with thick trunks and slender branches are highly regarded by people in Africa because they provide many resources in a harsh climate. Not only is every part of the tree edible from its seeds to its roots, the large trunk can be hollowed out for storage or shelter and the bark can be turned into fiber for baskets or cloth.

My first gastronomic encounter with the baobab took place just the other week when we were on Lamantin Island, home of the Park W Ecolodge (a very nice place to stay with a fantastic restaurant). This island, in the middle of the Niger River, is covered with baobab trees. We were encouraged by the proprietors to pick up a fruit that had fallen on the ground and try the pinkish, powdery flesh. It tasted like sour astronaut ice cream (like most people who grew up in Houston, I've had my fair share of freeze-dried Neapolitan ice cream). Although I could eat the raw fruit in a pinch, I think I prefer imbibing the wonderful juice, which Paulina showed me how to make upon my return from our safari adventure at Park W.

Buying baobab powder at the petit marché.

Paulina's Baobab Juice Recipe

350 grams baobab powder
3~4 liters tap or bottled water
handful of fresh mint
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 cups sugar (or to taste)

- Combine baobab powder and 1 liter of water in a large bowl. Stir gently to dissolve the powder. It will look like a soupy cake batter.

Baobab Powder

- Add 1/2 a liter of water to thin out the juice and stir to combine.
- Strain the juice through a fine sieve into another large bowl. Set the pulpy contents of the sieve aside as it will be used again.

- Once you have strained all of the juice, put the pulp into a large bowl and mix with 1 liter of water. Stir until well combined.
- Strain the juice of this second batch into the first batch.
- Strain all of the juice one more time.
- In a small bowl, bruise the mint in 1/2 liter of water.
- Add the mint water to the baobab juice.
- Another 1/2 liter of water may be added if the juice is too thick.
- Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and sugar. Stir well to dissolve.
- Chill and serve.

Makes 3 liters of juice

For more information on the baobab tree: South African National Biodiversity Institute

An article on the EU approving the use baobab fruit in food products: BBC

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Socoro: Fufu: Igname Pilé: Pounded Igname

Beneath the thick shade of an old tree, women gather round a heavy wooden mortar. With sleeves rolled up, each takes a turn pounding the contents with long wooden poles. Anything can be beaten to a pulp with a good mortar and pestle- the nigerien version of a food processor. The rhythmic thud of the thick pieces of wood knocking against one another can be heard even in the kitchens and courtyards of city dwellers.

One of Paulina's favorite dishes requiring the use of a mortar and pestle is igname pilé, or pounded igname (pronounced EE-nyam), which is served with various types of sauces. Igname is a large type of yam with a woody exterior and a white, starchy interior. Vendors at the market stack the tubers on the ground like firewood or pile them in wheelbarrows, which they push down the streets in search of buyers. In many parts of West Africa, the raw yam is peeled, cooked, and then pounded into a thick dough that is used to scoop up the sauce. Alternatively, the dough could be divided into small balls and dropped into the sauce, much like dumplings. Here, in Niger, the tuber is cut and cooked directly in the sauce.

After several months of being in Niamey, my curiosity could take it no longer. So, armed with my wallet and the guidance of Paulina, I headed to the petit marché to buy a mortar, pestle, and some igname. When buying a mortar and pestle in Niger, you want to look for one that is heavy, even, smooth, and free of cracks. They come in many sizes depending on how much food you need to prepare. I bought a small one since I usually cook for only two people. Make sure to buy some beurre de karité (shea butter) to treat the wood before using it; otherwise, it might crack in the hot, dry weather of Niger.

How to treat your mortar:

Once your mortar and pestle are home, place it on a towel and rub a good layer of shea butter all over the inside, outside, and bottom of the mortar. Let it sit in a dry room for several days (I left mine for 4 days, but 2 should be plenty). Gently wash off the shea butter with warm soapy water and dry with a clean towel. It is important to pound a handful of igname and then throw it away on your first use (you won't have to do this again). This step ensures that the inside is clean. Your mortar is now ready to last generations! Just wash it out with warm soapy water after each use.

Shea Butter: On a hot day, keep your shea butter in water so that it won't melt. The vendor at the petit marché gave me a plastic bag filled with water for the journey home.

My new mortar with a good layer of shea butter.

Paulina's recipe for Igname Pilé:

1 liter water
1 igname
1/2 cup water (optional)

- Fill a pot with 1 liter of water and bring to a boil.

- Meanwhile, cut off as much igname as you think you will eat. You can save the rest of the tuber for another day, simply place it in a dry, dark place. You do not need to cover the cut end. It will form a hard crust that can be cut off and disposed of before use. The tuber can be kept like this for about a week.

- Peel the woody skin off the igname with a sharp knife.

- Cut the tuber into one inch cubes and place in the boiling water.
- Cook until soft (about 15 minutes). Test it by poking a piece with a fork. If the fork pierces the igname easily but does not make it fall apart, then turn off the heat and drain.

- Put the igname back into the pot and fill a large bowl with tap or bottled water (depending on potability). Place both of these on the ground next to your treated mortar.
- Put a handful and a half of igname (or half the quantity) into the mortar and begin pounding it. If the igname sticks to the pestle, dip the pestle in the bowl of water. You may also need to dip your hand in the water and then turn the igname in the mortar before continuing to pound. This ensures that the igname is pounded evenly.

- Continue pounding until a smooth dough is formed. Remove the dough from the mortar and place it in an empty bowl.

- Put another handful and a half (or the remainder) of the igname into the mortar and pound until a smooth dough is formed.
- When you have pounded all of the igname, put all of the batches back into the mortar and pound them together. You may add about half a cup of water to the igname in the mortar to make it a bit lighter, but don't add too much or the dough will be sticky. Also, squish it, rather than pound it, until the water is incorporated; otherwise, you will splash yourself with water. Once the water is incorporated, you may resume pounding the igname.

- The igname is ready when you can gather it into a smooth, doughy ball.
- Place it in a bowl or on a plate and serve alongside your favorite sauce (try Paulina's Spicy Sauce- a future blog entry).

Igname is best if eaten right after it is made. It is possible to keep it covered in the refrigerator overnight. Just put it in boiling water to heat through before eating.

Do not eat igname pilé that has puffed up or developed a crust. It is no longer edible.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bissap Juice

The temperature is definitely rising here in Niamey, Niger, and everyone keeps telling me that it is only going to get hotter in the coming months. By two in the afternoon, the streets are deserted. Even my dog, who is native to the Sahel, refuses to leave the safety of the shade and looks at me like a mad woman if I hold up her leash.

The height of the afternoon is best for relaxing in the shade with a nice cold drink, and Nigeriens know how to do it right! Although Coca Cola and other sodas are popular, they will never beat out local drinks like Bissap Juice (made from dried hibiscus calyxes), Ginger Juice, or Baobab Juice.

Bissap Juice is probably the most prevalent of the local drinks and can be found on almost any restaurant menu. You can even buy the thick syrup at the grocery store. But nothing is better than a glass of homemade Bissap Juice.

While shopping at the petit marché, I noticed a giant pile of what looked like brittle, crimson flowers sandwiched behind a bucket of limes. Having just bought a kilo of the limes, I plucked up enough courage to ask the vendor about the flowers. In Niger, if you buy a decent quantity of produce, the vendor usually gives you a "petit cadeau," or small gift, to entice you to return to his stall. The man kindly gave me two large handfuls of bissap so that I could give it a try.

My housekeeper, Paulina, was very happy with my spoils and showed me how to prepare the juice. When we went back to the marché several days later, I took her to the same vendor and we bought an entire bowlful, which is good for making about 12 liters of Bissap Juice. The following is Paulina's recipe:

Serving size: 6.5 liters

5 1/4 cups bissap
1+ liters water
1 handful fresh mint
2 1/2 cups sugar (or to taste)

*If you bought the bissap outside on a dusty day (we have many of them in Niger), rinse them off once with water.

- Bring 1 liter of water to a gentle simmer in a large pot.
- Add the bissap and mint and allow the water to come to a strong boil. Boil for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Pour the dark red juice through a sieve into a large bowl or basin to separate the flowers and mint from the liquid.
- Return the bissap and mint to the pot and cover with another liter of water (tap or bottled depending on the potability of your water).
- Strain this second batch of juice into the first batch of juice.
- Continue adding fresh water and straining until the flowers stop giving a strong red juice (2 to 3 times).
- Strain all of the juice one more time to get rid of any sediment.
- Add sugar and stir well to dissolve.
- Chill the juice in the refrigerator.

*Some people add a sprig of fresh mint to the juice as it chills.
*Bissap Juice makes great mixed drinks. My friend suggested adding it to vodka and orange juice. Will have to try this the next time we have a party!

Some notes on bissap:

Although dried bissap looks like a flower, it is actually the calyx of the hibiscus flower.

Some believe that bissap juice is a good diuretic, and that it can benefit those with high blood pressure.

Drinks made from bissap can be found all over the world from the Americas to Southeast Asia.

For more information on the plant that produces bissap, see this web site: