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.