Republic of Botswana
I’m beginning to understand that beating things with big wooden sticks is pretty crucial to the African cook’s repertoire. It’s a very standard way of preparing a variety of starches – plantains, yams, mountain potatoes, cassava… Perhaps because of this, I wasn’t so shocked when I saw a recipe for a Botswanan wedding dish made of boiled, salted beef, pounded – you guessed it! – with a big wooden stick.
But wait. Before we get into our seswaa (as this meaty repast is dubbed), we’ll need to go back a couple of days to the starchy, funky origins of it’s traditional accompaniment – bogobe, or sorghum meal porridge.
Sorghum is the main crop in the regions surrounding Botswana, and makes up a large part of the indigenous diet. When I checked the nutrition info on the bag of sorghum I got from the health food store, I was amazed at its energy content in comparison with the same amount of either rice, pasta, or corn – one serving, which is not much at all, packs a tremendous 350 calories, certainly a godsend in a country and region where food supplies are often scarce and agricultural yields are necessarily fickle and drought-prone. A little goes a long way.
Botswanans have a few variations on bogobe. One involves cooking ground sorghum with sour milk, another is just plain and boiled with water. But the most interesting by far is called motogo-wa-ting, or just “ting” for short. It’s made by fermenting a small bit of sorghum meal in water for a few days, and then boiling it with fresh sorghum meal and more water. Since this took the longest to make and had the most potential to go wrong, I decided to go for it. Of course.
I mixed about two tablespoons of raw sorghum meal into a bit of water and left it on my kitchen counter. I was a little confused, since the recipe did not call for yeast, or sugar, or any sort of agent that would help promote fermentation. Nevertheless, after about twenty-four hours I started to smell a faint whiff of what can only be called “fermentiness”. At the thirty-six-hour mark, it was getting quite a lot more fruity and sour, like weißbier. Finally at roughly forty-eight hours, I took one more big whiff of my sorghum Pruno, which was now quite funky, and dumped it into a big pot.
What happened here? Well, the sugars in the sorghum converted into lactic acid (the hard work here was done – I think – by anaerobic organisms). I’m pretty sure this also produced carbon dioxide, and possibly ethanol. Anyway, it fermented.
I let that sit for a while while I prepped the seswaa. When I say “prepped” what I really mean is that I plopped some boney, sinewy beef chuck into a pot with water and salt, and turned the heat on. I then waited about four hours, until I had this:
You might be asking, “Mark, why beef?” I saw somewhere that the banknotes in Botswana read “Digkoma se ya banka ya Botswana”, or “Cattle are the bank of Botswana.” Beef is a major resource there, and, fittingly, it is a large part of the national diet. I am sure, however, that cooking it on such a scale is a rare luxury, and the fact that no seasoning other than salt is added here is a sign of how revered the cow’s natural flavor must be.
The next step is the aforementioned clubbing of the beef with a wooden stick. I was doing this on a much smaller scale than what I had seen in Youtube videos and travel writing, so instead of a huge stick in a big cauldron I used a cocktail muddler in a small bowl. Same thing. Probably.
I tried to get the meat to be as pulverized as it looked in my research, where it seemed like every single muscle fiber had been isolated. I think I got pretty close. After that, I dumped the meat back in the pot with what was left of the broth, took out the bones and turned the heat back on.
There is actually a bit more to this recipe than there might seem – it’s not really just boiling meat and then assaulting it with a baton. The real story here is actually more akin to something like carnitas – the meat is first braised/stewed, then shredded, and THEN it’s allowed to pan-fry and lightly caramelize in its own fat. This turns a cheap, tough, bony cut of beef into a morsel with layered and even potentially nuanced levels of flavor. Ingenious! And presumably much, much tastier than the other traditional Botswanan meal of charred mopane worms.
The only thing missing now was the vegetable. Seswaa and bogobe are usually accompanied by something called morogo, which in turn is translated as imbuya, which is, as it turns out, our old friend amaranth, also known as callaloo in the Caribbean. Even though I had seen fresh green amaranth at my local grocery store not one week before this, they were now completely out of it, as is always the case. (NB: This is also the reason why I have a freezer full of cheese curds, pig ears and mulukhiyah leaves – they carry everything, but never when I need it.) Luckily, I had squirreled away a can of callaloo from months before, for just such an occasion. I loathe canned veggies, but in this case it was my only option.
I gave the greens a quick boil and drained them. I also brought my fermented ting starter to a boil, added more water and more sorghum meal, and whisked until I had a stiff porridge. The beef was sizzling contentedly in the pot. It was time to eat.
Here you have it – simplicity and nourishment. Amino acids from disparate sources, aggressively coaxed from their containers and released into a saline medium, attaching to each other to form complete proteins that will sustain life in a difficult and arid environment. I can see why this dish is served at weddings – in its austere completeness, it is a subtle and moving celebration of life itself.
Botswana, your porridge is a little bland and tastes like beer and your beef is well salted and really, really beefy. I like your style.
Now you go:
2 cups plus 2 tbsp sorghum flour/meal
In a small bowl, combine 2 tbsp sorghum flour with about 1 cup of water. Leave to ferment, uncovered, in a warm, clean place for about 2-3 days.
In a large pot, combine fermented mixture with about 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in 2 cups sorghum flour, and stir aggressively until the mixture is cooked through and reaches a stiff consistency. Season with salt if desired.
2 lbs. lean beef on the bone (shin, chuck or similar)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Cut the beef into chunks no larger than 2 inches square. Add to a large pot along with enough water to cover, and the salt.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat becomes tender.
Collect the bone marrow and keep it to one side. Discard the bones.
Remove meat from pot. Pound with a large wooden spoon, stick, or really whatever you can find until it is flaked as finely as possible. Return to pot and raise heat to medium. When the pot boils itself dry add the bone marrow and lightly fry the meat until browned.
Serve hot with bogobe.
1 bunch amaranth greens (or 1 can callaloo)
Clean and boil in salted water for 2 minutes, or until tender. Drain and serve hot.