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From Not So Darkest Africa

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    Posted: 17 August 2014 at 06:18
Designing a themed dinner is like editing a story. Everything is a matter of selection and elimination.

For this month we decided to get away from eastern Europe and the Med, and try something more radical. Initially we thought in terms of South America, the Caribbean, or Africa. First decision: Let’s do Africa.

Older members know that I’ve been a fan of North African food for a long time. There wouldn’t be much of a challenge, nor would I learn much new, therefore, by staying in that comfort range. So the Maghreb was out. Second decision: Sub-Saharan Africa.

Folks, let me tell you something. Saying “sub-Saharan” is like saying “European.” Only more so.

Africa is the second largest landmass on earth, with, literally, hundreds of ethnic and cultural groups, all overlaid with culinary influences dating to the colonial experience. Geopolitically, the continent is divided into six regions (which do not, necessarily, contain homogeneous cultures, as the key word there is “political” rather than “geo”) and, as of yesterday, about 30 countries. That last is likely to have changed by the time you read this.

Complicating things further: Although we rarely admit it out loud, people of my age still think of Africa in terms like “British East” and “French Equatorial.” When an African country hits the news, nowadays, we’re likely to ask, “what did that used to be?” What’s more, I’d bet good money that folks of my generation all mentally add “Belgian” in front of the word “Congo.”

In short, culinarily speaking, “sub-Saharan” is a meaningless term.

Ok, so we’ll select even tighter. How about Brit….uh, that is, East Africa? Still too large and diverse. East Africa consists of ten (or, maybe, 11) countries, an island that is still a French department (that’s right; the folks who live there are French citizens, with all the rights and privileges pertaining, and representatives in the French parliament), and with native, British, French, Indian, Arabic, and German culinary influences.

When all was said and done, we decided on the Malagasy Republic, both to limit things a bit, and because its cuisine uses ingredients that are a bit different.

BTW, for those of you of my generation, the Malagasy Republic used to be called Madagascar.

Often called “the great red island,” Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Ringed by white sand beaches and date palms, volcanoes, equatorial forests, and grassy plateaus form the interior. A vast variety of tropical fruits grow there, including mangos, pineapples, avocados, and lychee nuts. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans, which, in addition to being an export crop, are used extensively in the cuisine, particularly as a flavoring for fruit. Rice is a staple, and is often served three times daily.

The naïve people of Madagascar are Malayan Polynesian. Due to that, and the colonial French influence, Malagasan food is not as spicy as is typical of Equatorial Africa, and even the curries are subtle rather than blazing. For example, a shrimp curry dish from the region, which uses two pounds of shrimp, several cups of diced potatoes (which drink up flavorings), and two cups of coconut cream, among other ingredients, only calls for one tablespoon of curry powder and a half teaspoon of chili powder. Not particularly hot by any means. Even Friend Wife (and, I’d bet, the beautiful Mrs Tas) can handle that. Other spices, such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric, add flavor but not heat.

Although it’s changing, somewhat, in the cities, Malagasan meals are not served in courses. Nor are tables and chairs common. Instead, diners sit on mats, and all the food is put out at once, usually surrounding a large bowl of rice. Guests then help themselves to whatever trips their fancy.

Before we even made selections, Friend Wife announced (I won’t, for the sake of domestic tranquility, say “shrilly announced”) “I’m not eating on the floor!” So, our approach was to serve family style, sitting at the table. Here’s what we decided on:

White Rice
Voatavo sy Voanjo (Pumpkin Stew with Peanuts)
Coco Crevettes (Prawns in Coconut Sauce)
Lasary Voatabia (Tomato and Scallion Salad)
Banana Fritters
Salady Voankazo (Fruit Compote with Lichee Nuts

There is a local rice grown on Madagascar. Far as I can determine, it is not exported. So we chose Jasmine for the white rice, because it ties in with the floral flavors of the island. I’m sure any long-grain white rice would serve.
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And sae the Lord be thanket
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[BThe Meal

Voatavo sy Voanjo
(Pumpkin Stew with Peanuts)


Pumpkin is a staple throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, along with many other winter squashes. Given the time of year, we choose butternut squash rather than a culinary pumpkin.

We also went with a very special peanut, a colonial-era heirloom from North Carolina. What makes it special is that the skins are black, instead of the more usual red. These black peanuts were even more acceptable to the slaves, because they resemble the African ground nut, which also is black.

3 tbls oil
1 onion, chopped
¾ cup (about one large( tomatoes, chopped
1 cup peanuts, chopped fine
3 cups (about one pound) pumpkin, chopped
1 ½ tsp garlic salt
2 ¼ cups water
3 garlic cloves, grated
2-3 green onions, thinly sliced
Fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves for garnish
White rice for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet or pot. Add the onion and sauté for three minutes; stir in the tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes reduce to make a thick sauce, about ten minutes. Add the peanuts, pumpkin, garlic salt, and water. Stir to blend. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook over medium heat for about ten minutes, or until pumpkin is tender. Reduce heat. Mash the mixture with a potato masher or immersion blender until smooth. Stir in the garlic and green onions. Simmer for about five minutes. Serve with white rice, garnished with cilantro

Coco Crevettes
(Prawns in Coconut Sauce)


2 lbs prawns or large shrimp
3 tbls butter
1 onion, chopped
1 ½ tbls grated garlic
1 tbls grated ginger
1 tbls fresh lemon juice
1 tsp brown sugar
1 ½ cups (1 14-15 oz can) coconut milk
1 tbls tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
White rice for serving

In a heavy pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and let it sweat for about six minutes, or until translucent. Add the garlic and ginger; cook another two minutes, stirring. Stir in the prawns, season with salt and pepper. Drizzle the lemon juice into the mixture, then add the coconut milk. Stir in the tomato paste and sugar. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook about five minutes to heat through.

Serve over white rice, garnished with chopped parsley.

Lasary Voatabia
(Tomato and Scallion Salad)


1 cup scallions, finely diced
2 cups tomatoes, finely diced
2 tbls water
1 tsp salt
Few drops Tabasco sauce

Combine all ingredients in a one-quart bowl. Chill. Serve about 1/3 cup portions in small sauce dishes.

Banana Fritters

Fruit and vegetable fritters of all kinds are popular all over Africa, and generally are served as a side dish rather than a dessert. We opted for banana fritters, both because they are common in Madagascar, and because bananas happened to be on sale.

For the batter:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups milk
2 tbls vegetable oil

Stir the dry ingredients together. Combine the wet ingredients. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until well blended.

For the fritters:

3 bananas cut in slices
½ cup peanuts

Combine the bananas, peanuts, and batter. Drop by spoonsful into deep fat at about 375F. Fry until golden brown.

Corn fritters would have also complimented this meal. Unfortunately, Friend Wife can’t handle corn. But for those who’d prefer it: drain two cups of canned or frozen corn kernels. Mix thoroughly with batter. Drop by spoonsful into hot oil.

Salady Voankazo
(Fruit Compote with Lychee Nuts


As is true anywhere in the tropics, fresh fruits play an important role in Malagasy cuisine. What makes it different is the use of vanilla to flavor the fruit.

For visual presentation, I prepped the fruit a little differently than the recipe directs. For instance, I used a small melon baller for the cantaloupe, cut the lychee nuts in half, and cut the oranges into supremes (segments) rather than slices, and fashioned the pineapple into small wedges rather than cubes.

1 cup fresh pineapple, cut in one-inch dice
1 cup cantaloupe, cut in ½ inch dice
1 cup oranges peeled and very thinly sliced
½ cup strawberries, sliced
½ cup canned lychee nuts

For the syrup:

½ cup sugar
½ cup water
Pinch salt
2 tbls fresh lemon juice
2 tbls pure vanilla extract

Combine the fruits in a bowl large enough to hold them. Set aside.

In a small saucepan combine the sugar, water, salt and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and boil hard for two minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour the hot syrup over the fruits. Chill in the fridge at least an hour.

On Madagascar a compote like this would be served with a cruet of vanilla extract. Diners can add a drop or two more to suit their individual tastes. Frankly, this is a bit much for American tastes. But give it a try if you like.

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Source Materials

As usual, when researching something like Malagasy cuisine, the internet is your friend. Wading through the morass of real sites, versus those that have Americanized recipes, can be very time consuming.

Two sites I found particularly helpful, in addition to Wikepedia, are:

www.celtnet.org.uk/rec.pes/madagascar.php, and www.africaupenn.edu/cookbook/madagascar.html.

There are a surprising number of cookbooks dealing with Sub-Saharan Africa. Two I worked with are:

The African Cookbook, Bea Sandler, Citadel Press, New York, 1970. This is considered one of the seminal works on African cookery, and is a must-have for anyone interested in these cuisines.

The African Cookbook: Tastes of A Continent, Jessica B. Harris, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1998. Jessica Harris is one of the names in African cooking. This title represents a summation of her thirty years touring Africa and writing and lecturing about its foods.









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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Hoser Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 August 2014 at 02:51
Sounds like you all had a great time Brook.
I'll be trying that prawn recipe for sure...I love just about anything with coconut milk in it.Thumbs Up
Go ahead...play with your food!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 August 2014 at 06:29
It's really good, Dave. And rather simple to make.

I did modify the original recipe, as it specified cooked prawns, which made no sense to me, not when they'd be simmering five minutes. We used 21-25 shrimp, and they came out cooked perfectly.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26 August 2014 at 21:53
Very nice write-up, Brook, and an outstanding selection of recipes giving a well-rounded taste of Madagascar. This in particular caught my eye:

Quote  Malagasan food is not as spicy as is typical of Equatorial Africa, and even the curries are subtle rather than blazing. For example, a shrimp curry dish from the region, which uses two pounds of shrimp, several cups of diced potatoes (which drink up flavorings), and two cups of coconut cream, among other ingredients, only calls for one tablespoon of curry powder and a half teaspoon of chili powder.

This kind of moderation appeals greatly to me - I love flavours, and am learning more and more about how they work with each other; but heat just for heat's sake does not appeal to me. Your description above is full of promise regarding some things that I wouldn't think of on my own - but I instantly take a liking to it.

The same goes for the rest of the recipes on your menu. They seem perfectly suited for the journey you took and I'd really like to give them a go.

Many thanks for the time taken to research this, and for sharing your experience with it!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 August 2014 at 07:08
Thanks for the kind words, Ron.

I had hoped, when I started this series of themed meals, that other members would jump in, with meals from their own favored regions. But so far, alas.....

Anyway, check out the two links I included, as there are many other possibilities, all of which seem to have taste rather than heat for its own sake. I didn't see much that Friend Wife (and, by extension, Mellisa) wouldn't eat.

The same is true about much of East African food. Lot's of great-sounding dishes from Kenya, for instance.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 August 2014 at 07:32
Just by way of example, Ron, here’s a Malagache dish that includes no chilies, and just a hint of black pepper, in the way of spices.

According to Jessica Harris, Romazava, a mixed meat stew, is the national dish of the Malagazy Republic. I’ve no reason to doubt her. But I find it ironic that this wonderful sounding dish was not included in any of the other references I’d consulted.

Be that as it may, here is her recipe. Keep in mind that I have not prepared this dish, yet, so offer nothing but supposition as to how it will taste.

To assure all the meats are cooked perfectly they are added at different times. So keep that in mind if you try this recipe.

Romazava
(Malache Mixed Meat Stew)


1 tbls peanut oil
1 lb stewing beef, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 lb fresh pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 whole chicken breasts split and cut into serving-sized pieces
6 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
2 medium sized onions, coarsely chopped
7 garlic cloves, minced
2-inch piece fresh ginger, scraped and cut into thin julienne
1 lb fresh spinach leaves, washed and shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan or stockpot and sear the beef without browning it. Add water to cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Add the pork and continue to cook for an additional 30 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and continue to cook for another ten minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking until they are incorporated into the sauce. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and continue to cook for about ten minutes, or until they are cooked but still slightly chewy. Finally, add the spinach, season with salt and pepper, and stir until the leaves are wilted and just cooked. Serve hot with white rice.


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 01 September 2014 at 13:13
Another one that really looks good - the unique flavour profile is once again very interesting and promises to be delicious. I need to quit talking about these recipes and start making them!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 02 September 2014 at 06:07
Couldn't agree with you more, Ron. This one is high on my to-try list. Just as soon as it starts to cool down around here; which should be in about another month.
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