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.
Paulina's recipe for Igname Pilé:
1 liter water
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.