Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Culinary Safari

Every time I visit Park W for a respite from the hustle and bustle of life in the big city, I leave salivating for more. Not because warthogs darting between tall clumps of dry grass make my mouth water, but because of the amazing food that is served at the Ile du lamantin Ecolodge. Nathalie, the amicable manager and chef, has developed a West African-French fusion menu that incorporates local ingredients in dishes like Crème au fruit de baobab (Baobab Fruit Cream), Terrine de tchapata (an egg-based dish with local spinach), and Pintade sauce tikadigué (Guinea Fowl with Peanut Sauce). She serves her culinary creations amidst the idyllic scenery of a small island in the middle of the Niger River.
Covered with smooth boulders and towering baobab trees, the Ile du lamantin provides the perfect backdrop for dining al fresco on fresh capitaine (a local fish) with coconut tomato sauce in the company of… bathing elephants. Being a fan of using seasonal, local ingredients, I was keen to learn about Nathalie’s recipes and asked if she would be willing to teach a cooking class. Happily, she agreed and so was born the idea for a culinary safari.

Our edible journey into the Nigerien bush started off with the capture of seven poachers. As we pulled into the park’s shady entrance, we saw rangers in camouflage uniforms hauling off a group of handcuffed, scraggly men with barely enough meat on their bones to satisfy a lion. The charred remains of their haul were left in a fly covered pile in front of the ranger station. I could make out a porcupine paw and red highlights on an antelope pelt. Bush meat is a delicacy in markets along the border between Niger and Nigeria. Animal skins, bones, and horns are also sold as key ingredients in traditional medicines and magic potions. Although some game, like warthog, can be hunted legally outside of the park, Nathalie serves whatever she can find, legally, from the markets and villages in the area. She gets fresh fish from the fishermen who pull large, 50lb capitaine from the river right in front of the lodge, and her staff members buy guinea fowl, ducks, and chickens from the farmers who live along the river.

Getting to the Ecolodge is an adventure in itself. After picking up our guides at the entrance, we jostled our way down the dirt track into the heart of the deserted park. Very few people come to Park W, and even fewer have been making the trek since the kidnappings in Niamey in January 2011. As we drove along, we came across many animals including...

...elephants foraging in a grove of trees,

...baboons lounging in the sparse shade of a dry bush,

...and warthogs running along the road with their wiry tails in the air.

The drive ended at the muddy banks of the Niger River where we loaded into a pirogue and floated down the calm waters to the island. We were greeted by Nathalie who helped us out of the boat and into our cozy thatched roof cabins scattered along a rocky outcropping on the edge of the island. That night, I fell asleep to the sounds of elephants munching on the acacia trees next to my hut, hippos grunting on the bank below, and a lion roaring just across the river.

I had never before crossed the threshold into the small but well-organized kitchen at the Ecolodge and felt like a poacher entering forbidden territory. Nathalie was prepared for our small class of three with Ile du lamantin aprons for each of us and laminated recipe cards in French and English so we could recreate the dishes at home.

She started us off with Crème au fruit de baobab. Nathalie uses baobab fruit collected from the numerous trees that erupt lava-like all over the craggy island. The whole fruit is taken to the neighboring village women who separate the dry flesh from the small black seeds that are found in the hard, furry fruit and pound it into a fine powder with wooden mortars and pestles. This powder is the base for Nathalie’s signature baobab juice and is also used in dessert and jam recipes.

Once the crème was safely in the fridge, we moved on to the Granité de pasteque. This simple recipe is perfect on a hot day, which we have many of here in Niger, and is also a terrific way to use watermelon that might not be sweet enough to eat on its own. The ruby red flakes of ice are also a nice alternative to a more traditional gazpacho- equally satisfying when the sun is scorching.

While we waited for the granité’s ice crystals to form, we began the Bavarois au gingembre. Ginger is very popular here, especially as a juice or syrup that is often served very strong with a bottle of carbonated water so you can mix the two, making your own fresh ginger ale. Nathalie’s bavarois combines milk and ginger syrup, resulting in a pudding that reminds me a lot of anin dofu, a soft gelatin dessert served with ginger syrup in Hong Kong.

The final recipe of our 3-hour class was Blinis à la courge. This savory pancake makes use of the pumpkin-like squashes that are ubiquitous in Niamey, most notably floating in the Niger River by the Kennedy Bridge as they are unloaded from the giant pirogues that bring them from surrounding villages like Boubon (pictured). The blinis, served room temperature with a cool pasta salad, the Granité de pasteque, and Crème au fruit de baobab for dessert, make the perfect lunch for a warm (read blistering) Nigerien afternoon.

Nathalie has kindly allowed me to share some of her recipes from the cooking class on this blog. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Cooking on the Ile du lamantin is a creative and unique souvenir from Niger that will enrich my kitchen repertoire no matter where I’m living. Thank you Nathalie and all of the staff at the Ecolodge!


  1. not fond of the poachers, but LOVE the idea of a culinary safari. Thanks for letting me live vicariously!

  2. Thank you for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    I had mixed emotions seeing the poachers. On the one hand, it's great that the rangers are successfully protecting the wildlife in the park, and I hope that their efforts will deter people from poaching. I do not condone poaching AT ALL. But on the other hand, I couldn't help feeling sorry for the men who looked like a bunch of starving farmers. Poor crop yields, drought, and severe poverty greatly affect many people living in Niger.