During my time as an adjunct professor, I was lucky enough to teach at several colleges around New York City. Two of these were in Queens, my home for the last seven years and the most ethnically diverse area in the entire world. Researching Burkinabé food for this entry made a lost memory swell up: of a young woman I had in one of my introductory Italian classes. Her name was Veronique and she spoke impeccable French and English, which made her go at Italian quite successful in a very short period of time. Meaning to encourage her to test into a higher level of Italian, I met with her after class over a cup of absolutely terrible cafeteria coffee. We discussed her career plans – nursing – and her educational history, much of which took place in her birthplace, the West African country of Burkina Faso. I had never heard of it.
Veronique made a big impression on me as a young teacher, since she was one of extremely few students that seemed to actually be taking her education seriously – all of it, even the unrelated requirements like Italian. While I was angrily ousting cheaters, haranguing chatterers and holding ne’er do wells’ cell phones hostage during my thrilling indirect-object pronoun drills, Veronique would be furiously taking notes, writing down what seemed like every word I said. She passed my class with a glittering A+, and I never ran into her again.
When I started planning the menu for this entry, I tried to track Veronique down – I wanted ideas and facts from someone who knew this cuisine firsthand, and also hoped to check in on one of my most promising students. Alas, my memory not being what it used to, and having taught a few hundred students over an eight-year period, I was at a complete loss for her last name. As you might guess, I didn’t get very far.
Anyway – greetings in Burkina are supposed to include a welcome beverage, something refreshing, so we should probably start off the same way. Some popular options include a sorghum beer called dolo and a type of iced hibiscus tea called bissap. There’s also fermented palm sap called banji, but where the hell can I find a palm in NYC? No, no these wouldn’t do – I wanted something a little more, I don’t know… substantial. The answer? Zoom Koom.
“Zoom Koom” means “flour water” in the Mòoré language of the Mossi people, Burkina’s ethnic majority. It tastes like you blended together ginger ale, a fruit smoothie, a chili pepper, some raisins and a little bread dough and poured it over some ice. (Go ahead and spend a few minutes imagining that, or even just weighing how close to insanity I have drifted.) The zoom part of the name refers specifically to millet flour, which has a sweet, raw cereal flavor and makes the drink a little gritty, and grittier still the longer it steeps in the liquid. The addition of piment en poudre – powdered scotch bonnet pepper – also induces sweating to cool you off even further.
Another crucial component of this drink is tamarind, specifically in the form of a decoction – in other words, you clean it, you boil it and then strain out the liquid, leaving the depleted solids behind. The resultant liquid is tart, but with a kind of yeasty sourdough aftertaste. Once added to the Zoom Koom recipe its sharpness is dulled by the sugar and the fresh ginger. Ginger is, indeed, the strongest flavor here, which not only makes this drink feel refreshing but also makes it NOT feel cloying or heavy – the calorie load from the millet alone is quite high (90 calories for 1/8 cup raw flour), so it is impressive that someone could drink this and not have to take a nap right after.
Speaking of millet (bet you’ve never started a sentence like that) – it’s a major crop in West Africa and in other developing countries, probably because of its high calorie content, its adaptability to dry climates and its relatively short maturation period. More energy with less work in less time. It’s actually really delicious as a breakfast food – you can make it into something like a porridge or oatmeal, and it’s naturally gluten free. It’s also high in fiber – and that’s fun for everyone!
OK, enough with the Zoom Koom. You’ve been properly greeted. Let’s eat.
Besides millet, two other major agricultural products in Burkina Faso are peanuts and legumes, with the most notable being the “cowpea”, or black-eyed pea. I LOVE these beans. Maybe a little too much.
A popular street food based on mashed black-eyes peas carries the benign French name of beignets de haricots – bean fritters, basically – but the Mossi people have another more colorful name for them: Boussan touba. It’s basically translated as “Bissa’s ears” – the Bissa being another ethnic group in Burkina Faso. I am guessing that the joke is that the Bissa have big ears, but since the Mossi and Bissa both descend from the Mandé people of Ghana (and much of West Africa), it seems to me that their ears might look pretty similar. Whatever, I’m staying neutral on this one.
These things are good. They taste like festival food, something you’d find at a carnival.The black-eyed peas, well-boiled, relax into a starchy mash that could easily be confused with potato. No single flavor stands out on its own here – instead, the humble ingredients merge into a deeply satisfying, crunchy, creamy, even juicy fritter that reminds me of the best of french fries and chicken soup simultaneously. Without seasoning, they are pretty bland. But once you begin to add salt, a savoriness begins appearing everywhere. There is a robust richness in these boring old beans, but it first has to be coaxed out with fat and a good pinch of sodium.
I ate the mashed and fried equivalent of a one-pound bag of black eyed peas. Shameful, but necessary.
This next one was hard to pronounce, and even harder to find a recipe for – mougoudougou. They are supposed to be little golf ball-sized snacks of raw millet flour, mashed ginger, sugar and either ground peanuts or peanut butter. The jury is still out on this one. There is one – count it, ONE – recipe for this dish on the entire internet; trust me, I’ve checked. In English AND French. And it basically goes “take everything and mix it together.” So, you know. I’m not exactly working with L’Escoffier here.
Since the ingredient list gets no more specific than just saying “peanuts”, I made a batch using freshly shelled, raw peanuts that I ground in a spice grinder. This was clearly wrong. I took a bite and all I felt was dry, crumbly, grainy displeasure. They also didn’t look as soft and supple as the ones I had seen in pictures. I amended the recipe to use peanut butter, and it worked MUCH better – soft, with a peppery-ginger bite and the texture of raw cookie dough. That millet cereal-sweetness was still there too. Oddly enough, it sort of tasted a little bit like the Zoom Koom.
Something still seems fishy to me, though, since the only place I have ever seen “peanut butter” is in the U.S. But then, I’ve also never been to West Africa, and from the looks of things they really know their peanuts. I will leave it to any readers from Burkina Faso to confirm/deny this recipe for me. Help!
Finally the main course – riz gras, or “fat rice”. It really is a simple dish – rice, cooked with meat and veggies and a little tomato to stain it all red. I was ready for this one to be a softball recipe, but then when it came down to choosing the correct type of rice to use, I hit a wall.
I mean, we all know our Asian rices: basmati, jasmine, japonica, etc. The there are the weird “enriched”, par-cooked American rices, which are more science than nature. But then what? What the hell type of rice do they eat in Africa??
Two words – Oryza glaberrima.
Most of those Asian varieties are from the oryza sativa species, and are cultivated absolutely everywhere. But oryza glaberrima – also known as African rice – is native to West Africa, which makes it undoubtedly the preferred vehicle for the flavors of riz gras. It is also far less cultivated than it’s Asian cousins.
OK, so… how do I get some?
It turns out tons of research has been done on this, and the findings are surprising, but also completely logical. The most well-known cultivar of African rice available in the United States is… good old Carolina Gold. The hypothesis is as follows: in order to feed slaves being carried from West Africa to America during the long sea passage, slave ships were packed with loads of African rice. Upon arrival, there was occasionally leftover African rice, which somehow found its way into the dirt of the Carolinas and Georgia. It eventually came to be the most cultivated variety of rice in the American South, though now it is sadly relegated to “heirloom” status. I got a batch from Anson Mills, here. I believe that they are doing important work to preserve what is a dwindling variety of superb rice, so please consider supporting them.
Riz gras is one of those dishes that doesn’t need to be flashy to be good. It’s like the John Cazale of food. First, you brown the meat. Then you sweat some veggies and throw in some water, the meat and the secret ingredient – a Maggi chicken stock cube. (NB: this seems to be a secret ingredient all over the world.) The recipes I found did not dictate a cooking time, just that everything should “cook”. Thanks dudes! My rule is that lamb should stew for at least two hours to be fork-tender, so I followed that. I used some lean stew lamb, but fattier and on-the-bone pieces are also an option. They would have probably made it greasier and higher in calories and fat, but since meat is such a luxury in this part of the world that would probably be just dandy. The real highlight is the tomato, which makes the rice sweet and faintly tart, and also serves to break up all the oil and rendered lamb fat.
That fancy heirloom Carolina Gold rice held its shape perfectly – it stayed light and starchy, and did not get waterlogged even when I clumsily overcooked it a bit. It’s built for a dish like this, soaking up flavors readily. It also has that nice chew in the center, like riso arborio or arroz bomba.
For humans, this is as good as it gets – protein, carbs and veggies all in one bite, with a flavor that is satisfying but not challenging. It’s a comfort food, just like arroz con pollo, kabsa, biryani, and every other variant of this dish that exists in the world.
Good on you, Burkina Faso. Here, I’ll raise the last of my Zoom Koom to Veronique – wherever she is, I hope that she’d be as proud of me now as I was of her then.
Now you go:
Zoom Koom (“Flour-Water”, aka “eau de bienvenue”)
1½ cups fine millet flour
1 cup sugar (to taste, though it should be quite sweet)
4 cups tamarind decoction (see recipe below)
2 two-inch x two-inch pieces of ginger, peeled
1 pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 pinch piment en poudre (powdered habanero/scotch bonnet pepper)
Blend the pineapple and ginger in a blender until smooth. Add the flour. Pulse for a few minutes until everything seems homogeneous. Add tamarind juice, sugar and piment en poudre. Blend well again. Pour through a fine mesh strainer. Serve over ice.
1 lb tamarind pods
8 cups water
Prepare the tamarind by removing the outer shell and peeling off the twiggy membrane attached to it from tip to tail. Place cleaned pulp in a deep pot along with the water, and bring to a boil. Cook for about 30 minutes, mashing occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula. It will smell like muffins as it cooks, enjoy this.
After 30 minutes, turn off the heat. Once it has cooled, strain the liquid through cheesecloth and discard the solids. The decoction is now ready to use.
1 lb. dried black-eyed peas
half a small onion, diced fine
1 carrot, diced fine
1 egg, whisked
salt and black pepper to taste
wheat flour (for dredging)
1½ cups peanut oil (for frying)
Cook the dry beans in boiling water for about 40 minutes, or until they are very soft. Drain them well in a colander. Combine the onion and carrot in a food processor. Add the beans (in batches if necessary) and mix well to form a wet dough. Season well with salt and pepper (probably about a teaspoon of salt and a ½ tsp of pepper to start) and mix to combine. To form the “ears”, shape the dough into golf ball-sized balls and flatten them with your palm. Dredge these patties in the flour and immediately fry in hot peanut oil until they are browned and crisp on both sides (about 3-5 minutes per side). Sprinkle liberally with salt and serve hot.
1 cup fine millet flour
1 cup natural peanut butter
3 tbsp minced and mashed ginger root
1 cup sugar
“Mix everything together at the same time.” Eat with your hands.
1 lb meat, in 1-2 inch chunks (In Burkina this is usually lamb or goat)
2 onions, chopped
3 tomatoes, quartered
¼ head of cabbage, chopped
4 carrots, diced
2 cups of rice
1 Cube Maggi Chicken bouillon
1 ½ tbsp tomato paste
4 cups + 3 tbsp water
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp peanut oil
Heat half of the oil in a dutch oven. When it is smoking, add the meat and brown well. Remove meat and reserve. Add the rest of the oil to the pot. When hot, add the onions and tomatoes. While they soften, combine the tomato paste and the bouillon cube with about 3 tbsp water. Add this to the pot along with all of the other vegetables. Add the water, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow to cook for about 2 hours, or until meat is very tender. Add the rice, stir a few times and cover the pot. Continue to cook over low heat until liquid is absorbed and the rice is done to your liking. Serve hot.