Sunday, July 24, 2011

From Little House to Kilichi in Niger

Although my interest in doing things the old fashioned way may seem like planning for Armageddon, it has to do with my desire to understand how others live, or used to live. Laura Ingalls Wilder's series of books and my grandmother's steady supply of yarn, knitting needles, and stories of life before and after World War II played a huge role in forming my interest in things like churning my own butter and knitting socks. Of course it makes much more sense to go to the store and just buy both of these items, but when you make them by hand from raw materials, you feel that primal spark of human ingenuity and appreciate plain old butter and socks in a whole new way.

Life in Niger is a harsh reminder of what the world was like before the advent of electricity. Frequent power cuts (often multiple times a day) render lights, freezers, air conditioners, fans, sewing machines, and any other electronic device useless. This can be horribly uncomfortable when the temperature reaches into the 120's and there is not a cloud in sight. It can also be terrible for business if you rely on electricity to create products for customers (just think of all the spoiled frozen meat or shirts that can't be made).

And so, my curiosity in all things "old-fashioned" (from my perspective) has increased since coming to Niger. When you walk through the tailors' section of the grand marché, you see men sitting outside their stalls making clothes to order on foot-powered sewing machines. Of course, they have rigged up a way to motorize their machines, but if the power goes off, it's easy for them to unstrap the tiny motor and start pedaling away.
This need for electric independence reaches into the realm of food as well. If the electricity goes off, whatever you have in the fridge is going to spoil. Like many Americans, I don't think twice about ice-cold water or the food chilling in my refrigerator. Come to think of it, I don't even think twice about owning a refrigerator. However, for many Nigeriens, this basic American appliance is a luxury. Even if they do own a refrigerator, not everyone has a generator that kicks on when the national electric company fails. So what do you do when you have a freezer full of meat and you are instantaneously zapped back to life B.E. (Before Electricity)?

While most meat in Niger is sold live or very recently butchered, thus avoiding the need for refrigeration, some meat is dried under the Nigerien sun to make the regionally distinctive jerky known as kilichi.

This Nigerien specialty is made from the finest cuts of beef or mutton that have been cleaned of all vessels, fat, and bones. It is sliced into long, paper-thin strips about an arm-span in length. These strips are spread out on high tables made of straw screens to dry in the strong sunlight.

Before the meat has completely dried out and is still relatively supple, it is either salted or coated in a spice mixture with a peanut paste base.

Then, it is returned to the drying racks and allowed to dry to a crisp, brittle consistency. The finest kilichi splinters very nicely into crackly bits.
Given Niger's hot, dry climate, it only makes sense to preserve food by drying it in the sun. This is one of the oldest methods of food preservation and is relatively simple and inexpensive (1). When you dry food, all of the moisture is removed, making it an inhospitable environment for bacterial growth, and the natural enzymes that lead to decomposition are slowed down enough to give the food a longer shelf-life (2). In a house with no refrigeration, this can be one of the best ways to keep stores of food for later.

Although I have always wanted to try making my own beef jerky, especially after reading about Pa Ingalls making smoked venison in a hollowed out tree trunk, I am a little hesitant to experiment with it. So instead, I ferreted out the location of the best kilichi vendors in Niamey and paid them a visit (the production and sale of kilichi takes place in different areas of the city).
Their stalls are located on the median of a very busy road, but this does not deter them from swarming you when you pull up to the side. Before I could even get out of the car, several hands were shoving morsels of the thin strips of meat in my face. A Nigerien colleague assured me that this is totally normal. I sampled the crispy bits of meat until I identified a good one (the crispier the better) and began the process of haggling over the price. According to Le Sahel (a local newspaper), the small sheets cost between 1,000 to 5,000 CFA (roughly $2-10) while the larger ones range from 8,000 to 20,000 CFA ($16-40).

While I may not have ignited that primal spark of human ingenuity by making my own beef jerky this time, the pervasive presence of animals on the street and meat processing in the markets of Niamey certainly bring me one step closer to communing with thousands of generations of inventive humans.

1) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, College of Agriculture

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Essential Recipe for a Texan Abroad

There is no better way for a Texan living overseas to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than by listening to some Julietta Venegas and making fresh tortillas. I learned how to make tortillas from a fellow Texan living in Japan many moons ago. At the time, I lived in a small fishing town on the Okhotsk Sea where it was very difficult to find any non-Japanese food. Like most people who are raised on a steady diet of fajitas, tacos al pastor, and salsa riddled with jalapeños, my husband and I quickly became homesick for Tex-Mex. Luckily, the ingredients for flour tortillas are super simple, so I've been able to make them everywhere we've lived. Finding good beef, the ingredients for corn tortillas, and fresh jalapeños is another matter...

Flour Tortillas

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Crisco*
1 cup warm water

  • Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl.
  • Cut the Crisco into the flour using a fork until a coarse, crumbly meal forms.
  • Slowly add the water a little at a time as you mix with a spoon until a soft dough forms. It should not be too sticky or wet. If it is, add a little flour.
  • Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes). Cover the dough and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  • Divide the dough into golf ball sized pieces. Cover the balls with plastic wrap or a towel so they do not dry out.
  • Heat a large pan over medium-low heat. Make sure it is dry. Do not add oil! As the pan heats up, roll out a ball of dough with a rolling pin to make a round, flat tortilla (it should be quite thin, but not so thin that it becomes translucent).

  • Place the tortilla on the hot pan and cook until it begins to puff up (the first few may not puff up nicely if the pan is not hot enough). This should take only two or three minutes.

  • Flip it over and cook on the other side for another minute. Your tortilla should be white with a few brown spots on both sides.

  • Remove the tortilla from the pan and place it between the folds of a clean towel to keep it warm and soft until you are ready to serve.
  • Once you get used to rolling out the dough, you'll be able to roll out
    one tortilla while another is cooking in the pan.
This recipe makes about 20 (depends on how many you eat as you cook).

For a super quick Tex-Mex fix, I use my tortillas to make quesadillas, which I serve with pico de gallo. Plain tortillas are equally delicious when they are hot and rolled up around a few good pads of butter. Buen provecho!

*If you can't find Crisco, or don't like using it, you can try vegetable cooking oil (this is what I used when I lived in Morocco). Your tortillas might not be as soft and pliable, though. If you live in Niamey, I found Crisco at Marina Market. Hopefully they still sell it!

Cheese Quesadillas

Grated cheese (queso fresco, mozzarella, mild cheddar, etc.)

  • Sprinkle a small handful of cheese on one tortilla. Cover it with another tortilla.
  • Place on a hot, dry pan over medium heat. Do not add oil to the pan!
  • Heat through on one side, about 2 minutes, until the cheese in the middle begins to melt.
  • Flip the quesadilla over to heat through the other side for about a minute or two.

Serve hot with pico de gallo or salsa.

Pico de Gallo

2 tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
1/4 -1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped (or local hot pepper)
2-3 Tablespoons lime or lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

  • Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
  • Serve as a condiment for quesadillas, tacos, yucca chips, steak, anything!

Makes about 2 cups

Adjust the quantities to achieve your preferred taste- saltier, spicier, etc.

(Adapted from Steven Raichlen's Healthy Latin Cooking)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mango Sorbet for a Hot Day

It's mango season in Niger! The capital is overflowing with the large, warmly-colored fruit which grows well all over West Africa.

As you drive down the dusty roads, you can stop and buy a kilo or two from the young men who push neatly stacked piles of mangoes in wheelbarrows up and down the streets.

But if you have your own mango tree, you are truly lucky because their branches are heavy with the sticky, sweet fruit right now.

These Nigerien mangoes are smaller than their cousins in Benin and Togo, but they are no less delicious. Their only drawback is the large amount of fibrous threads embedded in the flesh. However, if you are going to make mango sorbet, these threads won't bother you a bit! This week, Paulina and I experimented with some local mangoes plucked from the branches of a neighbor's tree. We used the "Soft-Fruit Sorbet" recipe from How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. While he suggests using an ice cream maker, we relied on patience and old-fashioned arm power.

Mango Sorbet

1 1/2 cups mango, peeled and seeded
1 cup milk
1 cup powdered sugar, or to taste
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice

  • Purée the mangoes in a blender.
  • Strain the fruit through a fine sieve or strainer to separate the fibers from the pulp. You may need to press it through the sieve with a spoon.
  • In a medium-sized bowl, combine the milk, sugar, and 1 1/2 cups of the strained mango pulp. Stir well to dissolve the sugar.
  • Put the bowl in the freezer and stir the contents every 20 minutes for the next 2 hours. This prevents it from freezing into a hard block of ice.
  • The sorbet is best eaten fresh when the mixture has frozen to the right consistency (I don't know how you like your sorbet, but I like it when it is a nice, firm slush that can hold its shape). Once the sorbet has formed, you can also keep it in the freezer until you are ready to eat. Just leave it at room temperature for a minute or two until it is soft enough to scoop out into bowls.

Monday, April 25, 2011

West African Peanut Sauce

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cubed
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
4 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
4 Tablespoons peanut paste*
1 good bunch of oseille leaves, discard stems (or spinach)
1 green bell pepper, quartered
4 hot peppers (in Niger, we use the little tonkoté peppers, but any hot pepper will do)
4 shallots, cubed (substitute 1 onion)
1/4 Maggi cube

- Put the chicken in a medium-sized pot and barely cover it with water. Add the black pepper, salt, 2 cloves of minced garlic, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once it reaches a boil, remove the chicken and water from the pot and set aside in a bowl. Do not discard the water!

- Lower the stovetop temperature to medium low. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, peanut paste, minced garlic, and 1/2 liter of water to the empty pot and stir well to combine. Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring periodically to prevent burning. Continue boiling until the oil begins to separate and you can see it pooling on the top of the sauce.

- In the meantime, cover the leaves with boiling water in a medium-sized bowl. This brings out the flavor. Set aside until you are ready to use them.

- Once the oil has separated from the sauce, pour the chicken water through a sieve into the sauce and add the chicken cubes.

- Strain the leaves and squeeze out any excess water.

- Add about 1/3 liter of water, onions, bell pepper, hot pepper, leaves, and Maggi cube to the sauce. Bring to a boil and cook for several minutes, or until thickened.

- Serve with rice or couscous.

*Western style peanut butter is too sweet, try the freshly ground peanut butter from Whole Foods.

A Little Maggi in My Life

When I was an ESL teacher at an international school in Japan, I always tried to work food into the curriculum. Procedural writing was an obvious outlet for combining my culinary interests with curricular demands. Each year, my students would pester their parents to show them how to make their favorite dish so that we could put together a class cookbook. One year, I had an Indian student who was having trouble deciding exactly what he wanted to write about. So, kneeling next to his desk, I asked him to close his eyes and think about what he would like to eat right then, at that very moment. It could be anything- birthday cake, curry rice, daal…My little third grade student opened his eyes and said very seriously, “Ma’am, I like Maggi Noodles.”
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. But since he said it with such intensity and desire, I was not going to bog him down with too many questions. I gave him the OK and sent him on his way to ask his mother about her Maggi Noodle recipe. When our procedural writing unit was complete and the cookbook assembled, we had a class party. Everyone brought the dish they wrote about and we enjoyed sampling the different cuisines represented by our class. There was kimbap from Korea, yakisoba from Japan, and of course, Maggi Noodles from India. My Indian student proudly walked around the room with his plastic Tupperware box full of yellow, crimped noodles and served each of his classmates a healthy portion of the chicken-bouillon flavored Indian cousin to Kraft mac-n-cheese.
I never really thought about Maggi Noodles again until my arrival in Niger. When I drove up to the petit marché for the first time, I was greeted by a very large red and yellow billboard proclaiming, “With MAGGI, every Woman is a Star. Welcome to the Petit Marché!”
I couldn’t help but hear my Indian student saying to me, “Ma’am, I like Maggi Noodles.” His serious little voice pops into my head a lot these days, as Niamey is covered with Maggi advertising.
There are little street-side restaurants endorsing Maggi,
men with Maggi aprons,
Maggi BBQ,
festive Maggi banners,
and, of course, Maggi umbrellas to protect patrons, vendors, and products from the hot sahelian sun.

The Nestlé brand has successfully worked its way into the Nigerien kitchen, including mine. Maybe it is their team of industrious representatives like Bintou, “restaurant owner, mother, star,” who fuel our desire to be the successful, modern woman of the 21st century. Or, maybe, it’s just that we all crave that extra special “umami” taste that the iodine and MSG laden cubes add to our cooking.

Whatever the case may be, Maggi is a key ingredient in many West African sauces. If you’d like to sample some of the “umami” boosting power of Maggi, give Paulina’s Peanut Sauce or Tomato Sauce recipes a try. Both of these can be served on top of plain white rice or socoro. If you are not comfortable with the idea of adding MSG to your food, you can always omit the Maggi cube and play around with the recipe by adding a little homemade chicken stock and increasing the amount of salt and pepper. Just remember to "cook with joy!"

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: