Republic of Chad
For this entry, we’re not going very far from our last entry; the Republic of Chad is a neighbor to the Central African Republic and, as you might expect, their cuisines are not wholly dissimilar. As we’ve seen with several of the African countries we’ve encountered, stews are a big deal, as well as a carbohydrate with which to convey said stew to one’s mouthhole. Unfortunately for me, the dearth of reliable recipes from Central Africa continues, and I had to make some educated conjectural leaps in formulating these recipes. You’ll see where I was successful and… erm, where I wasn’t.
Chad is and has been in a similar state as its neighbors for some time – it is classified as a failed state, and consistently ranks very high on the global index for political corruption; as an example, its president, Idris Déby, has been in power for over twenty-eight years, and his Parliament recently approved a measure that would allow him to remain in office through 2033. Poverty is endemic, and as with a number of other African states held back by the vestiges of European colonialism and civil war, civil and human rights abuses are frequent. With a government of cronies and self-serving tribal leaders, it is unlikely that any of these factors will change anytime soon.
I started my research much as I did with the Central African Republic, and I was lucky enough to find that this time there were several seemingly reputable Chadian sources available online. Though they were in French, there was enough to get me started on at least the basic skeletons of recipes. I was pretty sure I was in the clear.
Well, I wasn’t. Two out of the three dishes I planned to make worked out really well, but that third one… oof. Let me tell you about my fail.
Kissar (or kisser, or even kisra) is, in theory, a fluffy sourdough crepe that is steamed over low heat and used to sop up a stew or a sauce. The pictures I saw of them looked delicious – unfortunately, that’s as close as I got to encountering kissar, as whatever abomination I created was a far cry from the real thing. I watched several videos on kissar-making, and in each case it seemed identical to regular crepe-making – a nonstick pan or griddle, a flat object to spread the batter (usually a rectangular piece of palm leaf), and just a few seconds of cooking time. I was sure I had this in the bag.
According to three different kissar recipes that I found, step one is to take some semolina flour and boil it in water for a few minutes. Unfortunately, as with recipes from the Central African Republic, all of the directions I found seem to have a common ancestor in one Ur-recipe, which states the following:
“dans une casserole, un 1/2 d’eau, amener à ébullition, puis ajouter 200g de sémoule en remuant avec un fouet 1 à 2 minites.”
I think the root of all of my issues was an inability to translate idiomatically from French – when I saw “un 1/2 d’eau,” I said “well surely there’s a word missing – un 1/2 of what? A liter? A cup??” Both of these were wrong, which meant that I was left with a hard lump of congealed dough, not a batter. I translated again in order to make another attempt, this time figuring that maybe it was referring back to the casserole – “a casserole half-full of water.” This time I checked a typical recipe for cream-of-wheat porridge, boiled about seven cups of water and tried again.
It was a little on the wet side, but much better. To counter the wetness, I boiled to thicken as much as I could, longer than the directions noted, and then let this cream of wheat cool down completely. The next step was to whip in some yeast, more semolina flour and a bit of plain natural yogurt.
Once this is done, you end up with something that looks exactly like pancake batter:
The rest should be easy – you just let it ferment and rise overnight, and the next day you whisk in some sugar and get cooking! I thought for sure I had resolved the issues. I mean, take a look at the bubbles! The fermentation worked just fine, although it did smell an awful lot like very yeasty beer:
I worked granulated sugar into the batter and let it sit for just a bit longer. Finally, it was time to start cranking out pancakes. I lightly oiled a pan, per the directions, and cooked on low heat for a few minutes until bubbles started to form and the batter began to give off a strong, sour, bready aroma.
The directions were specific about not letting these crepes brown at all – much like Ethiopian injera, these are soft, fluffy crepes, more like a steamed flatbreads than “pancakes,” really. Unfortunately, no combination of cooking them covered, uncovered, a little of both, high heat, low heat, or medium heat yielded any success… nothing worked. I tried about fifteen of them and every single one crumpled at the slightest touch.
For whatever reason, these fragile little crepes had not developed any gluten or protein structure during their night-long fermentation and rise. The batter simply would not stay together – I suspect that I maybe used TOO much water for the batter on this attempt. As has happened in the past, without a clear recipe with standardized measurements (how big is “une casserole“??), there was no way to know for sure. They also tasted very sour, of yeast and nothing else, and were a bit unpleasant. Maybe too much yeast, as well. I had to let this one die. Rice would have to do.
Luckily, the rest of the dishes went much better – the first was an awesome vegetable stew thickened with peanut butter, which is called daraba. The seasonings, as usual, are very simple: just salt, pepper, and piment. This time I opted for dried red pepper powder instead of fresh chilies, which gave a nice background heat. The rest is just some good-quality veggies, like okra, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, and sweet potato.
There’s not even any onion or garlic in this dish! Just chop up the veggies, throw them in a pot to boil, and be patient. We’re trying to coax the goopiness out of the okra, which is why they are chopped and not left whole. The gloppy slime that they give off will help the stew adhere to our carbohydrate of choice (which is a big help when you are eating with your hands).
This stew really smells like a fresh garden, and the fragrance of the okra is so intensely green it really makes this stew feel healthy and nutritious. While that was boiling, I prepped the ingredients for our other dish, another slimy stew known as mouloukhié. This time we’re using onions and garlic to stew some beef, which should be somewhat fatty since there is not much else going into the pot along with it.
To these ingredients we also add the stew’s namesake – about one pound of frozen leaves of the jute plant, Corchorus olitorius, known to many in Africa and the Middle-East as molokhia. These are not a typical crop in the U.S., but luckily they are loved in many countries and therefore were handily sourced at my local Asian grocer. They appear in recipes in Chad and Sudan (sometimes in powdered form), and to my mind are an obvious and direct result of the Middle-Eastern presence and influence that has also led to an overwhelming Muslim majority in these countries. (A similar soup featuring molokhia is considered one of the national dishes of Egypt, for example.)
You just thaw them out and save the thick, viscous liquid in which they are packed – this will give body and flavor to the stew which, like our daraba, we want to adhere easily to bread or rice or ugali/fufu.
If you can imagine a fusion of spinach and okra in one plant, this would be it – very mucilaginous, and without much fragrance in the raw, frozen version. This gets finely chopped and added to the stewpot with the beef to simmer for a good while.
As the stew simmers, the jute leaves give off a shrimpy smell – some kind of iodine-like vapor that recalls boiled shrimp instantly. As it cooks, this aroma gives way to deeper, bitter, darker, more savory smells. After about an hour, the stew was nicely reduced and ready to eat.
Here we have another very simple Central African stew that is SO DELICIOUS. The previously tough beef is now fall-apart tender, and the stew itself, thickened by jute goop, seems impossibly rich due to the complex flavors lent by the molokhia leaves. It’s slimy, but not upsettingly so (if you’ve ever had a bowl of gumbo you would be well within your comfort zone), and those vaguely seafood-y aromas and flavors make it seem like much more has somehow happened in just an hour of simmering. It’s grassy, slightly bitter, and deeply savory – I even checked a botany report on this plant just to see if it was natural producer of MSG, but it does not appear to be. Could have fooled me – it’s like kale with less sulphur, or spinach crossed with shrimp. Just excellent.
This stew also made a great partner to our daraba, which was finished with a bit of natural peanut butter and thickened with just a few more minutes on the heat:
The veggies in this stew have given up all they had to the broth, and the peanut butter makes it smooth, creamy and a little gloppy. It’s full of rich flavors and the sweetness of the veggies really stands out, along with the peppery flavor of the okra – I found myself moving back and forth between the two stews, with a bite of rice in between, and even groaning happily a few times.
Chad, you deserve more attention for your food, and I’m just glad that there are moms and grandmas out there who can make kissar better than I can. Thanks for letting me give it a shot – I hope I did a decent job!
(***A note: the original recipes for these dishes employed Maggi cubes for flavoring, as is extremely common in most of Africa. While I respect the accepted convenience of their use in modern days, Maggi cubes are produced by Nestlé and are dangerously high in sodium, hydrogenated oils/trans fats and MSG. The effects of this processed, foreign product on the overall health of those who are already in danger of health problems due to poverty and lack of high-quality produce and meat cannot be ignored. In light of this, I will not be employing the use of Maggi cubes for any of my recipes.)
Now you go:
Mouloukhié (Chadian Green Stew)
1 lb. beef, cut into 1.5-inch cubes
1 lb. frozen chopped molokhia/jute leaves, (defrosted in 1 cup water for 1 hour)
Pinch of baking soda
Red chili powder
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt to taste
In a deep pot with a lid, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent. Add the beef, season with salt and black pepper, and fry until it browns a bit.
Add the molokhia along with the water to the beef, and add a pinch of baking soda and the chili powder, salt and black pepper to taste.
Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and let simmer for 30-45 minutes, until a thick stew has formed and the meat is tender. If needed, continue to cook uncovered until the stew thickens to a sauce.
Serve with kissar or rice.
Daraba (Chadian Vegetable and Peanut Stew)
20 fresh okra, chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
1 bunch spinach, finely shredded
1 sweet potato, diced
1 medium eggplant, diced
3/4 cup natural, unsweeted and unsalted peanut butter
Salt, black pepper and red chili powder to taste
Add the vegetables to a pot, cover with water and season with salt, pepper and red chili powder. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
Remove 1 cup of the cooking liquid and mix with the peanut butter to form a smooth sauce. Add the peanut butter sauce to the vegetables and simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened.
Serve with rice or kissar.
Kissar (Chadian Sourdough Crepes)
No recipe provided since I screwed it up 😦