Friday, August 14, 2009

Recipe #8: Bissap, Hibiscus Iced Tea

It's summertime, the season of requests for bissap or bissap rouge. This is a refreshing iced tea popular in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. It is made from dried hibiscus flowers. I pictured a mango-bissap version in a blog last year. It is easy to make and the smooth, sweet-tangy combination tends to draw rave reviews. While I'm waiting for my cornmeal dough to ferment to make the banku (recipe #7), here's recipe #8. As I've said elsewhere, the dried hibiscus flowers pair well with other flavorings, from pineapple to mango juices. This recipe is the one I first learned in Ghana, and still make most often, but feel free to experiment with other flavorings.

I can usually find dried hibiscus flowers in international stores that stock Mediterranean goods, or African stores carrying North African (especially Egyptian) foods or West African ingredients. Since a Christmas version is popular in Jamaica, perhaps a Caribbean market would also be a good place to look. Lots of herbal teas contain dried hibiscus flowers, so a health foods store or tea shop might be another place to locate them.

Fresh lemon grass is available in Asian markets where it's inexpensive, or your local grocery store where it may be less fresh and/or pricey. Also, I always use real, not imitation, vanilla flavoring.

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (
bissap or roselle)
1/4 cup fresh lemon grass, chopped (optional)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla or rum flavoring (or to taste)
sugar to taste (probably 1 to 2 cups; or sugar substitute)
5 cups of boiling water
1 cup of juice (optional, I'm using pineapple today)
You can mix and match flavorings according to your taste: e.g., 1/2 cup lemon juice, OR a cup of mango OR pineapple OR orange juice, OR mint sprigs OR a little fresh grated ginger. I have some pineapple juice handy, so I'm going with lemon grass, vanilla, and pineapple juice.

Bring the water to a boil. While it's heating, I generally put the 2 cups of hibiscus flowers in a metal strainer in the sink and rinse them lightly with water to remove any sand or grit they might contain (the dried flowers bleed immediately, so make sure you keep the strainer in the sink). Then I pull off the outside leaves of the lemon grass, rinse and chop it.

Put the rinsed flowers and the lemon grass into a large stainless steel or ceramic bowl, and pour the boiling water over all. I cover the bowl with a cheese cloth to protect it and let it sit for at least 4 hours.
Then bring another 5 cups of water (*see note below on reducing this amount of water and adding sparkling water when serving) to a boil. Place a strainer over a second large bowl and empty the liquid from the hibiscus/lemongrass mixture into it. Return the hibiscus/lemon grass to the original bowl and pour the just-boiled water over them. Stir the mixture well, and let it sit a few minutes, and pour it through the strainer again to add to the previously strained liquid, pushing down on the strainer with a spoon to remove as much of the water as possible (Actually, I use the cheesecloth I covered the bowl with to line the strainer before adding the hibiscus and lemon grass mixture the second time, and after pouring the boiling water through, twist it tightly to remove as much liquid as possible. In Ghana we don't waste a drop.) Discard the hibiscus flowers and lemon grass.

Now stir in the sugar to taste and your desired flavorings. Today, that's vanilla and pineapple. After all of the sugar has dissolved, carefully pour off the liquid into a pitcher or jar, making sure to leave any sediment behind in the bowl. Store the bissap, covered, in the refrigerator and chill. When serving, pour into a glass and add ice and/or water as desired. If you use a cheesecloth to line the strainer the second time you pour the water through the flowers, make sure to soak and rinse it well in cold water right away to keep from staining it.

*Sometimes I use less boiling water the second time (only 2 or 3 cups), and add chilled sparkling water when serving the bissap. Enjoy! But be forewarned: bissap is addictive.
Garnish: use fresh mint leaves, fruit slices, or a sugar cane swizzle stick.

Tomorrow: the corn dough is fermented now, so I'll finish the banku recipe.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Question #7: Isn't the food really unhealthy?

Let's begin with the negative and work to the positive: The stereotypical image of sub-Saharan Africans is either an emaciated starving African, gaunt and haunted, or else a sweating, corrupt, obese politician. If you've never read Binyavange Wainaina's witty and astute 2005 "How to write about Africa," please do.

"Everybody" knows that, unlike the "healthy" Mediterranean diet, Africans suffer from malnutrition, iron and/or calcium deficiency, parasites of all kinds, goiter (especially caused by iodine deficiency), have very short life spans, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes it's also suggested that "Africans" are lazy, childlike, and/or unresourceful (again, see Wainaina's article). It's important to reflect on these images and unexamined assumptions.

Of course, in many ways colonialism and slavery and other disruptions of the past few hundred years played havoc with the food systems that existed previously in more or less harmony with nature. Things like cash cropping pushed out traditional food crops, forced labor removed workers from their farms to work in mines and on plantations, war and violence decimated normal agricultural cycles. Poverty and powerlessness became common.

I recently came across an interesting article in a 2003 issue of the
Journal of Historical Geography ("French beans for the masses: a modern historical geography of food in Burkina Faso") by Susanne Freidberg examining how French green beans entered the diet in Burkina Faso. In addition, Western and Western-trained agricultural "experts" too often made disastrous recommendations to farmers (e.g., eliminating inter-cropping when planting, utilizing crops requiring expensive inputs, neglecting research to improve local varieties of foods, adopting inappropriate technologies, such as irrigated farming or mechanized tractors and straight row planting).

Remember, when sub-African countries first gained their independence in the second half of the 20th century, most were self-sufficient in food production. That situation is completely reversed nowadays. What people can get to eat may not be what they prefer to eat.

Once again, it's necessary to disaggregate the many countries in Africa according to geography and history, economies, religion, natural endowments, etc. Some are arid or semiarid, some are tropical, some are nomadic, some settled, some wetter, some drier, some landlocked, some coastal. The westerners of Victorian England labeled Africa the "Dark Continent" or the "White Man's Grave" because things like anopheles mosquitoes and tsetse flies spread malaria and "sleeping sickness." "Malaria" literally means "bad air," and people thought somehow the wet places and swamps infected the air causing white people to get sick and die there.

Many foods common in African diets, from corn to cassava or peanuts, replaced earlier ingredients like millet, sorghum, fonio or bambara beans, and that is part of the normal change in diets and food migration. However, powerful influences coming from outside of Africa are able to foster and maintain preferences for "elite" foods, such as wheat and rice and seasoning cubes (or, tobacco, coca cola, or baby formula) that may have negative long-term effects on national diets. Multinationals may be able to supply emerging urban markets with their grain surpluses at lower prices than traditional farmers and thus change diets. Ghana, for example, is not able to raise wheat and yet there in high demand for it: in 2002, 90% of Ghana's imported wheat came from the U.S.

Last year I was part of a discussion on health concerns of emerging African diets (which parallel those in many developing and developed countries), such as diabetes.

But let's look at some healthy aspects of many African diets. Here are a few observations:

Many use protein sources like meat or seafood or poultry sparingly to flavor soups, stews or sauces, rather than in excessive amounts. Diets also include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
Often there is a use of fresh, less processed ingredients.

Steaming and roasting are common food preparation techniques.

Many sub-Saharan country diets are characterized by
much lower sugar consumption than in the U.S., with a preference of fresh fruits over fat- and sugar-laden desserts and snacks.

Often, many African countries' diets are gluten-free or lactose-intolerant friendly.

In many parts of Africa, there is liberal use of
onion, garlic, and chili peppers, each with health-promoting qualities.

The same is true of many cooked greens and tomatoes and ginger.

Notably, the hunter-gatherer San people of southern Africa are believed to have historically had a very healthy diet, about 80% vegetables, eaten fresh, and including dozens of plant species and about 17 edible animal species. Their young were said to show no signs of malnutrition, and it was through the San people that the ingredient P57, an anti-obesity drug from the hoodia cactus, entered Western consciousness.

Similarly, the southern African herbal teas made from
rooibus (Afrikaans for "redbush") are now popular in North America, and the dried hibiscus flower is increasingly becoming common in herbal teas, as are other teas such as North African mint tea or lemongrass tea.

One common complaint I hear is how unhealthy West African palm oil is. As I mention in my article
"We Eat First With Our Eyes: On Ghanaian Cuisine" we often confuse palm kernel oil with palm fruit oil, neglect to consider palm oil may be refined or unrefined, and that there are various grades of quality, just as there are with olive oils. We are unaware of the findings reported in the Cambridge World History of Food that ". . .when palm oil is added to a Western diet, the level of plasma HDL cholesterol typically rises, leading to a better LDL:HDL ratio, and this ratio--rather than the total amount of total plasma cholesterol--appears to be the better indicator of the risk of coronary artery disease." That document concludes that ". . . now that the wider nutritional benefits of palm oil’s natural carotenoids are becoming more generally recognized, perhaps it is time to rediscover the fully flavored red oil and promote its use, not only in Africa and Latin America but also in Asia and the West."

When one observes people in the U.S. stuffing down hamburgers and French fries and chips and drinking super-sized soft drinks, or the pastries and mega-size sugared drinks being consumed in coffee shops, one has to wonder about the claims of superiority of the Western diet.

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