Republic of Benin
If you’re like me, you probably would have a hard time finding Benin on a map – it’s a very small country tucked into a nook on the coast of West Africa, wedged between Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The seat of the pre-colonial African kingdom of Dahomey, Benin was eventually colonized by the Portuguese and then by the French (among others), and both have left their mark on the language, culture and cuisine of the eventual Republic.
The most popular and basic food in Benin is some form of starch – ranging from millet and rice to yuca and “yam” (there’s that freaking word again…) – drenched in a flavorful sauce. One version of this simple and substantial snack is called ingame pilé, or “spicy yam”.
What exactly do I mean by “yam”? Great question. I’ve gone over this before, but very simply: “yam” in West Africa is almost always a corm from the Araceae family – these include taro, “eddoe”, malanga, nyame, and about 35 bajillion other anonymous-looking white tubers. They are abundant, high in calories and very filling, which explains why they are so popular in an area that has historically been wracked with famine.
This big boy, technically either a huge eddoe or a regular-sized nyame, weighed 4.5 pounds. It needed to be peeled, boiled, and then pounded, for hours, in a huge mortar and pestle, by three strong adults. Or blasted to hell in a food processor for a long time, then assaulted with a potato masher for another long time. Araceae release a sort of slime when they are cut, and will develop a gummy, smooth texture after enough pounding. (When I get to Japan we’ll see the sato-imo, another member of this slimy, starchy family.) My technique kinda sucks, and so far I have not been able to reach a gummy consistency like the one I have seen and heard described. I always think I’m there and then… nope.
To go with this fufu-facsimile, I made a typically Beninese version of West Africa’s ubiquitous sauce d’arachide or “peanut sauce”, spiked with piment, which is a bunch of habanero peppers ground to a smooth paste with a little salt.
In the spirit of realism, I also made my own peanut butter from fresh, roasted peanuts. I followed Alton Brown’s basic recipe for fresh peanut butter, but rather than use the food processor I decided to christen my new molcajete (which is one of the best gifts I have ever received!).
Once the sauce is cooked, you simply form the pounded yam into smooth balls, drown them in sauce and start eating them with your right hand. Not the left. Seriously, that’s the rule in Benin. Don’t ask why.
Ingame pilé was a surprise for me. I’ve really only ever experienced Asian peanut sauces, which are usually spiked with lime or fish sauce. With only a beef boullion cube and the Portuguese-scented kiss of hot pepper to flavor it, this version is earthy and rich, and coupled with the dense smoothness of the ingame it makes for a cripplingly filling plate of food.
After a carbohydrate-induced nap, I prepared the main course, a refreshing and blessedly light dish of fresh-picked crab meat in a tomato and chili sauce, called ago glain.
Step one is cooking the crabs in a stock and then draining, cooling and picking them. If you’ve never picked a crab or need a refresher, you should take a look at this tutorial. I strained and saved the stock, as suggested by several recipes, to use in making the rice that would accompany the crab. I also realized that I go through a LOT of cheesecloth, and that that’s ok, and doesn’t make me a bad person.
Once that’s done, the meat is marinated in lime juice while the onion-tomato-chili sauce (augmented with palm or “dende” oil – a culinary link with Brazil!) is simmered.
OK, here’s where you’re going to think I’m crazy, and really? I probably am.
Knowing I would need them for several West-African countries, I tried for a couple of months at the beginning of this blog to find fresh piri-piri (aka “pili-pili” or “African birdseye”) peppers in NYC. I found none. So I decided to grow them myself over the summer and then freeze them for future usage. It was sort of fun and therapeutic to grow them on my erstwhile fire escape (before I moved). I got the seeds on Amazon from some dude in England, and within two months of sprouting I started seeing nice, plump, fiery babies like this one:
We’re almost there – just toss the crab meat in the tomato sauce, and serve it in the empty crab shells. Now make some rice, using the reserved crab stock. Let’s eat:
The crab was sweet, tender and went down like a tomatoey ceviche, leaving a titillating piri-piri burn on the lips and tongue. The rice was a little overpowering in its crabbiness, but in the interest of wasting nothing I absolutely agreed with its role in this meal. Good on you, Benin.
Now you go:
1 lb. nyame, malanga, sato-imo, or eddoe (basically any member of the Araceae family will do just fine)
Peel whichever yam you chose and cut into chunks. Boil in salted water about 20 minutes, until soft.
Pulse in a food processor until very smooth. Add a few drops of water if it is too dry to move around in the processor. Turn out into a large pot or bucket. Pound with a potato masher until homogenous, smooth and gummy.
Serve with sauce.
3 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp piment
1/2 tsp salt
1 beef Maggi boullion cube
1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth, preferably homemade)
1/3 cup minced onion
1/2 cup water
Heat oil to medium in a saucepan. fry the onion and piment paste. When onion softens, add tomato puree and Maggi cube. Cook about 3 minutes, then add peanut butter and water. Whisk well and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and, stirring often, cook about 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Serve over ingame pilé.
6 live (1-pound ea) crabs
1 cup vinegar
3 large tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh parsley
3 large onions
2 whole cloves
3 limes, juiced
1 tablespoon palm oil (“dende oil”)
1 teaspoon pili pili
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the crabs and place them live in a large stockpot full of boiling water to which the vinegar, salt, and pepper have been added. Cook for 10 minutes, skimming off any residue that rises to the top of the water. Then add the whole tomatoes, the bay leaf, parsley, and one of the onions with the cloves stuck in it. Remove the tomatoes after 5 minutes and continue to cook the rest of the ingredients for an additional 5 minutes or until the crabs are done. Remove the crabs.
Reserve the stock in which the crabs have been cooked to use for cooking the white rice that traditionally accompanies this dish.
Remove the crabmeat from the body and the claws, trying to maintain the shells for serving. Place the crabmeat in the lime juice.
Heat the palm oil in a saucepan. Mince the two remaining onions and brown them lightly in the oil. Add the cooked tomatoes and cook the mixture until it is reduced by half. Add the piri-piri, stir well and serve hot. The crabs are traditionally served in their own shells, on a bed of rice covered with the sauce.