Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Question #9: Doesn't African cooking require specialized ingredients and equipment?

Preface to this blog posting: I saw the movie "Julie and Julia" last week, and it encouraged me to continue posting the recipes for the Ghanaian cookbook Barbara Baeta and I have worked on the past few years with basically no encouragement from publishers. Wouldn't it be wonderful to do for West African food what she did for French food? Of course, everyone already knew that French food was amazing, but for many people West African food has negative stereotypes and/or just seems inaccessible. Do try cooking some of the recipes I'll be posting, and see if you don't also fall in love with the dishes of Ghana.

Now to tackle question #9 about the necessity of having specialized equipment and ingredients to master African cooking.

I've lived in England, Japan, and Brazil and had cooking lessons in each place. I've also learned Indian cooking from colleagues from India, Italian cooking from Italian colleagues, Chinese cooking from Chinese colleagues. It's usually possible to re-create dishes from other cultures even without all the specialized equipment and ingredients that are native to those places.

The same is true of African cooking, whether I've been taking lessons on Moroccan cooking in Morocco, Ghanaian cooking in Ghana, or South African cooking in Cape Town . . . Of course, one cannot always get the exact ingredients and cooking equipment one might like outside of those countries, but one can generally substitute and adapt.

Plus, when things like
sushi or kimchi or pad Thai make their way into our lives, we discover seaweed or bamboo mats or pickled ginger or special spices or lemongrass are actually not all that hard to locate in our cities. With the rising popularity of Latin foods and cooking in North America, along with Asian cuisines, fruits and vegetables and starches that were once unfamiliar are making their way into mainstream grocery stores: all kinds of chili peppers, ginger, tamarind, fresh and dried coconuts, mangos, papayas, yucca (cassava), cocoyams (taro), African yams, plantains--the list is practically endless. Many of these ingredients are integral to the cuisines of tropical and sub-tropical countries of Africa. Their increasing availability provides opportunities to explore a whole new world of flavors and textures. It's a very exciting development to me after many years where such foods were inaccessible or prohibitively expensive.

I further rejoice to watch Americans discover and embrace specifically African ingredients like South African rooibos (redbush) or honeybush teas.

As more African immigrants/students/professionals abroad demand the ingredients from their homelands,
the market provides those things, from fresh vegetables and root crops to moinmoin powder, teff, fufu flour, smoked shrimp, dende (red palm) oil, fermented corn and cassava doughs, etc. "Ethiopian" teff is now grown in the U.S. (BTW, I'm trying to find a way to import some wonderful kpakpo shito peppers from Ghana, and have 3 organic farmers ready to grow them here! If anyone knows of any sources, please contact me at fran@betumi.com)

Having said that, there are also many dishes that can be made using familiar North American ingredients, like stews using beef, onions, tomatoes, and oil, but combined with spices and eggplant or spinach or okra or mushrooms. There are curry and rice dishes, corn dishes, and bean stews, but with interesting twists like using canned sardines or corned beef or smoked fish or pureed nuts and seeds. Of course there are numerous chicken and fish dishes, too.

So, the short answer to Question #9 above is: No, African cooking does not require excessive use of unavailable ingredients and cooking utensils!

On the other hand, for purists, rest assured that if you wish to become a master chef of any African cuisine, you can move beyond the simple to the more complex--just like any of us can make tacos or fajitas or enchiladas or burritos, but someone like Rick Bayless takes Mexican food to a whole new level. For example, last week my
electric mitad arrived from Bethany Housewares. A mitad is a round griddle and lid that can be used to make injera, even though it was originally designed as a lefse maker for that Scandinavian flatbread. Incidentally, it can also be special ordered, without the lid, from Target. The previous week I was in Portland Oregon visiting family and stopped by some Ethiopian stores to buy some specialized ingredients: Ethiopian cardamon, green coffee beans, shiro powder, berbere, niter kibbeh (clarified, spiced butter), tea, alecha seasoning, and a woven mat that is used to remove the injera from the mitad. In other posts I've already praised my asanka (ridged grinding bowl from Ghana), and, yes, I have a tagine from Morocco. . . Do I absolutely need the special grill and spices to make my Ethiopian injera and stews? No. Certainly not. I made some fine flatbreads on a nonstick skillet on my stove, and I made a "make-do" version of the clarified butter myself, and even a "fake" berbere. I can also get many of the ingredients I need, from teff to millet flour to garbanzo beans and Ethiopian coffee, locally here in central Pennsylvania. And blenders and food processors do much of the work of African mortars and pestles.

However, I'm a perfectionist (I also have specialized ingredients and equipment for make other things like Japanese or Chinese foods). Since I do cooking classes, I can convince myself to spend a little extra money to purchase the spices and cooking equipment.
It's also always fun to serve meals with "authentic" serving dishes/mats/tablecloths, etc.

In summary, African cooking is quite forgiving and adaptable for novices, but there are also many layers one can explore to master more complex flavors. In other words, there's something for everyone.

As an example, today I've mixed up some corn flour/meal to ferment so that I can post the recipes for banku and Ga kenkey, two Ghanaian favorites. I have 4 options to choose from, using both local white Indian Head cornmeal and imported flours and doughs from Ghana. Check back tomorrow to learn more.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Step-by-step (American-style) Ethiopian Injera, Part 3

Here's the next installment of our injera series. 2 days after making the injera batter (leet), it has fermented enough to continue with the second part of the process. After adding self-rising flour and water to the batter, we allow it to sit for a couple of hours (during which time we were preparing some stews to serve with the injera later in the evening when our guests arrived).

The basic recipe we used for the batter (compliments of Laura Litwiller):

Day #1: Mix by hand with wire whisk:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Cup teff flour

In a separate bowl also mix by hand with a wire whisk:

1 cup injera batter (leet) starter from a previous recipe (or make your own--see June 25 posting)
3 cups tepid water

Leave the injera covered in a warm place without stirring for about 2 days.

Day #3 (or until batter bubbles up, then separates into clear liquid on top and thick batter below). Drain off liquid and discard. Mix 2 cups self-rising flour and 2 cups of water until smooth. Add to batter mixture and blend until smooth. Let rise 2 hours.

(Save 1 cup of batter in glass jar with a lid. Store in the refrigerator until you make injera again).

Bake injera on a preheated Teflon-coated electric skillet at about 375 degrees. The skillet should have NO oils on its surface. One recipe yields about 11-13 injeras. It takes about 1/2 hour to bake about a dozen 9" by 9" injeras.

Variations: More teff flour can be used in place of white flour. Barley flour can be used in place of some white flour.

Serve injera with Ethiopian watt.

Check back soon for Part 4, which will show the last part of our preparations, including the 2 stews (watts) we made, and the final product.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Step-by-step American-style Injera, Parts 1 and 2

Here are parts 1 and 2 of the video I promised of our injera cooking lesson. As I mention in the introduction, we used 4 cups of all-purpose wheat flour with 1 cup of teff flour (I can buy teff in the organic/health section of our local supermarkets, or you could likely find it in a health foods market or African market catering to East Africans). Laura Litwiller suggests, however, using 2 cups of teff and 3 cups of all-purpose flour.

Day 1 (Wed): Assuming you have some starter already, you prepare the injera batter. (Note: Laura provided us with some of her starter, but she explains you can make your own using approximately a tablespoon of yeast, a half cup of teff and a half cup of white all-purpose flour, and warm water. Mix it together and let it ferment for a day or two before using it the first time). Starter is just a cup or so of batter you save each time you make the injera and set aside in a covered jar in the refrigerator. We let our starter come to room temperature before using it.

1. Begin by mixing the all purpose wheat flour (about 3 cups) and the teff flour (about 2 cups) with a wire wisk. The flour should be at room temperature, and we did not sift before adding it to a non-corosive lidded container (we used an enameled pot). Laura repeatedly reminded us "it's not an exact science."

2. Drain and discard the water off the top of the stored batter (leet). Using a spoon or spatula, scrape the thick batter remaining into a large bowl (this will be much less than the cup or so you started with). Heat 5 cups of water slightly (barely tepid) and pour a little of the water into the jar that contained the starter, shaking it to remove all of the starter batter. Add that to the bowl with the along with the rest of the water, and blend with the wisk.

3. Add about a quarter or a third of the water to the pot containing the flours, stir with the wisk, and repeat until all the water is used, stirring well after each addition, and making sure to blend all the flour in the bottom corners of the pot.

4. Cover the pot, and set it in a warm place free of drafts for two days to ferment. We had cool weather in our kitchen last week, so I kept my pot on the stovetop with the overhead stove light on, and by the end of the first day the fermentation process had still hardly begun. I cooked pizza that night and the heat from my oven must have warmed the stovetop slightly because after that the dough began fermenting in ernest. However, according to Laura, the normal procedure is for the dough to rise up and then separate into water on top and thick batter below. That didn't really happen very much, and we had very little water to remove when we were ready to make the injera. Laura said that was fine, too. Resist lifting the lid too often to see how the process is progressing, and certainly never stir it.

On Day 3 (Friday), 2 days later, we made the injera, along with 2 Ethiopian stews. I'll post those videos and recipes next.

Incidentally, I haven't forgotten that I still have 3 questions on African cooking to answer: the next one is the one about why African restaurants do not seem to be as popular or prevalent as other restaurants, from Asian to Chinese or Italian. I'll get back to those (and to the recipes from the regional Ghanaian cookbook) as soon as I catch up a little.

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