There’s a downside to cooking a lot and experimenting with all types of international cooking: when Foodbuzz challenges you to make a classic dish from a cuisine with which you’re unfamiliar, the pickings can be slim. French is out, for obvious reasons (e.g. I live there). As is American (e.g. I am one). Mexican, Chinese, and Indian all get a fair share of play on my table. I have been known to cook Japanese, Russian, and Italian. And I’ve cooked Bulgarian, English, Thai, North African, Vietnamese, and German, too.
I thought about cooking feijoada, the Portuguese/Brazilian bean and meat stew. I even asked one of the Portuguese women at work for her recipe. But somehow it wasn’t wacky enough. (I mean, I’ve done pig’s ears and feet before.) I asked my sister-in-law, who is Filipina, if she had any classic family recipes. She sent me a very tasty-sounding recipe for chicken adobo. The same day, Nick came home from work with a recipe from one of his colleagues. A Frenchman who used to live in West Africa, notably Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, had given him a recipe for mafé, a type of groundnut stew. It varies widely from country to country, but is popular throughout the region. At its heart it is a basic braised chicken (or lamb, or beef, but never pork) dish, but the spicy tomato and peanut-based sauce combines familiar-to-me ingredients in a very unfamiliar way. The recipe also came with specific instructions as to an appropriate beverage – jus de bissap, a chilled, sweetened tea made from hibiscus flowers. I was seduced.
Living in France can have its disadvantages, too, especially when it comes to cooking something not French. (The challenge is reduced somewhat if the country in question is a former colony of France, which Senegal was until 1960.) Fortunately, I live in a very diverse neighborhood in Paris, and there are a handful of “exotic product” shops selling products from places as far apart as Africa, India, and China. I found this tiny one on my way to the bank Saturday morning, and they had everything I was looking for: sweet potatoes, bissap (the aforementioned hibiscus flowers), and ginger. I love poking around in the foreign food stores here, because I never know what I’m going to find. In this case, I succeeded in keeping focused, so after picking up the necessities, and a quick stop at the butcher for a chicken, I headed home to get cooking.
Aside from being in French, all the recipes I found for mafé called for whole chickens, cut up. In the spirit of authenticity, I channeled my inner butcher and cut the bird into ten pieces – two legs, two thighs, two wings, and two breasts, halved. I saved the backbone to make stock at a later date. The vegetable components in the recipes varied wildly, but onions, carrots and sweet potatoes featured in several, so I figured they would make a fairly classic stew. Like any good French-trained cook, I got all my mise en place together before starting to cook.
One of the most interesting things about cooking, to me anyway, is how much about it is the same around the world. Sure, the set of available ingredients differs from place to place, but many techniques are practiced around the world, largely unchanged. Take braising. How many cultures include some kind of stew in their culinary repertoire? It turns out that this sub-Saharan African dish is prepared just like any number of stewed chicken meals I’ve made before.
It starts with browning the chicken in peanut oil. Then the pot is deglazed with chopped onions, which cook, soaking up the delicious browned bits on the bottom of the pot, until they soften and begin to caramelize. The major difference here was that I was to leave all the fat in there instead of draining most of it off. Next come crumbled pili-pili peppers (the tiny dried chilis also known as African Birdseye peppers), a few chopped tomatoes, some sliced garlic, and a big spoonful of tomato paste. After that has cooked together for a bit, water and peanut butter are added to the sauce. Once it has all come together, the chicken is returned to the pot, and if there isn’t enough sauce to cover it, more water is added until it does. Finally, the chopped carrots and sweet potatoes join the party.
At this point, I partially covered the pot and popped it in a moderately hot oven for about an hour. In the meantime, I made the jus de bissap.
As instructed, I rinsed the flowers under cold running water. They immediately began to bleed magenta-colored juice. I brought a pot of water to boil and plopped in the flowers. After steeping for ten minutes, the liquid was a deep red. I strained it into a bowl and whisked in some sugar. The suggested flavorings for the bissap tea were many. I could use mint, vanilla, ginger, fruit juice, or orange flower water. Mint and vanilla is one of the more classic combinations, but having recently acquired a bottle of orange flower water, I wanted to use that. I thought ginger would be a nice compliment, so I grated a bit of fresh ginger into the tea as well.
I poured the tea into a pitcher, plonked in a handful of ice cubes, and set it in the fridge to chill. I quickly steamed a pot of white rice, and dinner was finally ready, as indicated by the layer of oil that had formed on top of the mafé.
It smelled heavenly as I ladled the chicken, vegetables, and sauce over bowls of rice.
We ate it hungrily, and drank glasses of cold, sweet, pink-red jus de bissap. It was surprisingly comfort food-like for a meal I’ve never eaten before in my life. But then, the ingredients were nothing strange, and the cooking method was an old friend, so maybe that’s perfectly natural.
I’d like to conclude this with a big thank you to everyone who voted for me in round one of Project Food Blog. This is my entry for round two, The Classics. Voting opens at 6:00 am Pacific time tomorrow, September 27th, and continues through 6:00 pm September 30th. I would love it if you wanted to vote for me again, so here’s the link to the voting page.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.