As I write this, mango pollen and flowers are falling from above me and are lodging themselves in my keyboard. And I will begin with a warning that this is a long, long post! I promise, though, that there is a true Gambian recipe waiting for you at the end, and before it, the story of a Canadian who has attempted to cook it.
As I learn the Gambian way of life, I must admit that I have found it difficult to cook. Hence the lack of posts on Gambian food so far. That is not because cooking here is difficult – most dishes are one-pot dishes or two-pot dishes – so they are not too complicated. Cooking here is difficult because the women don’t believe that I can cook. This is aggravated by their love of repetition… and if a dish is not cooked exactly as they do it or they know it – then they don’t like it. After two months living here though, I decided to push all help out of the way and cook a meal all by myself. Oh boy, it was not easy! All throughout my cooking women would come in and tell me different things about how I should be doing it… but I kept on saying ‘today I am cooking, and you will eat’. So I guess before I give you the recipe, I will tell you the story of how this meal was created. The way I made it was a fusion of Gambian Benachin and Senegalese Chebu Gen, because I learned to cook it in Dakar as well as in Gambia.
It started off with a deal with a friend of mine, P., who told me that he didn’t think I could cook because every time I say I cook I end up watching more than anything else because the women take over.
Mid-morning I headed to the market with my friend F. who helped me with the transactions so that I would not be nailed with Toubab prices. My basket was soon filling up with fresh fish, sea snail, salt-dried fish, carrots, tomatoes, bitter tomatoes, garlic, squash, niambi, cabbage, egg plant, onions, rice, preserved tamarind, hot peppers, salt, seasoning, pepper corns, peanut oil, and charcoal.
On my way home, several men told me jokingly, ‘I look forward to you bringing my lunch!’. Every time I go to the market and return with food, the next time I pass, men (who I don’t know) ask me ‘where is my lunch?’. Here, people like to joke jovially a lot.
Back home, I started by cleaning the fish to fry it right away, because even though I was going to cook dinner, I had to cook the fish right away so it didn’t spoil since there is no refrigeration. I lit the charcoal, and began to heat the oil to fry the fish. As the oil heated up, fish scales were flying everywhere as I cleaned it. I hauled buckets of water to the back of my house, and washed the fish three times. Then I drizzled it in lemon and salt.
After frying it, I put it in a bowl and let it stand in the shade all afternoon while I visited a friend.
That evening, I returned to cook around 5pm. First, I started by cleaning all the vegetables, and lighting the charcoal again. That is easier said than done, and took a lot of blowing and fanning in order for the charcoal to be fully lit. The women kept on coming over to watch and tell me what to do (all the time different instructions). I had to shoo them away every time. The kids would then come and ask to help me. That day, there were 5 women at the house, so I got 5 different sets of instructions. It was exhausting!
Finally, when I got to the stage of picking through the rice to clean it and then wash it, I was relieved. I was also worried that the pot was too small for the 7 cups of rice I was about to cook… It just fit. Barely. Now, I will try to estimate quantities for you to make this – but I definitely did not have any measurements as to the amount of water to use with the rice – just a lucky guess!
Anyway, after an exhausting but nonetheless fun cooking session, I had two big bowls of food prepared for the family. When I came to Gambia I was given a Gambian name, Yandé, which means ‘everyone’s mother’ – after the mother of the Director of the Agricultural Centre where I work. So all of her children call me ‘my mother’ and their children call me ‘Grandmother’. I was very happy that I could share this meal with 4 of ‘my children’, their spouses, and many, many grandchildren. Despite the fact that the recipe was not exactly like they usually have it (I made a slightly healthier version than normal… with less oil and no palm oil and lot of vegetables), they all said they loved it and said, Yandé, you can cook!’.
So there you have it, the story of the first truly Gambian dish I have cooked entirely on my own. Sorry for the long story! Bisimilah – that means ‘bon appétit’, among many things.
Ingredients – for a full meal for approximately 6 – 8 people
-3 cups of medium or long-grain (not basmati) rice
-6 cloves garlic
-5 kani chili peppers (scotch bonnet – you can alter the amount based on how spicy you like your food)
-1 Tbsp black pepper corns
-3 firm-fleshed whole fish
-1 piece of sea snail (substitute some smoked oysters or dried fish from an Asian food store)
-1/2 a salted dried fish
-1 tbsp coarse sea salt
-1 cup peanut oil
-2 cups water (plus more)
-2 cubes vegetable stock
-2 pieces of squash
-2 bitter tomatoes (not sure if there is any substitute for this in Canada – maybe just add more of something else)
-4 pieces of niambi or cassava root
-1/2 a medium cabbage, cut into two pieces
-1 sweet potato, cut into 4 pieces
-4-6 medium tomatoes
-8 cups water approximately
-Salt and pepper to taste
Clean, gut, and scale the fish. Cut in half, and cut slits onto each side. Drizzle with the juice of two lemons, and salt with the coarse sea salt. Make sure there is plenty of lemon juice in covering the fish and in the slits.
In another bowl, wash the salt-dried fish and snail thoroughly three times.
Pound the pepper corns, and then the garlic. Once it is a smooth paste (you can use a food processor for the garlic with ground pepper instead of pepper corns if you don’t have large enough a mortar and pestle). Add the hot peppers, and pound until smooth. Then chop the onions and add them and continue pounding until it is a relatively uniform paste. Transfer to a bowl and cover until it will be used.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Once the oil is very hot, fry the fish pieces one-by-one until it is fully cooked and golden. Remove from oil and let drain on paper towel (I didn’t do this here… but I think it is a good idea if there is paper towel available!).
Set fish aside. While the oil is still hot, fry the snail and the salt-dried fish. Once they are in the pot, they should never leave it until it is time to eat! Fry them until they are golden brown.
After this, crush or crumble one cube of stock and carefully stir into the hot oil. Stir well so no clumps form. Add the pounded garlic, hot pepper, and onion mixture. Traditionally, you would add the tomatoes and pound them with the garlic but I like them separate.
Stir the pounded mixture in well, then fry in the oil for two minutes while stirring often until everything becomes fragrant. Then add two cups of water and the remaining stock cube, and bring to a boil. When it boils, add the hard vegetables. Add more water until the vegetables are fully covered. Boil them until tender, approximately 30 minutes. After 20 minutes, add the whole tomatoes, the two remaining hot peppers, and the egg plant (and any other soft veggies you might want).
Put the preserved tamarind in a bowl with a lid, with the juice of one lemon. When the veggies are cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon and put them in the bowl on top of the tamarind, and cover.
Replace fish in the pot, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and put in with the vegetables.
Add more water until it makes approximately 8 cups of stock and bring to a boil (instead of measuring, I use the following technique to guess the volume necessary: there should be approximately 2-3 fingers-thick of water above the rice in the pot). Taste the broth and add salt accordingly. Pick through the rice and remove any rocks and other seeds. Wash the rice three times until clean. Add rice to boiling stock and cover. Once it boils, reduce the heat (for me, this meant removing charcoal…). Cook for 10 minutes more or so and then stir and remove from heat.
Place rice in a big bowl. Spread vegetables on top, with fish. Serve with juice and tamarind from the bowl where veggies were reserved. Slice a lemon and juice it on top of everything, and a dusting of minced parsley if you like.
If you want to eat Gambian-style, use your right hand and make a ball of rice with small amounts of veggies and fish for each mouthful, and everyone eats out of the same bowl!
-Sitelle (alias: Yandé)