Republic of Cameroon
Aaaaaaaaand we’re back!
My apologies for the extended absence, everyone. In the last 18 months I managed to finish my PhD in Comparative Literature, write and co-write a series of articles for various outlets (here are one or two of them), AND get married to the most beautiful, brilliant, hilarious, incredible person I have ever met in my entire life. Needless to say, I was left with very little time to devote to this passion project. BUT! Now that I’m not busy writing about literature and physics every night and weekend, I’m hoping to pick up the pace on this exploration of global cuisine. Where did we leave off? Oh yeah, Cameroon!
Most people’s familiarity with Cameroon begins and ends with that (wholly inaccurate…) scene in Trading Places where Eddie Murphy dresses as an exchange student named “Nanga Eboko,” who is obsessed with beef jerky. Mine only extended slightly farther, by way of a few dishes from Cameroon I found in an excellent cookbook by Cherie Hamilton entitled Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters. Fun fact: Cameroon got its name from Portuguese sailors, who, in the 15th century, found its rivers teeming with shrimp and crayfish, or camarão. The vestigial use of dried crayfish in many of Cameroon’s dishes is a testament to profiting from this particular abundance – but easy, we’ll get there.
Speaking of unusual ingredients – there are quite a few of them in this entry. Aside from the aforementioned dried crayfish (known in Cameroon as njanga, which is often ground into a powder), I needed to track down fresh cow skin (also known as kanda, and also ALSO known as leather, hahahahahahaha no, seriously), tiny, sweet sea snails called periwinkles, some dried, smoked fish and a VERY specific vegetable from West Africa known as ndolé, translated as bitterleaf. As you may have noticed from past entries, I have a sort of obsessive compulsion in locating authentic ingredients for this blog, which, in this case, led to my anxiety being grossly amplified when I kept coming up short in Queens. My home turf was obviously not the right place to be looking.
You see, some people seek access to the hottest club, where they can rub elbows with the monied elite; others, to a prestigious school or college, which will grant them passage to higher echelons of society; still others, to a much-coveted seat at that new, exclusive restaurant where Jay-Z eats. But I? I only want to know where New York City’s West Africans buy their cow skin. Driven by this impulse, I eventually found myself in Brooklyn, where various leads and research had led me to a promising-looking strip of West African bodegas on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was utterly, bitterly, freezing cold.
One well-stocked storefront eventually caught my eye – Diaby African Market & Grocery. When I arrived, the lights were all on but the door was locked. Others waiting for the store to open informed me that the owner had gone to pray salat, and so we huddled patiently by the off-brand suitcases chained to the front gate. No one spoke. Everyone shivered.
In an attempt to stay warm and kill some time, I went across the street to another African market and pushed on the door. It was also locked. It turns out this entire stretch of Fulton Street, aside from the Popeye’s Chicken restaurant and the Key Food grocery store, devoutly shuts down several times a day for Muslim prayer.
After a few more frigid minutes, a muezzin’s voice bellowed out of the tinny loudspeakers of the Masjid at-Taqwa on the corner, calling the end of prayer. The volume was astounding, with the cold, narrow avenue working as an echo chamber — I had the impression of being inside of a bell as it had been struck. A few seconds later, out of a procession of bearded, white-robed men filing out of the mosque, one figure broke away and eagerly approached us, keys in hand. The crowd cheered, sending a flutter of greetings to him in French and Arabic. The man smiled and greeted his relieved customers.
I then understood: this place is important.
Inside the warm, dusty shop, I found myself bewildered among the shelves until a nice man (from Sierra Leone, he would later tell me) saw me rummaging, lost, through a chest freezer full of unlabeled baggies full of green leaves. He kindly offered to help me find whatever the hell it was that I must have appeared to be in desperate need of. “Cow skin?” I mumbled. He smiled and said he needed cow skin, too, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of everything in the freezer, including, blessedly, a cache of frozen kanda.
Elated, I clutched my baggie of ice-cold, rock-hard cow skin (and some dried crayfish and smoked fish the gentleman had also helped me to find) and moved on to confront a big shelf full of dried leaves. A young woman was going through the varieties one by one, sniffing hard at a handful of each with a pensive, critical look after each inhale. I had just asked her what she was looking for when she shrieked with joy. “This!” She gasped, grabbing a fistful of gnarled brown leaves, pressing them close to her nose and breathing deeply. “This is the one! I need it for pepper soup!” She clearly knew her way around these leaves, so I asked her if she knew where I could find ndolé, or bitterleaf. She – along with a chorus of other shoppers – informed me that no, bitterleaf was simply not to be found in the U.S. I thanked them all profusely and received a harmonious chorus of goodbyes, paid up, and left, glancing back just in time to see the same young woman taking another big, smiling, eyes-closed sniff of her soup leaves.
I’ll say it again: this place is IMPORTANT.
I went home. The cow skin went into my freezer, and several months passed.
I did eventually find myself some bitterleaf, against all odds – by mail order, from a tiny African market in Maryland. It arrived in a padded envelope which had torn slightly, and there was no interior envelope. Just a bunch of unlabeled, stiff, dry leaves partially clawing their way out of the Jiffy-Pak. So uh… I GUESS I got bitterleaf? It looks like the picture on Wikipedia, anyway. A trip to the Caribbean neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn yielded some taro root and leaves, and an eventual swing through Manhattan’s Chinatown on a summer day finally netted some live periwinkles. It was, after several months, time to start cooking.
So ok, what are we making, anyway? We’re going to do a couple of stews that are unique to Cameroon, along with corn fufu and a homemade hot sauce called pepe. All together, this would be a pretty substantial family meal, and probably warrant inviting the neighbors over as well. If you do cook these dishes (yes, I know, that is highly unlikely), I encourage you to do the same.
The ndolé/bitterleaf stew takes the longest, so best to start with that. Oh, and yeah – before you can actually “cook” the bitterleaf, it needs to be… uh, “rendered digestible” by being soaked and then boiled in water with a pinch of slaked lime, or alum (aka calcium hydroxide, which is also used in the “nixtamalization” of corn, as well as sewage treatment, paper manufacturing, and cement!). Dried bitterleaf, to give you an idea, looks and smells very similar to black tea – it is tough and I wouldn’t want to try to chew it. The slaked lime, which is an alkali, helps to start breaking down the plant fibers and makes them more digestible. It also murders any fungi that may have grown on the plant while drying. And best of all, it helps keep away the mange! Oh, if only I had known that during my last bout of mange.
(Leela over at SheSimmers – who is amazing – has a great primer on cooking with limestone solution. Check it out.)
With the bitterleaf soaked, boiled, limed and (slightly) softened, my cow skin par-boiled and some smoked fish soaked overnight, I finally needed to decide on which ndolé recipe I would use. I had narrowed the options down to three similar but slightly different recipes, culled from Cameroonian expat message boards and blogs. In the end, as always, I triangulated these into one standard recipe that included only the lowest common denominators, which hopefully gives us the basic theme upon which most other variations of ndolé would be built.
The process is pretty simple – it is a stew, after all. The recipe below will give all the details, but things to know are: puree the ginger, garlic and chilis before you use them; do not use peanut butter if at all possible – instead, finely grind an equivalent measure of peanuts (peeled and soaked in water for two hours) in a blender/processor/grinder; and, most importantly, do not get palm oil on your clothes, as they will stain irreparably. Goodbye, my favorite Mastodon t-shirt!
The ndolé will cook for a shorter time than you might expect, so in the meantime we have to get the other stew going, which is called ekwang. This is one of the coolest dishes I have ever cooked. It reminds me a lot of Italian cannelloni; in the same way that that dish is just a flat roll of pasta filled with cheese or meat and then cooked in a casserole full of sauce, ekwang works the same way except it uses the leaf of the taro plant as the rolling material, grated taro root as the filling, and a stew of smoked fish, ground crayfish, and a little sliced beef as the liquid cooking medium.
As I (and others) have said before, you have to be careful handling and cooking taro leaves and roots, which in their raw forms can cause oxalate poisoning if ingested. They also makes you itchy – REALLY itchy, if you have any small cuts on your hands. Obviously, keep your hands out of your eyes and mucus membranes, and wash them often. And for God’s sake DON’T taste taro till it has cooked for a good while. Seriously.
The procedure for cooking the ekwang is unique – you basically line the outer walls of the pot with the taro leaf rolls, and then fill the cavity in the center with the stewing liquid. This helps the rolls keep their shape and stay in place, so you don’t end up with ruptured rolls and goopy, sticky taro root floating everywhere. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated technique for a dish that is made from such earthy and humble ingredients.
OK, we’re getting mired in small details – let’s skip ahead a little. We need to make the hot sauce, called pepe. Scotch bonnets seem to be, as in most of West Africa, the incendiary flora of choice, with the ubiquitous African staple of Maggi bouillon cubes adding a blast of savory salt to what would otherwise be a very sharp, one-note sauce. This condiment is one of those small discoveries that makes me so happy I am doing this project – I want to put it on every sandwich I ever eat for the rest of my life.
With the stews bubbling away and the hot sauce languishing, we finally have to whip up a quick batch of that popular accompaniment to so many African foods, fufu. In this case, we’re making it with yellow cornmeal, but I’ve seen other ndolé recipes that suggest serving with white cornmeal or cassava fufu as well. Up to you!
Since things are cooking at wildly different rates here, I would stage them as follows:
1) Pepe (Make the day before and refrigerate or cover with palm oil/peanut oil.)
2) Ndolé (Start the night before with soaking, then start cooking the stew about 4 hours before you plan on serving. Reheat as needed at service.)
3) Ekwang (Prep the rolls and the stewing liquid early in the day, then combine and start cooking one hour before serving.)
4) Fufu (Cook right before you serve.)
So, the ndolé: this stuff was, against all of my reservations, actually really delicious. The stew takes on a meaty smoke from the fish and beef, a not-unpleasant, oceanic miasma from the dried crayfish, fresh shrimp and periwinkles (which are pretty entertaining to “kiss” out of their shells), and actually only a slight bitterness from the bitterleaf, which did eventually relent and soften to the consistency of partially-cooked kale. VERY chewable, with a taste that was also not too dissimilar to that of kale – maybe if you crossed cooked kale with soaked black tea leaves. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Kale crossed with tea leaves. The cow skin was the only part that didn’t work so well for me, though I am sure that, like the blubbery, squishy stewed pork skin I grew up eating, it might be an acquired taste.
The ekwang was SO GOOD. The taro leaves, when cooked, are reminiscent in flavor of collard greens or boiled cabbage, and they soften enough to rend easily when bitten, loosing a creamy, starchy paste of root that brought to mind the best version of mashed potatoes ever. The stew itself just kept making my brain go “GUMBO GUMBO GUMBO,” so I guess it tastes like gumbo (itself an African invention) – goopy, smoky, fishy, meaty and rather heavy. Everything but the rolls had broken down to a velvety softness, and a few bites picked up with generous pinches of fufu were enough to fill me up completely. This is comfort food at its savory, starchy peak.
Cameroon, you have oceans, grasslands, mountains, forests, jungles and a desert, and the collective diversity of the biology in all of those places contributes to a distinctive and vibrant spectrum of flavors in your cuisine. Thank you for drying crayfish. Thank you for rolling ekwang. Keep doing what you do.
Now you go:
3/4 cup dried bitterleaf, soaked overnight
2 large white onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoons red chili powder (dried scotch bonnet powder is preferred in Cameroon, and is known as piment or pepe)
2-3 scotch bonnet peppers, pureed
1 tbsp fresh ginger, pureed
2 garlic cloves, pureed
1/4 cup ground dried crayfish (njanga)
1/4 cup peanuts, soaked overnight and ground into paste
1/2 lb. lean beef, thinly sliced (OR 1/4 lb. dried beef slices – maybe there’s something to that “beef jerky” joke in Trading Places?)
1 lb. fresh, unshelled shrimp (heads removed if you prefer)
1 lb. fresh beef skin (kanda)
1 large smoked, dried fish, soked overnight in water, drained and rinsed thoroughly
1 lb. periwinkles (or regular land snails, if they are the only thing around) in their shells
1/2 cup red palm oil
2 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1 tsp alum/slaked lime (akagwa)
In a large pot filled abundantly with water, add the alum/slaked lime and the bitterleaf. Bring to a boil and keep at the boil for about 1 hour. Remove from heat and drain. Rinse thoroughly, drain again and reserve.
In the same large pot, add the previously-soaked smoked fish and the beef skin. Add enough water to cover and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse and reserve.
In a(nother) large pot, place the beef, onions, Maggi cubes, garlic, ginger and some salt to taste. Add enough water to just cover, place over high heat to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
While that cooks, place the red palm oil in a deep frying pan and heat to medium-low (NOT to smoking – keep a close eye, since palm oil has a very low smoking point and will turn acrid easily.) When the oil is warmed, add the pureed scotch bonnet chilis and ground chili powder to taste. (NB: this recipe is SPICY. If you don’t like things that hot, moderate the amounts used in this step.) Stir fry the puree for about 10 minutes over low heat. Then, add the peanut paste and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
By now the beef and aromatics should have cooked in the large pot for 30 minutes. Add the boiled cow skin and the boiled smoked fish to the same pot as the meat and aromatics. Let cook about 5 minutes, then add the periwinkles (or snails). Allow to simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
At this point, you should add the chili and peanut mixture to the pot with the meats, fish and aromatics. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes, then add the fresh shrimp and the drained bitterleaf. Simmer over medium heat for a final 10-20 minute period, until the bitterleaf has softened to your liking. (Feel free to add a little more water if the stew has become too dry at this point.)
Remove from heat and serve with corn fufu and pepe.
3 medium-sized taro roots, peeled
15 large taro leaves, central stems removed – each leaf should yield two rectangular sheets
3/4 lb. lean stew beef, cut into thin slices
1 large white onion, one-half chopped and set aside, the other half pureed and set aside
3-4 pieces of dried, smoked fish (about 1/2 lb., in total)
1 cup whole dried crayfish (njanga)
2-inch piece fresh ginger, pureed
4 Maggi cubes (any flavor)
1/2 cup red palm oil
ground red chili
Wash the taro leaves thoroughly and set aside.
Grate the peeled taro roots with a box grater. Mix the grated taro with a heavy pinch of salt and toss thoroughly.
Start the stew first: place the beef, Maggi cubes and chopped 1/2 onion into a pot along with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.
Lay each taro leaf section flat on a cutting board. Place several tablespoons of grated taro root on the center of a leaf and roll tightly, folding in the ends halfway through the folding process. This should create a sealed, cigar-shaped roll. Repeat until you run out of grated taro root or taro leaves.
Liberally grease the bottom and sides of a Dutch oven or deep casserole with red palm oil.
Beginning on one side of the pot, begin laying the leaf rolls in alternating, criss-crossing layers around the perimeter of the casserole, leaving an empty cavity in the center (per the image above). Continue until you run out of rolls.
Pour the reserved beef, along with its stewing liquid, into the center of the pot. Top off with enough water to make sure the stewing liquid just covers the ekwang rolls and slowly bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes, gently shaking the pot occasionally.
After 30 minutes, add the smoked fish, pureed onion and ginger, and salt and ground red chili to taste; place these directly in the cavity in the center. Give the casserole a careful but determined shake – do NOT stir with a wooden spoon, or you will rupture the ekwang rolls.
Raise heat to medium-high and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before serving with fufu.
Pepe (Chili Condiment)
5 large scotch bonnet or habanero peppers
1/2 white onion
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 celery stalk
1 Maggi cube (any flavor), crushed into powder
1/4 cup water
red palm oil
Place all ingredients into a food processor or wet grinder and process until smooth.
Pour the mixture into a small pot and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat to reduce slightly.
Add about 1 tsp red palm oil, the crushed Maggi cube and a pinch of salt, and continue to stir over low heat until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and let cool completely before refrigerating.
This condiment will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator.
1 cup yellow or white cornmeal
2 cups water
Bring one cup of the water to a boil in a large pot. Reserve the other cup of water at room temperature.
When the water comes to a boil, begin slowly whisking the cornmeal into the boiling water – don’t rush or you will create lumps. Once all of the cornmeal has been added, add about 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir continuously over medium heat. When the cornmeal has absorbed all of the water, add another 1/3 cup of the reserved water and stir. Repeat for the final 1/3 cup of reserved water. When all water has been absorbed, remove the fufu from heat and let cool slightly before forming into balls about the size of a baseball (or larger, if you prefer). Serve with ekwang or ndolé.