It all started with my book club. We read Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It’s well worth reading, the first part in a trilogy, and I highly recommend it.
In my book club, whoever recommends the book for a given month gets to host the meeting, either at home or in a restaurant. With the home meetings, we have taken to serving dishes inspired by the cuisine in that month’s book. Since I recommended the book and was hosting that month’s meeting, I decided to try my hand at West African cookery with a concentration on Nigerian cooking.
When I told some friends that I was in search of recipes, some exclaimed that they loved Ethiopian cooking. And so do I. But Africa is a big continent. Ethiopia is almost 4,000 miles from West Africa. Eurocentric people would not be likely to confuse German cooking with Spanish Cooking, even though those countries are much closer to one another. Do we imagine that all African cooking is the same? When I first went online is search of West African cookbooks. I found some books like this one that had a heavy colonial twist and not what I was looking for at all. But thankfully, here are people who have been committed to documenting and preserving the culture of the African Diaspora, including food culture and traditions.
I was in over my head from the start. I have always been able to make good gnocchi from scratch. But when I married, I learned that I could not make a decent matzo ball. Even from a mix. Fufu is the West African equivalent of matzo balls. I managed to churn out some passable-looking fufu after a couple of attempts, but I don’t know if my fufu was any good. I didn’t have a benchmark. I think my fufu was better than my matzo balls, but not by much.
A diaspora is defined as the dispersion of people from their original homeland. People don’t usually leave their homelands without a good reason, normally displacement by war, famine, political oppression, or for better economic opportunities. Or a combination. And when people leave their homelands, they bring their food with them. It creates a sense of community in the new place. Sometimes it marks them as “foreigners” to the native population. I remember hearing stories about how my W.A.S.P. relatives considered my Sicilian-American father to be somewhat of an exotic character with his garlic and his homemade red wine. He, in turn, thought their creamed gravy and biscuits would kill him. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
There is a population of emigres from African countries in Philadelphia, and an African Grocery in West Philadelphia. So after finding some good websites for recipes and watching some videos, I made my way to the All African Grocery in search of ingredients.
I came back with a bunch of strange (to me) ingredients. I also got fresh peanut butter, some spices and dried crawfish. I couldn’t find dried locust beans, so I bought them online. And there were many other ingredients, such as Scotch Bonnet peppers and plantains, that I could get at the 9th Street Market near my home, as well as Little Saigon neighborhood, and the plethora of Mexican Groceries in the area.
Locust beans. A tasty condiment used in West African cooking.
Dried crawfish. You pulverize it in a grinder and add it as a seasoning.
Here’s what I made. Aside from the ill-fated Fufu (see above. Read more about Fufu here. And no, I did not beat cassavas into submission. I bought a mix like this one), I made two hearty stews, a plantain dish, and African pepper sauce.
Making Vegan Egusi soup, recipe here.
West African Peanut Soup. Here’s a recipe. I left out the chicken and substituted black eyed peas which I purchased at the All African Food Market.
Fried plantains recipe here.
African pepper sauce. Recipe here.
I have to take this opportunity to rave about this pepper sauce. The scotch bonnet peppers were so hot that they made me cough and burned my hands when I was seeding them. But they changed totally in the sauce. Yes, they were still hot, but it was a warm, foody hotness that crept up on you gradually and enhanced the flavor of the food you added it to, rather than making you miserable. It was especially good in the hearty peanut stew which already had one of the peppers in the main recipe.
My verdict? West African cooking is substantial and spicy. I love the combination of sweet potatoes and black eyed peas. The pepper sauce is divine. I will definitely be making more of these recipes. I made everything without meat or dairy, but if you like chicken, oxtail or goat, this is the perfect cuisine. For a comprehensive all Nigerian recipe site, click here.
And now back to what started all this, the novel, Things Fall Apart. Interestingly, the title of that book comes from the poem, “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats. Part of the impetus for “The Second Coming” was the Irish Easter Rising in 1916, which some have argued sounded the beginning of the fall of the British Empire. Both the novel and the poem are about societal and cultural change that upended the worlds of the people involved. There have been diasporas throughout history. They continue today. That’s one reason why it’s important to preserve traditions, including recipes.
Here is an interview with Chinua Achebe.