Republic of Angola
I’m finding that the real challenge of this blog is less in the execution of recipes and much, much more in finding authentic ingredients. I’m not surprised by this, but man, sometimes it’s just a roller-coaster of elation and disappointment.
In keeping with the theme of “ingredients that are difficult to procure,” Angola’s Muamba de Galinha did not disappoint in any way. Specifically, I needed red palm oil and something called “sauce graine,” also known as “palm soup base”. I thought for sure I had struck crimson gold when I found a listing online for a West African market close to Times Square. When I got to the address, the yawning abyss that was once a building told me that I would have to look a little harder.
Met with this dead end, I manhandled Google until I found the number for a shipping company in New Jersey that imports this product from Ghana. A very nice lady on the phone could offer no help as to where their cans of palm nut hash end up once they leave the warehouse, but she suggested checking around 116th Street in Harlem, which is the center of a large African immigrant population, particularly Senegalese and Ghanaian. I headed up on a sunny Sunday morning and, barely five minutes after leaving the subway, I encountered the aptly-named “Touba African Market Dress Flavor.” I walked up to the door, saw cans of things and dove inside. Within seconds, the extremely friendly Senegalese owner of this tiny shop, Magatte, had directed me to every ingredient I will ever need to cook African food. Mission accomplished.
This was my first time cooking with red palm oil. I approached it timidly, first sniffing it from the bottle, then tasting a little off my finger, then heating a bit and tasting a spoonful. It was musty, like a dry attic, and it coated my mouth with a lingering greasiness. The recipes I found for Muamba de Galinha (a Portuguese name, for a dish from a former Portuguese colony) all called for a full cup of this sludgy scarlet fat, which seemed like a lot. But hey – when in Angola, right?
The sauce graine, which is essentially a mash of raw palm nuts, is just the leftover by-product of making red palm oil. When I opened the can I smelled the faint aroma of spice, but it was hard to place it or compare it to anything – a totally new ingredient for me, which is a rare and exhilarating moment. It had a rich, pasty consistency and it’s role was obviously to eventually thicken the oily soup into an oily stew.
Besides the okra, gourd and chicken that make up the bulk of this dish, the other essential component is chili pepper. Some of the recipes I found called for using Scotch bonnet peppers (which, as I’m sure you already know, is from the species capsicum chinense), but the indigenous pepper to Angola is actually the gindungo, which a little research reveals to be synonymous with the piri-piri chili (also noteworthy in Portuguese cuisine) and from the same species as the malagueta chili (not to be confused with melegueta pepper, which is a completely different thing [from the family Zingiberaceae]). Malagueta chilis are only available pickled in my area (from Brazil, by way of Portuguese colonization, once again), which simply wouldn’t do. Luckily for me, another cultivar of capsicum frutescens is the thai or “birdseye” chili, easily found in many supermarkets around here.
The cooking process here is really simple, but not without unforeseen pitfalls. Red palm oil, I discovered, has an obscenely low smoking point, which means it cannot get very hot at all without becoming acrid. (I actually had to toss out the first cup I heated because I let it get too hot and it smoked like crazy.) This, in turn, makes it harder to brown chicken in it, since the oil’s temperature does not get high enough to caramelize the sugars in the meat – in reality, the chicken in this dish is oil-poached. Still good, but not the same as browned.
From there, the rest is just stacking Jenga – add onions, add tomato, add gourd, add palm nut hash, add okra… I mean, it’s a stew. You stew it.
While that… erm… stewed, I prepared one of the traditional carbohydrates of Angola, corn funge. It’s not much different from the polenta we’ve all come to know and be reasonably underwhelmed by. The only difference is that there is no seasoning at all, and instead of coarse cornmeal it is made with very fine corn flour. You boil a little water, then stir in the flour using a special wooden paddle (I used a flat spatula). Then you keep stirring. When the funge pulls away from the sides of the pan while you stir, it has reached the correct consistency.
Its basically neutral flavor is a fitting backdrop to the heaviness of the Muamba de Galinha – in my opinion, a cup of palm oil for one chicken is way, way too much (I am sure a native Angolan would beg to differ, and rightly so.). Variations of this recipe have cited the presence of olive trees in Angola (another part of the legacy of the Portuguese in this region) as a justification to cut the red palm oil with olive oil, which would definitely have worked better in browning the chicken. The preponderance of lipids in this dish also crippled the mighty birdseye chilis – capsaicin, the compound that makes chilis “spicy”, is fat soluble, which means that any potency the chilis could have brought to the dinner table was pretty much dissolved by the time the stew was stewed. (Ever notice how that yogurt-based mango lassi makes your Vindaloo less formidable? The More You Know) Adding more chilis or incorporating the chilis later in the cooking process would keep the heat on, for sure.
Overall? Pretty tasty and absolutely new to me. I’m looking forward to my next watusi with red palm oil.
(p.s. many thanks to the friends who have been tasting my cooking and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad no one has been poisoned… yet.)
Now you go:
Muamba de Galinha
1 chicken, fabricated
1 lemon, juiced
1 cup red palm oil (or a mixture of palm oil and olive oil)
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 birds-eye chilis (or 1 piri-piri chili), minced
3 tomatoes, quartered
1 butternut squash, pumpkin, or gourd, seeded, peeled, and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 can sauce graine
24 okra, ends removed, sliced thickly on the bias
Salt to taste
Marinate chicken pieces in lemon juice for 1 hour. Dry well.
In a deep pan or dutch oven, brown chicken in oil over medium-high heat (just below smoking, seriously). Remove from heat, reserving oil. Saute garlic and onions for 10 minutes, add tomatoes and cook another 10 minutes. Add squash, cook 10 minutes more, then add sauce graine and okra. Stir well, then return chicken to pan. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, or until okra is tender and chicken is fully cooked. Salt (heavily) to taste.
Serve with corn funge.
Boil water. Slowly add the corn flour. Stir constantly. Add as much flour as necessary to obtain a thick consistency. When the spatula stands up on its own in the funge, it’s ready.