I Try West African Cooking

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.

My attempt at Fufu from a mix. Only slightly better than my matzo balls

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.

You Don’t Know Jack (Fruit)

My husband decided to become vegan a few weeks ago. I thought it would be easier in the household if I followed suit. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me. I haven’t been a meat eater since high school and cut down on dairy when health issues necessitated limiting my salt intake. Driving in the South behind chicken trucks bound for one of the processing plants down there was enough to swear me off most store bought eggs. I’ll spare you the details. Just be glad you weren’t born a chicken.

I have never been one for fake foods, processed fake cheese, and processed fake meat. Early in my marriage, my well meaning in-laws ambushed me with something called “Not Dogs” at a family gathering. I barely escaped with the relationship intact. I have always been suspicious of products with names like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Margarine.”

Which brings me to jackfruit. Right now, I am sitting in my kitchen with my cat Boris listening to cannon explosions coming from my oven. I had thought it would be fun to purchase a fresh jackfruit and try one of the recipes I see all over the Internet for Jackfruit vegan pulled pork. There are a number of large seeds inside jackfruit which they recommend you roast in the oven. None of the recipes mentioned that the seeds might explode.

Not to mention that I don’t know if vegan jackfruit pulled pork tastes like pulled pork because I don’t think I have ever eaten pulled pork in my life. But I love a challenge, especially the kind where there is nothing at stake but a weird looking fruit. And I have a solution to the exploding seeds at the end of this post.

I cut up my jackfruit a day before I used it after reading numerous articles on how to do it.

In retrospect, I probably should have saved the white, stringy fiber. But none of the many web sites and videos that I happened to I consult before cutting up my jackfruit told me to do that. I ran into problems getting clear, concise directions for which parts of the freshly-cut jackfruit are edible and should be used for vegan pulled pork. One site says that the white, stringy part of the jackfruit should be discarded and only the yellow fruit used. Another site says that the white stringy part makes the best vegan pulled pork dish. Another site contains such general information that I wonder if the writer ever met a fresh jackfruit. Yet another site contains information that assumes reader knowledge, basically instructing to cut up the fresh jackfruit and use it. Not helpful when you don’t know what you are doing. The recipes that call for canned jackfruit are less problematic. Just open the can and chop, boil, or whatever.

So my vegan pulled pork used the yellow pulp only. It was good, but I think the finished product would have been better with with directions that were more thought out and didn’t assume knowledge. The basic instructions are to dissect your jackfruit, save the seeds for roasting, shred the yellow pulpy part and boil the hell out of it.

I duly shredded my yellow jackfruit pulp (tedious) and cooked it in vegetable broth. I am not sure why the recipes tell you to do this. It takes forever and doesn’t really change the character of the yellow pulpy jackfruit all that much. Maybe it is different if you use the white stringy part which I will definitely try the next time I tackle this.

But I can recommend Penzy’s vegetable broth with no reservations. It’s fresh and delicious. In fact, I recommend all Penzy’s products. Check out their website here.

After boiling my jackfruit, I sautéd onions, peppers, and portobello mushrooms with garlic and some spices and added it to the jackfruit.

Then I spread the mixture on a sheet pan and covered it with easy home made microwaved barbecue sauce where I used hot pepper and tomato paste instead of ketchup.

The finished product was delicious with a hint of sweetness from the Jackfruit that was tempered by the barbecue sauce. While this is not a substitute for pulled pork, it would be wonderful with rice. Some oven-baked tofu cubes or chick peas would enhance it even more. Or serve over noodles.

Fresh Jackfruit Pulled Pork

I bought a 10 lb. jackfruit and used half of it. After covering it with broth and boiling it, I chopped up 5 fresh garlic cloves, one large onion, red, green and yellow peppers and one large portobello cap which I sautéd in olive oil with some spices. I used sweet paprika, cumin, Mural of Flavor, a splash of liquid smoke and a goodly sprinkle of hot pepper flakes. I didn’t use any salt. I spread it on a foil-lined sheet pan sprayed with cooking spray, topped it with Easy Barbecue Sauce and baked it at 350 F for 30 minutes. The second time I made it, I baked it in a casserole dish. Much easier. This is great served over Japanese buckwheat noodles which I get at my local Asian market. You can also buy them on Amazon. But I think plain old spaghetti would work too.

Easy Barbecue Sauce

Add to a four cup microwavable container

  • 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 T cider vinegar
  • 1 T garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper flakes

Add 1/2 cup water to this. Cover and microwave on high 3 minutes, stir, and use.

I think there is a simple solution for the exploding roasted jackfruit seeds. Before you roast chestnuts, you cut an “X” in each one to let out the steam that develops inside during roasting. You can do the same with jackfruit seeds which are covered with a skin. Voila! No more (or fewer) explosions and I bet they would be easier to peel for eating, too. I’m going to try this with my next fresh jackfruit. Do roast the seeds. They are “foody” as my mother would say.

Some more tips: people are falling all over themselves telling you to line your counter with plastic wrap so the sticky latex-like jackfruit innards don’t stick to it. Uh, don’t we have a problem with plastic pollution or is that something I dreamed up? Grab a few sheets of newspaper or cut open a paper bag and work on that. Reuse something.